The technology for this trip was easily the most expensive part of our packing list. Because of that, we put a lot of thought and planning into what we wanted to purchase and bring with us. It needed to be reliable, small and multi-functional. Not only did we need physical devices, we also needed to consider subscription services for entertainment and privacy, which also needed to be included on our monthly budget.
This is our final list of technology we brought with us and the subscriptions that run them. As you can tell here, we aren’t really “roughin’ it” when it comes to technology, but we do use each product and service on this list daily and would consider it an essential part of our travel packing list.
Some things you just don’t leave home without. These essentials for us are the things that we probably wouldn’t go on any trip without, but especially not a year-long journey.
I purchased a new Kindle Paperwhite for the trip and it was a pretty big deal. I have always been set on reading actual, physical books and never wanted to jump on the eReader train. But for the sake of space and weight, the Kindle was one obvious solution. Emily uses Audible as her preferred reading platform (more on that below).
Emily purchased an Apple 12″ MacBook for this trip and (for the most part) loves it. The thing that stands out about this laptop is the butterfly keyboard. Emily adjusted quickly and likes it, but I still hate it (so know where you stand before you commit to one). Three months in to using the laptop, she has run into issues with my space bar sticking occasionally, which is worth noting, although she’d still recommend the laptop on the whole.
The other downside is that it doesn’t have a regular USB port (only one USB C), so you need a USB converter. This also means that you can’t charge your laptop while using the converter to do anything else over USB. This proves to be frustrating in a hostel because she can’t charge her computer and plug her phone into it at the same time.
I use an older model MacBook Pro that I bought a couple years ago. It’s bigger than Emily’s, but is still a reasonable size and weight for a laptop.
I bought Emily an Apple iPad Mini a while ago when they first came out (I think 2012ish), and the thing is still kicking. At home in the States, she mostly used the iPad for streaming One Tree Hill while doing dishes or watching YouTube videos in bed. We didn’t plan to bring it on the trip, but we threw it in last minute because it was small and so old that if anything happened to it, it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. It was one of the best packing decisions we made.
When we’re both on our laptops and/or don’t have a TV nearby, it makes a great back-up for Netflix when we have wifi or pre-loaded movies when we don’t (Forgetting Sarah Marshal is just on repeat). She also still uses it to watch YouTube videos and Netflix while doing dishes.
We currently are carrying three models of iPhones: SE (Kenny’s personal), 6 (Emily’s personal), and 7 (“the good phone” that we use for photos, which used to be Emily’s work phone). We didn’t buy any of these phones new specifically for the trip, but brought all three for different purposes. We use the iPhone 7 as our primary camera and are happy with the quality of photos relative to the quality of our photography skills (which is mediocre at best).
As for how we stay connected with these phones. Well, you’ll have to keep on reading.
Amazon Fire TV Stick
We purchased an Amazon Fire TV Stick a month or so before we left Chicago to test it out. We watch a lot of TV and we wanted a way to be able to watch all of our shows on Netflix, HBOgo and Hulu without using use our laptops (as two bloggers, we are almost always on our laptops). The Fire Stick has proven to be a good solution and for a pretty reasonable price. Honestly, our biggest stressor with the Fire Stick is worrying that we’ll leave it behind plugged into the TV when we leave a city.
Adaptors, Chargers & Accessories
- MacBook charger – Cable and Power Adapter (x2)
- USB-C to Lightning Cable (1)
- USB-C to USB Adapter (1)
- Lightning to USB Cable (3)
- USB Power Adapter Cube (2)
- USB to Mini-USB chord (Kindle Charger) (1)
- Headphones (2)
- Sleep Headphones (1)
- World Adapter Plug (1)
- Headphone Splitter Cable (1)
- Apple World Travel Adapter (1)
Keeping Our Cell Phones Connected
There are a variety of options for using your cell phone abroad. The “simplest” is just to add an international plan to your existing cell phone plan. This is great because you keep your phone number and just continue to use your phone internationally as you would at home. The BIG downside is cost. This option is going to run you over $100 per month easily if you want any amount of data usage.
