For the frequent traveler, staying easily and cheaply connected to home can be as trying as sitting through that Adam Sandler movie on the flight over. Know, however, that you have options. Here are 10 gadgets....
and money-saving tips that should make keeping in touch with the office or family back home just a bit simpler
One thing's consistent no matter your cell provider: it's hard to make calls when your phone's dead. Travelers who are constantly on the go and away from electrical outlets can try Novothink's Surge, a solar-powered charger that fits directly onto the back of Apple's iPhone. Leave it in direct sunlight for about two hours — say, on the dashboard of your car as you drive — and the Surge will give your phone enough of a charge to allow you to make a 30-minute call. It's not nearly as fast or reliable as plugging the phone into a socket, but when a socket's not around, it's nice to have the sun
Avaak's Vue Personal Video Network
Ever wonder what goes on in your house while you're away? (Here's a hint: your cat sleeps 23 hours a day.) Keep tabs on the home front with Avaak's Vue Personal Video Network, a set of two small, wireless, battery-operated cameras that you can position anywhere in your house. The cameras feed live streaming video to a private website accessible via the Internet or a Flash-enabled mobile device, so you can check on your kids, your pets or that leak in the ceiling anytime. Just set up the cameras and plug a box into your router, and that's it. No software installation required. It's no substitute for being home, but it might lessen the pain of spending another night in a roadside Days Inn.
Leaving your TV behind when you hit the road can be as traumatic as leaving your family (though don't tell your family that). Think of all the recorded shows that will have to wait, all the local sporting events you'll miss. But a device called Slingbox allows you to stay connected to your idiot box no matter where you travel. Slingbox streams an online feed from your TV, which you can access through a computer or mobile device such as the BlackBerry, Droid, iPhone or iPad. That means you can watch all the channels you have at home, including anything recorded on your DVR. Whether this is good news for your productivity remains to be seen.
Slingbox.com; from $179.99
As hard as it is to believe, hotels are still charging for phone calls, with some collecting as much as $10 for the first minute. That's not service; that's extortion. You can get around the problem by subscribing to one of the many VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) services, like Vonage, at home and then taking the phone adapter with you on the road. Plug it into the hotel's broadband connection, and you won't have to use the landline at all — or run the risk of adding roaming charges by using your mobile. (Calls made to your home number will ring on the road.) With this setup, you can make all the free outgoing local and long-distance calls you want, and international calls will cost you far less than picking up that hotel landline. You might even save enough to permit yourself a bag of peanuts from the minibar.
Vonage.com; plans start at $9.99 per month
Voxox Call Connect for SMS
Here's another creative solution for international travelers who want to avoid paying exorbitant rates for overseas calls. Voxox, a service by San Diego–based company Telcentris, provides a feature called Voxox Call Connect for SMS (a.k.a. SMS callback) that lets users make phone calls from a cell phone while abroad — without paying the carrier's rates. Here's how it works: Users sign up for a Voxox account (it's free to join) and initiate calls by sending a text message. Say you're in France and want to call home to Ohio. You'd text your home number to Voxox, and then a few seconds later, your cell would ring, and the call would be connected to your house. Instead of paying your cell carrier's rates, however, you'd pay Voxox's, which are generally much cheaper. Not that you can put a price on connecting with your loved ones, but 3 cents a minute sounds about right.
Voxox.com; rates vary by country
Freedom's Pro Keyboard
Those tiny keyboards built into cell phones are like a prescription for carpal tunnel syndrome. Try to keep your hands from getting mangled as you tap out anything longer than a simple text message. As a result, doing serious work on one has been nearly impossible. One solution might be Freedom's Pro Keyboard. It's a portable QWERTY keyboard that connects wirelessly via Bluetooth to your phone. It folds in half when not in use and is small enough to easily carry in a bag or briefcase, weighing about 1 lb. (0.5 kg). The gadget is compatible with most Bluetooth-enabled devices, including the iPad, BlackBerry and Android. Buying one should make it much easier to type an e-mail to colleagues or loved ones. Your thumbs will thank you.
Freedominput.com; $86.94 at Amazon
Verizon's Global Travel Program
Can you hear me now? Not if you're overseas. While most carriers around the world use a technology called GSM, Verizon does not. That means that many SIM-cardless standard Verizon phones won't work in other countries (the BlackBerry excluded). It's a bit of a pain, but the company provides a decent solution. Through its Global Travel Program, Verizon will lend you a global cell for free, as long as you're traveling for three weeks or less. Just pay the $9.99 shipping cost, and Verizon will mail you a loaner. It will use your regular number, and you'll have normal access to your voice mail. You'll have to sign up for one of the company's global plans and pay a per-minute charge for calls and texts. Once you're home, simply mail the phone back.
Verizon.com; call 800-711-8300; $9.99
Few things are worse than scouring a strange city in search of wi-fi. (Unless it's sitting in a Starbucks in that strange city ordering latte after latte in order to suck up the free wireless.) No longer. A service called Boingo gives business travelers access to more than 125,000 hot spots across the globe, including restaurants, cafés, hotels — many Marriott and Sheraton locations among them — and most American airports. No more paying per hour, and no more searching for Internet access. On the downside, no more using that old "off the grid" excuse.
Boingo.com; $9.95 per month
We're going to level with you: walking around with a blinking Bluetooth earpiece attached to the side of your head doesn't make you look busy. It doesn't make you look important. It makes you look ridiculous. As luck would have it, there is a very cool alternative on the horizon. The O.R.B., from Hybra Advance Technology, is like one of the Transformers, only much smaller and friendlier. The O.R.B. is a small Bluetooth headset that twists into a ring that you can wear unobtrusively on your finger when you're not on a call. And best of all, while in ring form, it vibrates to notify you of incoming calls and texts, and its small screen displays caller ID or the beginning of the message. The device won an award at last year's Consumer Electronics Show, and it should be hitting stores early next year. This could just be the coolest bling going.
One SIM Card
We have a final way around the sticker shock of high overseas phone bills. As savvy international travelers know, one of the cheapest ways to make a cell call while on the other side of the world is by replacing your phone's existing SIM card with one purchased in your destination country. But it can be a hassle buying a new card in every port of call, and in some countries (like India, where terrorism is a major concern), stores may not sell a SIM card to anyone without a local ID and address. You can avoid all that by buying a global SIM from onesimcard.com. The card works in 190 countries, and plugging one into your phone means your cell will be ready to go as soon as you touch down. One SIM Card is prepaid, so you can stock it with as much or as little money as you like and draw down the balance with each call. The rates aren't always cheap ($1 per minute to make an outgoing call in Mexico, for example), but incoming calls are free in 75 countries, and receiving texts never costs anything. One hiccup: If you change your phone's SIM card, your number will change. In the case of One SIM Card, you'll be assigned a European number, which could make it expensive for folks back home to call you. Then again, you could always just have them dial you via Skype and spend the money you both save on a real vacation, where you can ditch the phone and every other communications device altogether.
Onesimcard.com; packages from $29.95