Using your iPhone when Traveling Abroad (Data and Voice)

Tips and Tricks for using your cell phone abroad

Over Thanksgiving, I was able to see a lot of my family, including a 19-year-old cousin of mine who is going to France over college winter break. She’s traveled before as an exchange student, but this time though, she wanted to be able to use her iPhone using data instead of just relying on WiFi.

I was pretty proud of myself!  Offering technology help to a 19-year-old girl! I thought kids would be much more ahead of the curve than I am.


Tips and Tricks for using your cell phone abroad

Anyway, as I started to explain to her and her mother what some of the options were, and what to do to ensure you don’t use excess data while abroad, I realized I’d have to compile everything into an email, complete with screenshots, for it to really make sense.

I realize that for seasoned travelers, this may be common knowledge, but since it became apparent to me that it’s not clear to everybody, I thought I’d share my tips with you all!


Signing Up for an International Data (and voice) Plan

First, you’ll want to research the international data and voice plans offered by your carrier.**  We use AT&T, and they have different plans available, and pricing usually varies based on your travel destination. For instance, Canada, Mexico, and Western Europe have less expensive data rates, while data rates in Asian countries are more expensive.  Here’s a good overview of the plans through AT&T.

Sign up for the plan that you want right before you leave on your trip.  When we went to Russia in February, I had signed up for the 120MB plan.  Unfortunately I went over that 150MB of data within the first week, so I had to upgrade to the 300MB plan.  No big deal.

When you get to your destination, you MUST enable data roaming for your international data to work.  Simply because you signed up for an international data plan does not mean that your data is going to magically work abroad.  On your iPhone, go to Settings > Cellular.  Then toggle the “Data Roaming” switch so that it is green.  

Enabling Data Roaming on an IPhone to use your phone while abroad
If you ever want to ensure that you don’t transmit ANY data while you’re abroad, you can always turn data roaming back off.  For instance, if I’m hooked up to WiFi (like in the hotel for the night), sometimes I’ll turn off data roaming.  But keep in mind that only iMessage will be able to transmit if you turn off data roaming (meaning no regular text messages if you have friends/family that don’t use iMessage/don’t have iPhones).  


Tips to Avoid Excess Data Usage while Abroad

  • Right before you depart, it will be a good idea to reset your data usage statistics.  That way you can keep track of how much data you have used while on your trip.  For instance, if you signed up for the 300MB data plan, you can see if you’re approaching the 300MB.  To reset your data statistics, again, go to Settings > Cellular.  Then scroll all the way to the bottom, and it will say “Reset Statistics.”  After you reset the statistics and you scroll back up, your “current period” Cellular Data Usage statistics will say 0 bytes.  I usually check these statistics about once a day when traveling, especially to make sure I’m not using data faster than expected.

Reset data usage statistics on iPhone to Track how Much Data you've used

Viewing current data and voice usage on iPhone


  • To make sure that apps don’t start using phantom data (in other words, continuing to use data in the background, even if you aren’t actively using the app), you can disable apps to prevent them from using any data. For instance, I might leave Mail and Facebook enabled, but I certainly don’t need any games enabled that I keep on my phone for my niece and nephew, or the weather app, etc.  You can disable those in Settings>Cellular. Pretty much every app on your phone will be listed on that page.  Any app that is toggled on (with green), just toggle it off, and it won’t use any cellular data. If you have a lot of apps, it’s kind of annoying to turn them all off, but it should go quickly.  And, if you need to use a specific app while you’re abroad, you can always just go back into this screen and re-enable the option for that app to use cellular data.

Disable data for certain apps on iPhone when traveling abroad


  • Make sure that you disable the setting to have app updates update automatically in the background, or any music or podcasts that might download automatically. This way none of your apps will automatically download an update if one is available.  That’s under Settings > iTunes & App Store.  Make sure all the switches are toggled to gray instead of green.

Disable automatic app update downloads on iPhone


  • Finally, review your apps to disable any data hogging elements.  For instance, make sure you disable Facebook’s “auto play” feature for videos. This option is in the Facebook app directly. Click on More > settings > videos and photos > turn auto play to off.  You’ll still be able to watch a video on Facebook if you want, you’ll just have to click on it directly.  Instagram does the same thing.  For that, go to Instagram settings (accessible from your profile page), then scroll down to where it says “Video.”  Change it from “Always” to “Only on WiFi.”

disable facebook auto play for videos - save data when using phone abroad


Disable video preload in Instagram to avoid excessive data charges



There you have it!  All my tips for using your iPhone abroad, and how to ensure that you don’t use excess data.  Hopefully this goes without saying, but if you are trying to keep your data usage very low, limit things like picture uploading until you are back on a WiFi connection.

