Traveling with iOS

I recently returned from a three week, three country, trip in Europe. It was a family vacation, no contact with the office, and we had an amazing time.

I’m a firm believer in packing light. I try to stick to the “one person, one bag” rule which is difficult to achieve when it’s your wife and teenage kids you are trying to convince. It was practically impossible when we first started traveling  but over the years I’ve been winning them over.

My iPhone goes with me wherever I go but this trip I decided to leave the laptop behind and travel exclusively with the the iPad. At first my family protested and even I had some concerns, but other than my wife and daughter missing a full keyboard, it was a big success. Here are some take-aways for anyone on the fence about further lightning your load by traveling all iOS.

Gear and Cellular Connectivity

I took my iPhone 5, my old iPhone 4s, an iPad 2 and an iPad 3. I left my US AT&T SIM in my iPhone 5.  I have an international calling plan on this phone normally, but I only used it sparingly to call the US.  I also took along an old iPhone 3 for my wife.

I dropped a Vodaphone pre-paid SIM in my iPhone 4s and the iPhone 3 for local calling in Europe so we had a low cost way to call each other and to make local calls. I paid a bit extra to get data on the iPhone 4.  This worked well but Vodaphone was not the best carrier for data.  There were some areas where the data wouldn’t work and we covered a lot of ground.  I guess I could have called and debugged the situation, I was on vacation, and it wan’t the end of the world. Paper maps, train schedules, etc still work fine in the modern age.

Power and Charging

I took the iPad 2 and 3 so I needed the small power brick to adequately charge these devices. Fortunately the brick deals with the different voltages all I had to do was buy the Apple World Traveller Adapter Kit to get the plug adapter I needed. It’s a little pricy but it comes with any possible adapter you would need in the world and it does work to adapter you laptop power brick if you need it.

Network Connectivity

While I did use European SIMs for two of our iPhones, I did not do that with the iPads.  So we were limited to WiFi only. Don’t let this discourage you. WiFi is pretty ubiquitous in Europe.  Each of the two apartments we rented, the three hotels, and the one B&B we stayed at during the trip, all had free WiFi access. Many cafes and places you’ll find on-the-go also have WiFi.  That’s handing for looking up train or tram information while dining al fresco. We had zero issues finding good bandwidth for email, web browsing, and uploads. It made researching places we wanted to see and getting map directions easier.

Photo Upload/Backup

I take a lot of pictures when we travel. This trip was no exception. This was also one of the reasons I felt most apprehensive about leaving the laptop behind. After a day of picture taking I normally sync my SD card to iPhoto, then use iPhoto to upload to Flickr. Since I’m not doing a lot of photo editing while I’m on vacation I do this primarily to make sure I have a backup of my raw photos in multiple places and to clear out my SD card.

To interface my iPad to my SD cards I used the Apple iPad Camera Connection Kit. Getting the photos to Flickr turned out to be slightly more complicated. Flickr upload is apparently broken in the iOS version of iPhoto.  I searched around the App Store and discovered PhotoSync and it worked just fine uploading all my photos to my private set for archive.

Local Apps

One thing we discovered is that many European museums, cities, and points of interest have iOS and Android applications that you can download.  Some of these apps help plan you visit, get the latest information on special exhibits, and even enhance your tour.  The Louvre in Paris, for example, had an audio guide you could download for the iPhone. We found a number of these applications very useful.

Other Travel Apps

Trains, Trams, and subways are the way to get around European cities and almost all of them have iOS apps to help plan your trip. Some have English versions if you don’t speak the local language but most can be operated with minimal local language skills. I found it fun to try to figure out some of the advisory notices.  I found these apps indispensable and many worked without a network connection. Also get local weather apps! They are more accurate than the ones you depend on in the US. Most US based weather apps will not have good coverage for some areas.

Entertainment/News/etc.

We filled our days with sight seeing but in the evening it was nice to come back to our temporary home read books, news, catch up on email, or play a game. For this kind of down time it goes without saying the iPad excels at home and it worked just fine outside the US. The only thing to watch out for is that most video services like Netflix and HBO Go would not work overseas.  One notable exception was MLB At Bat which allowed my son to witness the collapse of the Phillys much to our chagrin.

Mailbox

You can imagine what you email inbox looks like after three weeks of vacation.  I cheated a bit here and did check my personal and work email every day for anything urgent.  One tool I found made it so much easier was Mailbox. I’ve been using it on my iPhone and iPad to make processing emails for actions and I love it.  The killer feature for me on this trip was the ability for Mailbox to “snooze” messages until a later date.  That meant I could scan all my work email, respond to the critics, delete the junk, and then “snooze” all the other messages that could wait. This kept me with a clean inbox, and conscious, for the entire trip. Of course when the “snooze” date arrived so did all that email. All good things must come to an end I suppose.

Conclusion

Leaving the laptop behind was no problem for us. I think our iOS devices were more than adequate to help us travel and keep us connected and informed. The web and apps are everywhere.  They make our lives easier at home and enhanced our travel experience abroad. The reduction in weight and bulk of dealing with an extra laptop bag was worth the trade off of not having a full sized keyboard and access to non-iOS apps. It kept us light and agile which made traveling from place to place easy. I think we made a great decision.

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Traveling with iOS