T-Mobile is your friend traveling abroad; in the US, not so much

Two years ago I switch from AT&T to T-Mobile and in that time I’ve done a fair bit of traveling in the US and abroad. If you travel abroad and aren’t on T-Mobile, you might want to reconsider.

Traveling abroad

If you’re traveling abroad, particularly to anywhere in Europe, T-Mobile is awesome. If you’re on a T-Mobile US plan, you likely get free unlimited data roaming out of the country. It’s limited to 3G speeds, but it’s vastly better than no data whatsoever. In the past 18 months I’ve traveled to Australia, Spain, Canada, Germany, Czech Republic, and Austria and in every country I’ve had unlimited data access and excellent coverage.

As someone who has traveled internationally a decent amount in the past 15 years, let me tell you that traveling with data access drastically changes how you travel for the better. Instead of researching and printing out maps before you get there, you can bring up Google Maps and get directions in situ. Prior, I would have never gotten on a bus in a foreign city for fear of not knowing where to get off. With data, however, you can bring up Google Maps1 and catch a bus (or trolley or tram or U-bahn) without pre-planning. Wanting food recommendations? Yelp away. Can’t wait to share that photo with friends? Post it right after you take it.

With data readily available on your mobile device2, you aren’t locked into staying places that have WiFi. Or hanging out at coffee shops with free WiFi just to get that email out to a loved one or look up dinner options. Other providers offer data plans overseas, but they aren’t unlimited and have to be set up ahead of time — and you have to pay extra for them. Then, when you’re using them, you’re rationing your data usage like you were living a decade ago. With T-Mobile it’s all automatic and included in your usual T-Mobile monthly charge. I’ve found this to significantly reduce travel friction.

In addition to unlimited data, you also have unlimited texting with T-Mobile overseas. Need to text a travelling companion to coordinate when and where to meet? Text away without worrying about getting charged for each one.

Keep in mind that you still have to pay for voice calls when travelling, so if you expect to do a lot of phone calls that aren’t over WiFi, unlimited data won’t help you much. Still, the per-minute rates are reasonable for the one-off calls to your hotel to confirm or change a reservation.

With T-Mobile’s Simple Choice plans, as long as you have a supported phone, you can enroll in one of their plans on a month-to-month basis with no long-term commitments. Depending on when and where you’re traveling it may be cost effective (in dollars and/or stress) to get a T-Mobile SIM card just for the duration of your travel.

Travel in the US

Unlike traveling abroad, traveling in the US with T-Mobile is a mixed bag. T-Mobile’s headquarters are in Bellevue, just outside of Seattle, so their coverage in and around the Seattle metro area is excellent. They have a strong presence elsewhere in the US, primarily centered in large metro areas. If your US travel has you most often in big cities you’re likely good to go with high-speed data.

In some states in the US heartland (also known as the fly-over states) there is no T-Mobile service whatsoever and you’re roaming. This was particularly apparent when driving from St. Paul, Minnesota to Seattle, Washington last year.

T-Mobile provides data roaming in their plans, but it isn’t unlimited. In fact, the amount of data you have varies depending on your plan and after you hit it, you’re cut off, not throttled — something we found out the hard way in the aforementioned cross-country drive. This was quite a shock after having traveled abroad prior with unlimited data. So while we almost always had voice coverage on the trip, we had either no or rationed data. If you are on T-Mobile, I recommend calling them and asking how much US roaming data is included in your plan before heading out for that cross-country road trip.

If you expect to do a lot of traveling across the US, other providers like AT&T or Verizon might have better coverage. With AT&T’s contract-less plans, it might even be cost effective to get an AT&T SIM card depending on your needs.

1 While Google Maps is great, it isn’t necessarily the best for public transit in every city. We used Google Maps to take busses and trains in Sydney without a problem, but it didn’t know anything about Melbourne’s public transit. There was, however, an app from a local transit authority which¬†got us everywhere we needed to go on the trams. For trains in Europe, the Deutche Bahn mobile app is better than Google Maps even outside Germany.

2 Overseas data does not include tethering. Or, more accurately, it doesn’t allow port 80 access over tethering in Australia. I set up an SSH SOCKS proxy over a different port and got web traffic¬†to work for me over a tether.