I have found that if you need to call AT&T from your cell phone for assistance, they have always waived the voice minutes.  Of course, your situation could vary, but we’ve never had a problem.

When you return to the United States, you must call to cancel all your international services.  It’s billed monthly whether you’re using the international data or not, so it’s up to you to cancel everything!


** Some folks will swap out their SIM card with a SIM card from a local cellular company as a less expensive option. I have never tried this because A) I want to be able to use my phone the moment the plane lands.  I don’t want to have to worry about finding a cell phone store, B) I really don’t find my carrier’s data plans to be overly expensive, and C) It’s just really convenient.



Overview of our Home Automation System

Setting up a Home Automation System

It’s summer, and the heat is here!  Yuck!  We’ve been thinking about getting a thermostat that is compatible with our home automation system, and so I thought this would be a good time to give an overview of our home automation system.  What does a home automation system do?  Well, I think that is best illustrated with a few examples. Here’s just an overview of what our home automation system can do.

  • Most of the lights in our house can be controlled by our computer and iPhone, regardless of our physical location.
  • We have several control panels throughout the house that can be customized to turn on and off whatever series of lights that we want.  For instance, with the touch of one button on our 2nd floor, we can turn off all the lights on the 3rd floor.  No need to go upstairs to turn them off!
  • At 10:10PM on weeknights, all of the lights dim in our house, as a reminder that it is time to get ready for bed!
  • We built options into our remote control so that we don’t have to get up to turn on and off lights. For instance, our “watch tv” mode option on our remote control turns off all our lights except our floor lamp.
  • We customized our lights in consideration of the time-of-day.  For instance, if we turn on the bathroom light between midnight and 8AM, it turns on to about 60% brightness.  That way, we don’t strain our eyes too much during middle-of-the-night bathroom trips.
  • On our way out the door, we just have to hit a button that we have programmed as the “Away” button, which turns off all the lights and ceiling fans in the house that we want to turn off while we are out of the house.
  • We have it set that our bedroom ceiling fan turns off 3 hours after we turn off our bedroom lights.  This helps because we sometimes get cold from the fan in the middle of the night.
  • Our bathroom fan automatically turns off 20 minutes after someone turns it off the bathroom light..
  • We have a “bedtime mode,” and all we do is hit one button on a panel that sits on our nightstand, and it turns off all the lights in the house, dims the bedroom lights and locks the front door.
  • We can lock and unlock the front door remotely.

So, how do we do all this?


Setting up a Home Automation System

Setting up a Home Automation System

There are many different systems available to folks who want to do this type of home automation stuff.  We use Insteon.  On the plus side, it is cheaper (significantly cheaper!) than some other home automation programs like Lutron.  On the other other hand, it is a much more “DIY Home Automation” type of program, which is okay with us considering we’re a bit more technologically savvy.  Either way, Insteon can be programmed fairly easily.


Adapters and Controllers

In order to “program” the types of commands I mentioned in the bullets above, each light or plug that you want to control needs to be connected with the Insteon system.  For instance, each lamp, each ceiling light, each fan, and each whatever else needs to be “added” to the Insteon system.  You typically do this by either by replacing the outlet or plug with a “smart” outlet or plug.  Similarly, if you don’t want to go around replacing each and every plug in your house, you can use a plug-in adapter.  The adapter plugs into your normal outlet, and then you plug the device you want to control into the adapter.  This works easier for things like table lamps and floor lamps, but for “hard wired” things like recessed lights or ceiling fans, you will likely need to consult an electrician, or feel comfortable enough doing some basic electrical work on your own.

Next, you’ll need a controller to actually control the lights.  We use ISY by Universal Devices.  There are a couple of different models to choose from, and in fact, Smarthome sells simpler controllers.  We’ll discuss this in future posts, but for basic setups you may not even need a dedicated controller.

Then you can get into the really fun stuff, like controlling your home automation setups from your smart phone!  For the iPhone, we use MobiLincPro.  It connects to the ISY controller (or whatever controller you decide to use).  Plus, I love all these customized buttons we have around our home that allow us to control the lights from many different places.  The black one is kept on our nightstand.  No getting out of bed to turn off the ceiling fan or some hallway light that we left on!



And that’s pretty much it!  In the future, we definitely want to add a thermostat that is compatible with our home automation system.  We do have a programmable thermostat, but not one that can be controlled remotely or anything.

So, think about what types of things you’d want to automate in your home, and in our next post, we’ll talk more in detail about setting things up!