The most complicated option, but cheapest in many situations, is to buy a local SIM card when you arrive in a country. This is good because you’re paying what locals pay for cell service, but you’ll have a new phone number (and you might still be paying for your old one). It’s also not very cost effective if you’re in a country for a short time, plus getting it setup will take some amount of time.
We went with an option in the middle — international SIM cards. These are SIM cards that have access to networks around the world (like if you paid for an international cell plan) at a reasonable cost. There are some downsides to these options, though. Let’s discuss the two international SIMs we’re using.
KeepGo is an international SIM good purely for data. For $49 you get a SIM and 1GB of data good in a almost all of the countries we’re visiting (and if you use our referral link, you’ll receive 15% off). After that, you can buy data in bulk at as low as $22 per GB (by buying 10GB for $219). That’s not cheap, but if you’re careful to rely mostly on WiFi, $22 per GB isn’t the worst.
The major downside to KeepGo is that it is data only. You don’t get a phone number or a traditional cell connection, you’ll just be connected to the data network. That means you need to have another method setup for making calls. You also don’t get SMS (texting).
We use Google Hangouts / Google Voice for voice calls. If you haven’t setup a Google Voice number by the time you’re reading this, go and do it. Not only isn’t it very useful for travel, it’s very useful for life. Our Google Hangouts number isn’t the same as our old cell phone numbers (more on those later), but calls take minimal data (or none, if you use WiFi) and so far the quality has been pretty good.
The other SIM we bought is KnowRoaming. Unlike KeepGo, KnowRoaming gives you an actual phone number on which you can receive phone calls (for a fee). You still won’t have SMS (text messaging), though. And your data is much more expensive — about 5x to 10x the amount KeepGo will charge you. So why do we have KnowRoaming?
- Free WhatsApp. KnowRoaming has unlimited, free WhatsApp everywhere (at least everywhere KnowRoaming has access to, see Reason 2 for more). WhatsApp is a chat/call app that allows you to connect with other WhatsApp users. While WhatsApp doesn’t use much data, our KnowRoaming SIM cards only cost us $7 each. (You can use our promo code EMIST62 for 30% off and a $5 credit.)
- More Countries. KnowRoaming is in more countries than KeepGo. While we won’t be paying the crazy data fees for much KnowRoaming data, we will be able to use WhatsApp to keep connected while we’re outside the KeepGo zones.
Neither KeepGo nor KnowRoaming uses our old phone numbers. So what did we do with those?
Tossable Digits is sort of a phone number solutions company. I honestly don’t know everything they do or how to get the most out of it, but I can offer a rundown of how we use it.
For $3.49 per month, you can “park” a phone number at Tossable Digits. This is the primary reason we use it. We took our old cell phone numbers and put them at Tossable Digits so that we could transfer them to a new cell provider when we moved back to the US at the end of this trip. Parking comes with Unlimited SMS (text) forwarding and phone call forwarding at $0.12 per minute. You can use Tossable Digits itself to receive and send text messages. For phone calls, you’ll need a forwarding number.
We use our — you guessed it — Google Voice/Hangout numbers for forwarding. I don’t get many SMS messages (most of my friends are on iPhones or contact me some other way), but it has come in handy a few times.
The big downside to basically every solution we’ve discussed so far is that NONE of them reliably can receive “verification” texts. For example, when you go to sign up for WhatsApp, you enter a phone number and they send a code via SMS (text). Tossable Digits can’t receive these verification-style texts. In many cases, Google Voice numbers also cannot be used for these texts.
There are two solutions to this. First, you can find websites online with phone numbers that claim to be able to receive verification texts. I’ve had very limited success with these. It would be a bad idea to use these for something like WhatsApp, which can only be on one device at a time (and which uses the phone number as your identity). But some apps just require the number to verify, so it might work for those.
The better option, when available, is to use a call to verify instead of an SMS. This is an option for WhatsApp and many other apps. For WhatsApp, I was able to input my old phone number and tell WhatsApp to call it with the verification code. My Tossable Digits account then forwarded that call to my Google Voice number, which I answered to get the verification code. Not the cleanest system, but it works.
