Follow up: Using your cell phone in Europe
While reporting the recent story "Using Your Cell Phone in Europe", I was amazed by the intricacies of data plans and hidden charges. I suggested buying a "disposable" phone at a cell phone store or touristy area (between $40 and $75) to avoid fees from your U.S. carrier.
But I should have known that savvy readers would chime in with lots of other workarounds when using a cell phone in Europe! There have been some very helpful and thoughtful comments—thanks to you all.
Here are a few highlights:
Flightdirector says to rent your phone beforehand from a third-party company:
"I've rented a phone for both England and Europe (Italy & Greece) from a company called PlanetFone. If you are an AAA member, you are eligible for a discount. One of the nice things about the phone rental program is the availability of an 800 number. People trying to reach you from the US dial the 800 number without having to deal with international exchanges. The phone is sent to you with charger via FedEx and includes a return FedEx envelope. The cost for the phone rental for an upcoming three week vacation in France will cost me about $50."
And both Motorcycle Pete and kyvoyageur suggest a similar service called Mobal:
"I only pay for it (via my Credit Card) when I use it, and the rates are competitive. The reliable and efficient Siemens phone I purchased was VERY cheap (perhaps $30?) and it hold a charge, un-used, forever," says Motorcycle Pete.
And two readers mentioned Skype, a service that uses the internet to make video and voice calls.
"If you have a laptop, iPhone, or iPad you can use Skype, but you will be limited on where you can use it. You would need to use it at your hotel or a cafe with WiFi, but it's a lot cheaper than your cell phone provider," says Suzl4.
JL75011 also recommended Skype as an app on your smart phone, but also makes this great point: "Keep in mind, some service providers will only allow you to activate international roaming/data plans on the first day of your billing cycle. Don't wait until a few days before you leave. Also, you can deactivate the plan when you return home, so you don't have to keep paying the additional charge every month."
San Francisco: A veteran cable car driver's best tips
Leonard Oats, a driver on San Francisco's cable car lines, has been riding the rails along Hyde Street for the past decade. Oats is also the multi-year champion of the cable car bell ringing contest, which draws crowds to Union Square every summer. Drivers are judged on rhythm, originality, and style—and there's even a category for amateurs. Try your hand at ringing an iconic cable car bell on Thursday, June 17, at the 48th annual contest. Oats drives on the Powell-Hyde line, possibly the city's most famous, which traverses the steepest hills from Powell in Union Square north to Fisherman's Wharf, going by landmarks like Lombard Street. We caught up with him to ask him some tips on how to get the most out of riding the cable cars—because he would know! What are your favorite parts of the job? The challenge of driving the car on the hills; getting to meet people from all over the world; and everyday getting to see the Golden Gate Bridge and the ocean. It's a great view and a beautiful city. I love it. What's the best stretch of your route? Lombard Street is by far your best view all the way down. You can see Coit Tower, Alcatraz, Angel Island, Treasure Island, the Bay Bridge, and Berkeley. Where's the best seat? When you're going down to the water on Hyde Street, the right side is the best if you want to see it all. On the left side, all you see is the Golden Gate Bridge. But remember, when you sit down, there might be people in front of you, so try to get on early. What's the best way to avoid the lines? The secret is, unless you absolutely have to have a seat, you can walk one block up from the turnarounds (like the one at Powell and Market streets, or the one at Bay street and Fisherman's Wharf) and get on there, where it's less crowded. That's what the locals do. [Editor's note: Very few locals actually take cable cars—they offer scenic views but are not very efficient.] Should people tip the driver? You certain don't have to, but we can accept tips. Just make it clear that you're offering a tip and not the fare. What mistakes or faux pas do people make? People make a lot of mistakes. First, you should pay the conductor in the back and not the driver in the front—I'm trying to drive! A lot of people think the cable cars are like a ride at Disneyland, but it's not. You have to be safe. When you get on, take off your backpack and put it by your feet. Otherwise, if it's sticking out of the car, it can get stuck on something and pull you right off. Believe me, it's happened. I think folks see people leaning out of the cars in the movies, but it can be dangerous. Locals do ride by "hanging off", but that just means they stand on the side. What are the best sites for visitors to see? A lot of people really like Alcatraz. I haven't gone, but my wife has, and she said it is scary. I was a sheriff before this and worked in a jail, so I don't really need to see another prison. But I do really enjoy the ferry trip over to Tiburon, where you can see the city from the water. I also like going to Twin Peaks, one of the highest points in the city. A lot of tourists don't know about it because it's a little bit tough to get to. But there are some city bus tours that go up there now, or you if you've rented a car, it's worth a stop.