Planes, trains, and automobiles

Daniel and I are on our last day in Europe before we fly home tomorrow. It's interesting to think about all the modes of transportation we've taken since we left our house over 3 weeks ago while visiting 3 countries:

  • Bus (Seattle & Nuremberg)
  • Lightrail (Seattle)
  • Plane (Seattle <–> Frankfurt, Vienna -> Frankfurt)
  • Trains of all types (everywhere)
    • S-Bahn
    • U-Bahn
    • Inter-City Express (ICE)
    • EuroCity (EC)
    • EuroNight
    • Regional Express (RE)
    • Mittelrheinbahn (MRB)
    • TGV
    • and the cute yellow putt-putt in Kunta Hora
  • Boat (middle-Rhine valley)
  • Ferry (middle-Rhine valley)
  • Car (on the Autobahn with Jodi!)
  • Tram (Vienna)

No bikes, no scooters, no segways, and sadly: no zeppelins.

I love how easy it is to get around cities and entire countries in Europe without a car or plane. This lack of really good public transit is one of America's great failings.

Rome to Seattle, an adventure in the making

The trip back was an adventure in unto itself. The last night we asked the concierge at our B&B how much time we should give ourselves. He said 3 hours at the airport and about an hour to get to the airport. Yikes! The forecast was for rain the next day which apparently makes taxis harder to come by so we opted for a private car for only EUR10 more.

The private car was nice and picked us up promptly at 7a. The ride through Rome to the airport highway was like a roller coaster. The streets were virtually empty and the driver was very liberal about the use of lanes. Shortly after we were on a major road out of the city, the driver takes an exit and we find ourselves on a dirt road through a junkyard. Jonobie and I looked at each other with the “surely the B&B wouldn’t have given us a serial killer as a private driver — they’d get horrible ratings” look (which made perfect sense at the time in our sleep-deprived state, less so now). Apparently it was a shortcut as just a moment later we were back on a major road.

We got to the airport with 2.25 hours until our plane boarded which is just as well seeing as it took 1.75 of that just to check in and go through security.

Unlike the flight to Rome, the flight back to the states was less than ideal. Mostly due to the screaming child seated four rows up that cried through most of the 9 hour flight. Add to that crazy sinus pressure due to my allergies and it was a miserable trip. And for the record, while Rome has tons of water fountains, most of which date back to Roman times and some still fed via the aquaduct, the Leonardo di Vinci airport has none.

The excitement didn’t begin in ernest until we got to JFK. Our flight out of Rome was delayed by about an hour, so our 3 hour layover turned into 2 hours. We whittled away an hour of it waiting for our luggage so we could go through customs. Jonobie’s luggage appeared at the very end and mine was nowhere to be found. With only 45 minutes until our flight boarded and a terminal transfer plus security still left to go – I sent Jonobie on to catch the flight while I figured out my luggage. This way at least one of us made the flight.

I went and found someone from Alitalia who directed me to their desk outside security. The gentleman there said I should file a claim form at my final destination, so I sprinted to the next terminal in an attempt to catch my flight. When I arrived at the next terminal, Jonobie was nowhere to be found at the security line. I sweettalked the woman guarding the priority boarding to let me in that shorter security line and waited as the minutes ticked down to my flight’s boarding time. Jonobie texts me that she’s on a train to the terminal. Apparently there are two ways to the terminal and we’d taken different routes. At this point we’re not certain if one, both, or neither of us are going to make it to our flight. I get through security and run flat out to get to my gate about 100 yards away. I turn the corner to my gate and there’s Jonobie walking towards me. Our flight hadn’t yet started boarding.

We dashed through Burger King to grab something before the 5 hour flight to Seattle and made it as one of the last people to board our plane. Needless to say we were a bit punchy that we made it on the plane, even sans one bag.

This is being posted from the plane’s wifi connection, so there’s still the chance that there’s More Adventure To Come until we arrive at our respective homes!

Update: As luck would have it, my luggage somehow magically bypassed customs and made it onto the flight from JFK to Seattle! When I went to file a claim in Seattle, the agent was happy to inform me that it would be showing up on the baggage carousel momentarily!

An authentic vacation

Last night I got back from a week-long trip out to the DC area to visit my sister Renee, her husband Robert, and my niece RG. Aside: in the past I’ve referred to Renee as my “virtual sister” or “sister by choice” but really, family is family – she’s my sister.

I had a great time visiting the R^3 crew and it was a very much needed break. We went on hikes, hung out, spent several lazy afternoons by the pool (I have a sunburn/tan!), and in general just spent time hanging out together. This morning it dawned on me that aside from spending time with people I love, the best part about the vacation was that I felt free to be Just Me. I’ve known Renee since we were 3 (or so she claims, I thought it was closer to 5 but there’s no arguing with Renee!). She’s one of a very few people who knows almost everything about me and with whom I feel I can share anything. And Robert, despite only knowing me 10 years instead of 30, accepts me as family without question. As for RG, I’m “silly” Uncle Casey end of story!