Keeping Our Data and Location Private
In case you haven’t noticed, we love cafes. We especially love cafes with WiFi. Unfortunately, anytime you’re on a shared WiFi connection, your data is at risk. One way to protect it is via a VPN (Virtual Private Network), which is essentially a tunnel that protects your data as it travels through your network.
VPNs are also great because they don’t let the rest of the internet find you. There are many websites that don’t allow access from certain countries, or which provide different content by country (different languages and prices being the big ones). Note that using a VPN to “spoof” your location for a website may violate that site’s terms of service, but it’s hard to fault someone who is using a VPN as a security feature for other incidental effects.
One of the *ahem* incidental effects of protecting your data with a VPN is that it will change your Netflix library. That library will show options for whatever country your VPN is running through (which with most VPN providers will be up to you when you connect). This can be helpful or annoying, depending on which options are available where.
Our VPN of choice is IPVanish. We’ve had some hiccups with it, so I’d suggest reading reviews and the latest on Facebook pages (which would have warned us about some ongoing IPVanish issues). Overall, we’re happy with IPVanish, and we bought a year subscription so we don’t have much of a choice.
Using IPVanish we do occasionally get notifications from Netflix telling us to turn it off. This is fine when we’re not doing other sensitive things on our computer at the time, but sometimes we don’t want to risk our data. Weirdly, Netflix doesn’t always detect IPVanish, it seems to have a problem with it about 20% of the time. In case you’re wondering, IPVanish WILL NOT help you watch Hulu abroad, but it WILL help you watch HBOgo abroad.
If you absolutely need to watch Hulu, or a number of other streaming services, abroad, a good option is Unlocator. Unlocator basically gives you access to a DNS server (don’t worry if you don’t know what that is) to send your traffic through to make your location anonymous. Unlike a VPN, Unlocator is not encrypting or “tunneling” any data. However, while many VPNs cannot get you onto Hulu (because Hulu knows what VPN data looks like, essentially), Unlocator can get you onto a variety of streaming sites.
The downside to Unlocator is that it can be a hassle to use. While a VPN works by you simply clicking “Connect,” Unlocator requires two more complicated steps.
- You have to change your device’s DNS settings. This is easy if you know what you’re doing, but not necessarily something novices should just do. Also, your DNS settings can be changed when you tinker with other WiFi settings, so you might find yourself continually changing your DNS settings. Moreover, some devices make it really annoying to change your DNS settings. FINALLY, some networks won’t work right (think not getting splash pages) if your DNS settings are changed.
- You have to tell Unlocator your IP address so they know to accept traffic from you. This is an annoying step if you’re using a VPN because you actually wind up using a variety of IP addresses. It’s also annoying because Unlocator will “remind” you to update your IP address as it changes even if you’re not trying to use the service at a given moment.
Those are, ultimately, small gripes if your comfortable with the basics of VPNs and DNS, but it’s worth knowing Unlocator won’t necessarily be a smooth experience. A final note is that while Unlocator distinguishes itself from VPNs by saying it won’t slow your connection, it obviously can. Your data still goes through their service, and you can see delays/lags that result from that.
While traveling the world is entertainment on it’s own, we still have a lot of town time and have to keep on our favorite shows and books. We already subscribed to most of these back in the States (Hulu being the exception) and chose to keep those going while we’re abroad. We get good usable out of all of these subscriptions, and we use the technology listed about to run them.
Emily loves Audible as her book-free reading solution. She’s been listening to audiobooks on Audible for over a year now and is a huge fan. It started because she wanted to listen to them during runs back in Chicago, but it works out really well for her while traveling.
She has the Gold Membership which costs $14.95/month and comes with one book credit per month. One credit is good for any audiobook, regardless of length. Once you use the credit for the book, you always have it, whether you continue your subscription with Audible or not.
Netflix, Hulu, HBOgo
Depending on the season, we will use one platform more than another, but we tend to get good use out of all of them. Hulu keeps us recent on our favorite in-season shows, HBOgo is required for Game of Thrones and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Netflix is just a necessity for general binge watching and the latest Netflix Originals.