Our XMBC Setup

About two years ago, Ken started implementing something called the XBMC Media Center. We use the XBMC to easily view our home movies, photos, music, browse our movie collection, and recently, even as a DIY DVR, from any TV in our house.

We have a relatively complex setup in our house, which we discussed a few months ago when we described our video distribution system. We have a dedicated home server, called a NAS, or Network Attached Storage, drive. We put files on our NAS drive that we want to be able to access from any computer in the house, as well as files we want to access from the XBMC.

You can customize how it looks, and this is our current setup.

If you dig down into folders the individual folders, like our Home Movies folder, you’ll see that we can pull up any of our home movie files that we have saved to our NAS drive. This is really convenient if we have friends or family over and they want to see a video clip from our last vacation or from their kid’s birthday party we went to the previous year.

For instance, here are many of our video clips from our Southwest USA road trip in 2012. We can click on any of these files with our remote control and it will start playing right away.

Ken has also catalogued his entire DVD and Blu-Ray collection. We can browse for any movie we own right here from the XBMC.

We’ve also recently started to put family photos on the NAS drive so that we can browse them from the XBMC, or leave them running on a slideshow.

Our XMBC Setup

Needless to say, we find our XBMC to be really useful. On average, I’d say we use it about once a day. There are a lot (a LOT!) of ways to set up an XBMC, but I’ll walk you through the way that we did it.

When I hear XBMC Media Center, for some reason, I think of a piece of hardware. I think it’s the whole “Media Center” bit. But XBMC Media Center is, in fact, software, not hardware. XBMC can run on many different hardware platforms and operating systems, including your own computer. But, Ken preferred to have our XBMC work on dedicated hardware, meaning something we weren’t going to use for anything else.

So Ken chose to install XBMC on a “barebones” booksize PC. This is the one he bought, but there are many newer models made by the manufacturer. You can also get a booksize barebones PC from other manufacturers. Newegg sells many of them, and we’re big fans of Newegg.

He installed Ubuntu on the PC instead of Windows, mostly because Ubuntu is more stable and would crash less often. And that has certainly turned out to be the case. We’ve rarely had to reboot the barebones PC that is running the XBMC software.

Because of our video distribution system setup, we’re able to access that single XBMC from any television in the house. But even if you don’t have a setup like ours, you could just hook up the device you have XMBC running on to a TV. Further, you don’t necessarily need a network drive, like our NAS drive, to view movies. Instead, you can just store the local files on the XMBC, or even connect a USB drive to the device. Keep in mind though, if you do use a network drive, you’ll probably want a wired connection instead of Wi-Fi, especially if you will be watching full resolution HD files. A Wi-Fi connection would probably be a bit too slow.

We’ll talk more about our XBMC in some future posts, but hopefully this gives a good overview! Are you running an XMBC Media Center in your house? How do you like it?

Gearing up to Ditch Cable

Back in 2007, I was in Portland, Oregon for three full weeks for work.  I did a lot of sightseeing, and drove along the Columbia River Highway, stopping at many of the scenic viewpoints along the way, including Multunomah Falls.  I drove to the Oregon coast to see Haystack Rock and the Tillamook Cheese factory.  And I drove around downtown and enjoyed a stop at Powell’s books.

But, a lot of my time was also spent watching Netflix movies in my hotel room.  I actually changed my Netflix address for those three weeks and had DVDs delivered to my hotel.

It was during my stay in Portland that I also decided to try Netflix’s nascent streaming service. It was so, so awful.  There were about two movies I was even remotely interested in watching.  The movie I did end up watching, The Smartest Guys in the Room (about the Enron scandal), was so slow to stream that the audio was constantly several seconds ahead of the video.

I declared at that moment in 2007 that “streaming sucks” and never thought of trying it again.

Late last summer, I realized that streaming services seemed to be increasing in popularity everywhere. Heck, they were even producing their own original content!  We could access Netflix and Amazon Prime streaming right through our PlayStation 3 or our Blu-Ray player, but I was still in that “streaming sucks” mindset, and never bothered to try it.  But, I figure something must have improved in the past six years, otherwise streaming wouldn’t be so popular.

So I logged into Amazon Prime from our PS3, and I was blown away.  There was so much selection for no cost (well, no additional cost from our Amazon Prime fee that we pay anyway).  The video quality was great, even for a high definition snob like me.  I started watching the West Wing from its first season, and added a ton of other shows to my watchlists.  Ken has also started watching many free streaming shows, like How I Met your Mother and Parks and Rec.

