Travel Tech – Health, State Dept., Miscellaneous

Health matters.  Staying healthy is important, and in this regard, I have a few suggestions.

  • Get every vaccine that you can get.  If you’ve already had the disease (e.g., measles), get a booster.  Vaccines are usually covered by health plans, and, if not, they are cheap.  DON’T GET THEM ALL AT ONE TIME.  I don’t care if it is safe; you will feel like crap.  Spread them out over many months in advance.  Get them all.  Including rabies.  I’ve known people who were in the middle of nowhere and got bitten by a stray dog; their stress goes through the roof as they try to get to a hospital for treatment.  Having already had a rabies vaccine means that you are protected; you still need to get medical care just in case, but you won’t be stressed and scrambling.  Let me reiterate – get them all.  Hepatitus A, common in some parts of the world with occurences even in the Western countries, may not kill adults, but it can make you feel like crap.  The vaccines are free or low cost and there’s utterly zero evidence that vaccines are unsafe.
  • Download a general health book.  I had a hard copy of the Mayo Clinic guide which I scanned in and saved to my hard disk before I left.  It’s a general-purpose health manual that I can use even if I don’t have Internet.
  • Pepto-bismol.  I don’t know how this stuff works, but my experience suggests that it is a useful tool.  I got food poisoning a few months back.  I know this to be the case because I ate some not-fully-cooked eggs (I prefer them over medium, and I did the cooking), and within an hour I felt bad, and within a few minutes after that, I broke out into a very cold sweat.  (The autonomic nervous system is an amazing thing.)  I immediately made a dash for the pepto-bismol and ate two or three of them and laid down.  The chemical must make things inhospitable because I got up an hour later feeling peachy keen and never got sick.

State Department.  Finally, I want to suggest that US citizens take two steps to enhance their security.  The first is to enroll in Global Entry with the Department of Homeland Security.  It costs about $100, and lasts 5 years.  Of course it gives you the speed line through airline security, but it’s really about a couple of other things that you should consider.  You get your fingerprints taken and they run an FBI check on you, and you’re pre-validated as to who you are (i.e., US citizen) and that you are not a threat.  And second, they provide you with a government-issued photo id which could prove useful should your passport is ever lost.  That is just a guess, but I think if you walked into an embassy with your Global Entry card, they would have good reason to believe that it was you.  Keep it apart from you passport.

In addition, I enrolled in the State Department’s STEP program, which is their online, self-administered way for the US government to know where you are.  They will send you relevant travel alerts (e.g., I got Turkey warnings while in Bulgaria) as well as notices from the embassy (e.g., We got an invitation to the ambassador’s home for his annual town meeting for locals – it was interesting in many ways).  More importantly, if something really bad happened, they would know your local address and phone number in order to provide protection or evacuate you.  Finally, for me it also provides government-aware documentation of my expat status, which could be relevant for taxes, Affordable Care Act, etc.

Finally, let me identify a few handy items that one might not consider, but which are very useful when traveling for a long period of time:

  • Scissors.  A good pair of scissors is extremely handy at times.  They raise fewer suspicions than knives, too.
  • Permanent markers, preferably an ultra fine point sharpie.  This is a very handy tool.  You can take notes on any glossy paper in an airplane or hotel.  You never have a problem dashing off a post card.  You can write your name on cellophane food packages or wax coated milk cartons if you are staying in a hostel and have your food in the kitchen.
  • Lightweight cord.
  • Zip ties, preferably the small ones. These are remarkably useful throw-away devices.  For example, you can make a quick laundry line with cord by tying it down.  If you have quick dry clothes, then you can always do a simple wash in the sink if necessary.  MORE IMPORTANTLY, you can zip tie your luggage zippers; yes, they can be cut, but the preference will be to go after bags where it will be undetected.
  • Wireless router.  This sounds a bit crazy to some, but I assure you that it can be useful.  I brought a router and 50 ft of very thin Ethernet cable.  With it, I’ve been able to set up a wireless access points in a hotel room where access was otherwise crappy.  Also, if it has DD-WRT, you can set up your VPN on the router and every device you have will be VPN-enabled without havign to do anything on the devices.  Third, it also beats having to get the wireless login and add the network to all the devices; just plug it into the existing wireless router, and everything lights up since they already have this network keyed in.
  • USB drives.  Not one.  Multiple, including some throwaways.  These are cheap, and having them allows you to use Internet cafes (assuming you scan the device afterwards) or to share photos with others.
  • Headphones.  Your travel partner will appreciate not having to listen to your phone calls, music, movies, etc.  If space is an issue, have earbuds.