Since moving to Seattle I’ve not spent enough time with people around which I can be Just Me. I’m not the type of person who puts on a full personality costume when I go out, but it still takes me a while to open up to new friends. That process is happening but it’s slow. The situation is compounded by the worry about “what other people will think” that’s been ingrained in me by my parents which I strive to overcome on a daily basis. And while it isn’t up to the Will & Ned-level of effort, it’s still tiring.

I’m resolved to try and model ‘s MO of daily living life more authentically and spending more time in the company of the people here in Seattle I feel most authentic around already (Jeff, Jonobie, and Kevin – I’m lookin’ at you).

Seattle Visitor’s Guide

Knowing there are more folks coming up to visit, I decided it was worth throwing a list together of some cool things to see. Most importantly a list of all the museums and theatres to see what’s showing when someone comes up! I expect to add more things to this list as I find them (either myself or via replies to this entry :)

Seattle attractions or fun oddities:

Seattle theatres:

Seattle museums:

Seattle parks:

Area attractions:

Frequent Flyer

In the month of August, I slept in my own bed here in Denver a total of 14 days. It feels like a lot less than that however, likely because my extensive travel started even prior to August arriving.

My travel schedule for the past 7 weeks looked something like this:

  • Jul 23-30 – San Jose, CA visiting Meg
  • Aug 06-15 – Reston, VA visiting Renee, Robert, and Rebagrace
  • Aug 19-23 – Seattle, WA visiting Jeff and Jonobie
  • Aug 26-30 – Austin, TX visiting Kelly, Nicole, Kooper, my new niece Isabelle, Leslie, Andy, and Alexandra
  • Sep 01-05 – Milwaukee, WI helping a customer for work

Benjamin had his own set of travel during that time (the Reston and Austin trips we did together). He flies in later this afternoon only to start school again tomorrow.

I had a blast during my visits all over the country but man am I glad to be home for a while. Benjamin has some more travel planned later this month for a wedding but otherwise I think we’re sitting tight until the holidays roll around. Tentative plans have us in Austin for Thanksgiving during which we hope to visit both sets of family to free us up for a travel-free Christmas. But who knows – as SINKs we have a decent amount of flexibility and DINKhood is just 9 months away!

My Husband: the worst trip-packer ever

Benjamin flew down to Houston this weekend to visit his best friend and with him to see the Britney Spears concert. Because we’re flying out tomorrow I thought I’d wash the clothes that he took on the trip so they would be clean if he opted to take them with us this weekend. Not knowing what all was clean or dirty I washed everything in his suitcase.

I just washed 15 shirts. Not undershirts, shirts. He was gone for a total of 5 nights and thus needed to pack at least 5 shirts. I know he had a shirt on when I took him from the airport so at a minimum I would have expected to wash 6 shirts but 15? 2.5 times the minimum number? No wonder the man had to check a bag for 5-night trip to Houston. When I went to San Jose last month I took one carry-on bag for an 8-night stay.

To give him the benefit of the doubt I wouldn’t be surprised if he bought a couple of shirts while he was in Houston, so that might account for 2 or 3 of them, but not the entire 9 extras.

And while I didn’t bother counting them this time around, he usually packs more pairs of shoes than he does the days he’ll be somewhere.

My husband officially wins the title for the worst trip-packer ever.

Correction: The above was written after only putting away the load of colors. After putting up the load of whites I must add 5 more to the total, bring it up from 15 to 20.

2009 Travel – A first glance

We’re going to be doing a lot of travelling this year, and the cost is adding up fast.

Last week I was in Littlefield doing some work for my Dad’s business. Thankfully because it was directly business related, the business paid for my $370 flight. The downside is that getting to Lubbock, the nearest airport, is a pain in the ass. My flight there was: Denver > Amarillo > Dallas Love Field > Lubbock. Keep in mind that Amarillo is only 2 hours via car north of Lubbock, a fact that was going through my mind as we went from Amarillo to Dallas Love Field. My flight back was: Lubbock > Dallas Love Field > Tulsa > Denver. Aside: Tulsa and the surrounding area looks just as boring and dull as Lubbock does, at least from the air.

In February we’re travelling to Kingsville for Benjamin’s Dad’s 50th birthday party. After weighing several different options, we’re flying Frontier to San Antonio, renting a car, and driving it 2 hours to Kingsville. We bought those plane tickets yesterday evening. Estimated cost for entire trip (including gas): ~$560. If we had flown in to Corpus Christi, the closest airport to Kingsville, it would have been ~$750 with very non-ideal travel times.

In March Benjamin is flying to Houston to attend a Britney Spears concert with his best friend Eric (don’t ask me, I don’t get it either). We bought his plane tickets this morning. I think those came out to ~$130.