Body language basics
Five ways to say no around the globe—without uttering a word. See the slide show. Bulgaria • Greece • MaltaSlowly move your head up and back (like half of a nod). Afghanistan • IranMove your head up and back (as above) and click your tongue once. Brazil • Ecuador • Italy • MexicoExtend your index finger and move it side to side. Lebanon • TurkeyRaise your eyebrows one to three times* while clicking your tongue. * Challenging for the Botoxed ChinaHold your hand in front of you, palm facing out, and wave it from side to side.
New York City: Get a taxi in a jiff
There are thousands of cabs on the streets of New York City, right? Hard to believe when you're stranded at Grand Central Terminal on a Saturday night, in the rain, with a big suitcase*. But thanks to a recent study, there's now some scientific data—and a smartphone app—based on the day-to-day flow of taxi cabs in this vibrant city. The NYC Taxi & Limousine Commission, the agency that regulates the city's yellow cabs, used GPS to track taxi pickup locations during a six-month period in 2009, resulting in data for 90 million real rides (who knows, maybe you were one of them?). Sense Networks, a software analyst company in the city, took the data and created a free app, CabSense, that was released earlier this month for iPhone and Android phones. The app will come in handy if you're visiting the city and a bit marooned—CabSense will map your location and then show you the nearby corners where you are most likely to hail a cab. You can also use the "Time Slider" to plan trips ahead of time—ideal for that mad airport rush at 4 p.m. The New York Times also took some of the data and created a cool interactive map that shows the taxi patterns across Manhattan during a typical week. Where do cabs pick up most? Penn Station, a major hub for New Jersey Transit, Amtrak, and many subway lines. The city's taxi system is a hot-button topic right now: Back in March, the Taxi & Limousine Commission announced that about 3,000 cab drivers had routinely gouged passengers over two years, costing each one between $4 and $5 per trip. The TLC said drivers were flipping the wrong switch on their meters, kicking in higher out-of-town rates. But drivers hit back, arguing that the meters were often hard to read and that the accusation was unfair because the sample size in the report was too small. The argument is ongoing. In other news, the commission also recently launched a taxi-sharing program. For more on taxi cabs, including a nice list of FAQs and a Bill of Rights, see the TLC's website. *Scenario based on actual, personal events. Oh, and it was cold.
Q&A: A veteran house swapper shares her tips
House swapping is an ultimate budget travel feat— you allow someone to stay in your home while you take off and stay in theirs. You both get free accommodations and an authentic experience in a new city. So what's house swapping really like? We asked Nicole I. Frank of Roofswap.com, a new site that has more than 14,000 house-swapping listings in 130 countries. She offers advice for curious house swappers, and she should know—the native New Yorker is a veteran of more than 40 house swaps since 1991. Q:Tell us what you get with a membership on Roofswap. A: Roof Swap was founded by passionate home swappers. You'll have access to an easy-to-use template that'll get your home listed for swapping in a few easy steps. Then, you can search one of the largest databases, with 14,000 diverse listings. We also offer customized advice from home exchange veterans like myself, attentive customer service, and unlimited home swap vacations. Editor's Note: RoofSwap's three-month trial membership costs $20; a yearly membership is $75. If you sign up for membership before Dec. 31, 2010, you can get 20 percent off when using promo code MAR2BT0. Q: What do you tell people who are interested in house-swapping but also a little fearful of it? A: RoofSwap has a Forum where members can ask any questions they have and get expert advice from me and other veteran Roofswappers. For more peace of mind, RoofSwap is the only house-swapping club that offers a low-cost insurance policy backed by an insurance company. Most people with home-owners' or renters' insurance can check their policies to be reassured that they are already covered for almost anything that could go wrong. Q: What are the benefits of house-swapping, besides the fact that you get your accommodations for free? A: Vacationing in someone's home helps you "live like a local" for a more interesting travel experience; swappers share insider tips on places to go the area. Swappers are usually happy to care for Rover or Kitty. Families will have more space than in a hotel room and can make use of the swap partners' stroller, high chair, toys, and books. Also, homes have more useful amenities than hotels— I would much rather have free wireless internet, a kitchen, and a washer/dryer than a mint on my pillow. Swappers can often negotiate trading the use of cars in addition to homes...I could go on! Q: Do you have to live in a big city to be a good candidate for house-swapping? A: There is something interesting about everyone's home town. City folks often want a rural retreat. Swappers from other countries want to experience small-town life. No matter where you live, someone will want to swap for your home. Q: You've been on a number of house swaps yourself. What's your favorite story to tell about house-swapping? A: My six-week honeymoon grand tour of Europe. We stayed in Barcelona, Nice, Paris, and Amsterdam and never spent a penny on lodging. PREVIOUSLY The Secrets to Happy House Swapping