Travel Tech – Entertainment & Communications

Entertainment. If you are abroad for a long period, then English language entertainment online makes this no problem. Basically, you have multiple streaming services. Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. But also HBO, Comedy Central, etc. So why do I even mention it? Watching them can be another matter. Most of Amazon’s movies can’t be watched in Europe. Netflix has different offerings (that may be good for you, or not so much). Comedy Central is unavailable. What is going on?

Basically, this is online version of DVD sectors. Remember when you could not watch a Euro DVD on your American player and vice-versa? Same thing. It doesn’t matter that you pay for Amazon Prime. These systems interrogate your IP address and determine that you are outside the geographic boundaries and ban your browser from watching.

Yes, there are workarounds. They are called Virtual Private Networks. You “tunnel” through the Internet to a US location where a server on the other side of the planet issues your request and feeds you the data. The web site you are at thinks you are in Florida or Kansas or whereever the VPN server is located. Even with the VPN service, some sites (Netflix, Amazon) have enough at stake where they try to identify the service you are using and ban your access. So, rather than endorse any particular service, I will leave it to you to find one that will get you to where you want to go.

I should comment that VPNs may also be a benefit from a security standpoint. Using one means that all your traffic is encrypted until it hits the United States, which means that if someone has compromised the local network, your traffic will not be readable.

Communications. I like Skype despite the fact that it has now become a tool of Microsoft. The alternative is to use Facetime or Google Hangout and then deal with those companies. Here’s why I like Skype, and if the others meet your needs better, than use them. Of course there is free peer-to-peer video and audio phone calling. All of them offer this. Skype also allows you to buy a phone number which can receive calls (Google’s is just a redirector, but more on that later). This allows people in the US to dial a US phone number and it will ring you whereever your computer is located. Very handy. You can also purchase a subscription to make outbound phone calls to America for free. The incoming number is $30/year, and the outgoing subscription is $30/year, so for $5/month, you have unlimited ability to make and receive phone calls independent of your cell phone. Very handy. And, unlike Google voice, you can text internationally (e.g., to your hotel’s cell phone) because Skype will charge you a few cents. In short, this is a fantastic supplment to your cell phone while in your apartment/hotel.

Google Voice. I also have Google Voice, which I deem to be a fantastic service. I transferred my cell phone number to Google Voice. Now, when someone calls my cell phone, Google Voice receives the call and dials my Skype number (which I don’t usually give out because I give out my previous cell phone number which is what people had anyway). So, someone calls the old cell number, and my computer rings on Skype. Very handy. If I don’t answer, it takes a message, which it then transcribes and emails to me. Very handy because I don’t have to listen to the message and I get it via email. If they don’t leave a message, it emails me that someone from that number called. And I have unlimited text to US phones via Google Voice. This means that my American friends and family can text me, and I get an email with the text and it shows up in my Google Voice account, and I can go online and text them back. Did I mention this is free? (Of COURSE they are reading my text messages and transcriptions to analyze me for ad placement. I don’t think they are giving it away.)

Travel Tech – Clothes, Getting Around

Clothes.  It’s surprising that so much design and technology has been embedded in fabrics and clothes, and you can take advantage of it.

  • Very compact, quick drying towels.  They aren’t terry cloth resort towels, but you can wring them out and they dry quickly.  I don’t know what kind of materials these are made of, but you can roll them up for travel and they really work.
  • Anti-pickpocket pants.  There’s a company that sells anti-pickpocket pants and shirts.  ClothingArts.  But they ripped me off a bit on charging me for shipping, then failing to deliver some of the products, and then not refunding me the full shipping costs.  Their pants are like cargo pants, but they have pockets with latches and zippers that even have zippered pockets inside of them.  Very secure.  I only bought one set of pants and one shirt, and then I took another pair of inexpensive slacks to a tailor and had him modify them to accomplish the same effect.  Different, more business look, with the same sort of solution, and cheaper.  The shirt appears to be more difficult to replicate, so I modified a travel vest that I had. You can look at them online, and then go to your tailor; that will be cheaper too.
  • Dark clothes.  Basically, you will blend in better with dark pants and shirts.  In Bulgaria, people like black. I haven’t seen so much black clothing since New York City, and I find that a somewhat amusing.  What you want to avoid, of course, is shirts with American symbols (e.g., teams) or English writing; wearing them is an invitation to be hassled or ripped off.
  • Shoes.  Twenty years ago, high-tech looking sports shoes would have made you stand out.  Not anymore with inexpensive Chinese manufacturing.  Even so, darker is better.  Older and dirtier is better.  Don’t stand out.