In April we’re flying to Austin to attend Nick & Sarah’s wedding (yay!). We’re flying in via Frontier and getting a rental car. Benjamin bought those tickets this morning as well and I think the cost with the airfare, rental car, and gas is ~$625.

The very next week weekend we’re flying back to Texas, this time to Kingsville for Easter. Benjamin’s family is really big on Easter — even bigger than they are on Thanksgiving. We didn’t go last year so we’re going this year. We’ll likely fly into San Antonio via Frontier and take a rental car. We’re hoping to get the tickets with miles. We’re just a few miles shy so we’re waiting until after Benjamin’s trip to Houston to get these tickets. With luck this will only cost us ~$200 total.

In July we’re flying to Lubbock to attend my youngest brother’s wedding. At least I assume it will be both of us — there’s a whole can of worms that could be opened depending on the bride, groom, and the rest of my family. Best case, however, there will be two of us travelling to Lubbock, likely via Southwest through an ungodly number of stops again at a cost of ~$700. Getting to Lubbock just sucks no matter how you consider it. [a pause to check Southwest’s website] Strike that – we’re flying to Amarillo, renting a car, and driving south. I’m guessing that’ll cost us, even with the rental car and gas, only about $350.

And then there’s Thanksgiving and Christmas. We’re having Thanksgiving with this family, presumably in Kingsville, and Christmas with my family, presumably in Austin. Luckily I don’t have to think about those details until at least July.

In addition to all of that, Benjamin initially wanted to attend some school-related conferences but after buying all of the tickets above and the few days of classes he’ll need to miss already for the above plans, we opted to not attend any conferences at least the first half of the year. That’s unfortunate because I think he would really benefit from some of them but there’s just no reasonable way to make it happen.

Travel to Canada

Greetings from Toronto, Canada. I’ve been up here all week long (since Monday morning) for work. On Tuesday and Wednesday I presented a performance and tuning workshop. Overall I thought they went well and I have already received two emails thanking me for flying up to conduct the workshop and saying how the material was exactly what they needed.

On Thursday I met with a customer and answered some of their performance-related questions. They came out with a better understanding of how things work under the covers, improvements in the latest version (which they are working on migrating to), and features planned in the upcoming version currently in the design phase. I received an email from the customer account team saying how much the customer appreciated me coming by and chatting with them.

Right now, I’m feeling pretty good overall about my visit — and that was just the work aspects!

On a more personal front, I arrived in town on Monday mid-afternoon. That evening Jason (a local IBM friend) picked me up at the Hotel and took me downtown Toronto for dinner and a quick walking tour. Tuesday evening I joined several of the workshop attendees for drinks (I had a cherry coke) and dinner at a local Italian restaurant. Wednesday after the workshop was over I joined the attendees again for drinks (two cherry cokes!) and appetizers. Later that night my coworker Steve and I drove downtown and ate at Hey Lucy, a local restaurant. Thursday after the customer visit, Steve and I went up in the CN Tower and enjoyed the view from the highest tower in the world (or so they say). Later that night I joined Jason for a drag show being performed to benefit an AIDS charity organization called (I kid you not) Casey House. Several other Canadian IBMers joined us as well and we had a lot of fun. After the performance Jason, Brad (one of said IBMers), and myself went to the Panarama bar for some drinks (yet another cherry coke, yes I’m becoming a slush). The Panarama bar is the 51st floor of a building in downtown Toronto with an awesome view of the town, including the CN Tower and the waterfront. The bar is at St. Thomas and Bay Street and highly recommended for the view but stay away from their cherry cokes as they are much too weak and the prices way too high.

As far as some misc observations:

  • 104.5 CHUM FM is an excellent radio station if you are ever in the Toronto area. Much like a mix between Mix 94.7, Majic 95.5, and BOB FM in Austin
  • Apparently “Mazda” isn’t pronounced the same way in the US (at least in Texas) and in Canada (at least Toronto). In the US the word is pronounced with the first ‘a’ sounding more like the ‘o’ in Oz. Up here it is pronounced like a long ‘a’ like in master. CHUM FM was having a competition to give away a Mazda car of some sort and it took me several minutes the first time to figure out what the heck they were talking about!

Overall I have greatly enjoyed my visit. I still have the rest of today (Friday) and tomorrow to stay out of trouble before I fly back in on Sunday. Jason has offered to take me on a tour of downtown tomorrow with a focus on unique Toronto architecture at my request. Tomorrow night a few IBMers are getting together for dinner and then to see the Toronto equivalent of Shakespeare Under the Stars – sounds like an excellent end to my trip.