Batteries.  No need to worry about AA or AAA batteries.  I’m talking about rechargables for phone, tablets, etc.  I got two, one lighter weight, one heavier-duty.  Phones and tablets are always operational, and you won’t get stranded without maps or capacity to call.

Mapping.  I prefer to work offline when I am on travel for good reasons.  First, put your phone into airplane mode with all the transmitters off, and your batteries will last a LOT longer.  Second, cell service can be spotty, or even if it is available, it may not be your brand and so you are roaming and that is expensive.  So, overall, it is best to have standalone capabilities in your mapping.

  • GMaps.  Yes, it’s the big gorilla, but it has issues.  First, the maps may not be as complete outside the US.  Second, you can download specific areas, but you only get to have them for a few weeks before they expire.  This means that you can’t prep your equipment before you leave. On the bright side, the names of the streets are in English; on the bad side, the offline search doesn’t really work.  I’m not sure that routing works when offline, and setting up destinations is not so easy.  Maybe I’m just not a pro and that the more you use them, the easier they get.  I find GMAPS zero hassle when online, but don’t be surprised if you are disappointed and frustrated if you lose your cell signal.
  • The preceding paragraph made me want an off-line alternative, and there is a GREAT one.  It’s called NavMii, and it is fantastic and I can’t say enough good things about it.  You can download entire countries; you can update them a month later, but you don’t need to do so.  The maps don’t take up a lot of space on your phone or tablet.  The application is free, and so are the maps (Android only).  The number of interest points is amazing.  The search function works great.  In short, it is EVERYTHING that you need, except one item.  If you’re in a non-latin language country (e.g., cyrillic alphabet, pictographic symbols), then the good news is that the roads are all in a language that is replicated on the street signs.  The bad news is that it probably isn’t what you are reading when you book your hotel online.  And while the search function is fantastic, I don’t even begin to know how to key in alternative alphabets on my tablet.  But, setting a destination is easy.  If you are online at the hotel and run a search on Google Maps and see where you are going, then you just touch your screen and hit Navigate, and you have great offline navigation!  I downloaded the entire continent of Europe on to my tablet in advance.  No matter where I am, whether there is a cell signal or not, I know, within a few feet, of where I stand.  I’ve navigated in Kyoto, Malaysia, the streets of Paris with extreme precision.  It is an incredible application.

Also, there are a wide range of map-enabled site-seeing apps for tablets.  They have walking tours and can also be used for just wandering.  As you walk, you can see on the tablet that you are near a site, and then you can wander over to it and read about it.  The descriptions tend to be politically neutral and not very in-depth, but they will give you about what you can get off of a plaque which is probably in another language.  They are best used in highly urban environments with many sites.  Cost for a city app is $3-4, and are a nice tour guide convenience.

Next post: Entertainment.

Travel Tech – Hardware, Banking and Mail

I’ve been on the road now for almost six months, and I apologize for not writing, but it was nice to have some time off from life and just enjoy the travels.  My classes in statistics are going well and occupying most of my days, and, while it may seem odd to most, they are very interesting and fun.

I spent many months planning my expat departure from the US, and so I will relay some of the technologies that are very useful when traveling especially when travelling for an extended period.  I will try to organize them into coherent groups, and it may take several posts because I’ve learned a lot.


  • Google phone.  I bought a Nexus 5x.  This phone is pre-enabled in over one hundred countries, meaning that you can make phone calls and send and receive texts with it when you get off the plane (no euro sim cards required).  This is convenient.  However, some apps (e.g., NavMii) have some problems working on it for undetermined reasons; maybe Google has done what Microsoft used to do with Windows and made their hardware difficult for others to use successfully so that people stick with the Google tools (e.g., GMaps).  Even so, very useful phone for its convenience.  The HDR photos are very good looking, too.
  • Spare phone.  In this case, I brought an older iPhone 5c with me.  In Europe, local sims are cheap (e.g., $5 for a 100 minutes, 1GB data in Bulgaria).  This can allow for convenient and inexpensive walkie talkies with your traveling companion.
  • Tablets.  We brought both wifi-only iPad and Android tablets.  These are very handy around the apartment/hotel, but the most powerful tool is NavMii.  NavMii is a general purpose, open source mapping program, and it’s free (applicationa and maps) on Android though it costs for Apple.  More on that below, but don’t leave home without a tablet running NavMii.
  • Bring a multi-outlet strip.  If you have one converter, you can plug in the the US strip and then plug in your devices.  NOTE!!!: You have to make sure that your devices can handle 240V or you will burn them up.  But, if you do it this way, you can easily plug in your phone, computer, tablet, chargers, etc.


  • You have to have your security completely squared away as you’ll be logging in from weird places.  For me, this meant that I selected a no-branch electronic bank; since I’m not in the US, I don’t need a local branch anyway.  I have verbal security codes on the bank account for call-in purposes; without a code, they will not talk to you.  I have a debit card, but it draws only upon the checking account, not my savings, and keep only a marginal amount of money in the checking account.  It’s important to segregate the money in the event that the card is stolen to minimize potential damage.  Of course, I prefer to use in-the-bank ATMs rather than street ATMs where bad guys may be hanging around, so you don’t want to minimize the need for personal security.  This bank will also issue, upon request, a security dongle that generates a code to multi-factor authentication.  I wanted old-school, must-have-the-dongle security.  I razored off the markings on the dongle so that there is no bank affiliation in the event that it is lost.  Without it, no online access even if you have the username and password.  I changed my username and password, too.  This bank offers no-cost ATM withdrawals anywhere in the world, so getting cash is easy and cheap.  I use cash to avoid the scams at restaurants and other places of bad guys  swiping your credit card number.  So, I can go online, transfer money to the checking account, issue checks from the checking account, withdraw money from the checking account in a fairly secured set of methods.
  •   RFID pockets.  Apparently bad guys can now have RFID scanning tools to read your credit cards and debit cards.  There are inexpensive metallic envelopes that you can buy and put your cards in them.  This prevents them from being scanned.  They have passport-sized ones to keep your passport safe too.


  • If you are going abroad for a long time, then postal mail can be a nightmare.  The US postal service options are really awful, and they primarily involve having a post office box (costing $) which then you can pay to have them ship physical mail to your off-shore destination (costing more $).  Of course, receiving mail assumes that you know where you’ll be in advance, and it means that you’ll have to dispose of mail in a secure way in a foreign country.  This is all bad juju.  An alternative, better solution is to have your mail sent to a relative that you trust.  The relative can open it up, screen it, and decide what to do (scan, forward, etc.).  This is asking a lot from the relative.
  • My solution was to purchase commercial service from a company that offers the relative-like service.  I use Virtual Post Mail, and have found it to be superb.  Upon receipt of the mail, they will scan in the face of the envelope and send you an email that says literally “You’ve got mail.”  You can then log in and decide whether to scan it, forward it, etc.  You can easily forward to a relative if you choose to do so.  The cost for this service is less than the cost of the PO Box with international forwarding.  I now have it configured to automatically scan in every piece of mail and forward it to me as attachments, and so I now get my mail faster than I would if I received it at my home, and I’m not bothering a relative.  Also, if the mail is REALLY important, then I can have them forward the mail to a relative.  If not, I can have them shred it.  Now that it is set up with bank statements and other stuff going to that address, I will not change it even when I am stateside.  It allows for complete flexibility for business or personal travel and you always get your mail.  NOTE: I don’t receive a lot of stuff that contains sensitive information, and so I am not concerned if someone at the facility sees a 401K statement or a bill.   Of course, once I have the paper bill, I can then pay it with my online bank per above. The one service that I have not used is their mailing service; apparently you can send them a document (e.g., a tax return) which they will print and mail fo ryou

In my next post, I will talk about computers, privacy, and entertainment.