About a month ago, we came the the realizations that A) We watch TV so infrequently these days, and 2) The vast majority of TV we watch was either on Blu-Ray or streaming.  We started to wonder if we could ditch cable.  We aren’t quite there yet, but we’ve taken a few steps in that direction.

1) We downgraded our Verizon FIOS channel service.  Ken created a simple spreadsheet to determine which channels we would lose by downgrading to a different Verizon FIOS package.  Only five channels, which we rarely watch anyway, would be lost (BBC America, CMT Pure Music, CNN International, The Cooking Channel, and Palladia).

Savings: $30/month


2) We currently have two dual tuner TiVo’s, meaning we can record up to four channels at a time.  Thanks to our video setup, we can watch those TiVo’s from any television in the house.  Because we don’t have a cable box, we have to rent “cable cards” from Verizon for each of those TiVo’s, at a rate of $10/month each.  Ken has started switching show recordings around so that all network shows record to one TiVo, while shows on non-network channels record to the second TiVo.  That way, we can eliminate the cable card on the first TiVo, since we’ll only be recording network shows, which can be accessed using a digital “antenna” over the air.

Savings: $10/month


There are a few things that are keeping us from fully getting rid of cable.  There are shows we watch frequently on AMC, the History Channel, and Food Network, that are not available on streaming services for free in real time.  Meaning, for instance, we couldn’t watch the Walking Dead (an AMC show) for no additional fee on Netflix or Amazon Prime the day after it airs.  Same thing goes for Pawn Stars on the History Channel or The Soup on E!.

But, we’ll do some math to determine whether it would still be cheaper to just buy those individual episodes instead of paying for a full cable package each month.  For example, would we still come out ahead if we had to pay $1.99 each week to watch an episode of the Walking Dead or Pawn Stars?  We’ll definitely do some calculations on that to let you know.

One of the common complaints I hear about ditching cable is the fact that people like sports and wouldn’t be able to watch them without cable.  Well, neither one of us are big sports fans, and the sports events we do watch (Super Bowl, Stanley Cup, the Olympics, etc.), those are always broadcast on network channels, which means they can be accessed without cable.

Either way, we’re already saving $40/month on cable just by making those few easy changes.  Hopefully in the next few months we can cut it even more!

Have you ditched cable?  How was the transition?

Travel Tech Gear

Once we get back from a vacation, we usually try to figure out what stuff we didn’t need on our trip and should not have packed.  One thing we almost never regret packing are our technology-related gadgets.  When we talk to friends, most of them don’t really understand why we both carry around cameras with us. I have a digital SLR and Ken has a digital SLR. Well, the short answer to that is that we BOTH like taking pictures. So that got me thinking about all our other technology-related travel gear. So, what do we take with us on vacation?

  • Canon 70D, including a zoom lens and prime lens and a recently purchased wide angle lens.
  • Canon G9. This is a smaller, advanced point and shoot that I used as my primary camera before I made the switch to DSLRs. I LOVE that little camera. Before that, I had a Canon G5 for almost five years! It’s the perfect blend of compactness and manual mode options! I always bring this on our trips in case 1) One of our cameras breaks … like Ken’s did when we went to Niagara Falls in 2009, or like mine did when watching the Shuttle Discovery flyover about two years ago in DC.  As an added bonus, we can save the day with this camera! We did a guided tour for a few days when we were in Spain in 2010. An older couple on the tour had not brought their camera battery charger with them, so we let them use this extra camera during the tour! We just e-mailed them all their pictures after we got back home!
  • Ken’s Nikon D3100 DSLR
  • Sony HD Video Camera. This is the second HD Video Camera that Ken has had. He got his first one in 2007 and upgraded in late 2010.
  • Garmin Handheld GPS (eTrex 20). Ken carries this everywhere on our vacations and uses that to sync our photos with our GPS coordinates. (It’s called geotagging. More on that in a future post!)
  • Acer Netbook. If we are going on a long and complicated trip, this is likely the only computer we bring so we don’t have to lug anything heavier. But sometimes I like to also bring …
  • My MacBook Pro if I expect to want to import my photos into Lightroom every evening or blog about the trip.
  • Backup external hard drives. Combined, we can easily take nearly 10,000 pictures on a two week trip together. Since we shoot in RAW format, that can add up to … well, countless Gigabytes of photos. Plus, we’re both compulsive about having backups of backups. So, we’ll dump our photos everyday onto the netbook and then also back that up onto one of our external hard drives in case the netbook dies, gets stolen, etc.
  • iPad.  But only sometimes.  I like to use it to read digital versions of magazines.
  • iPhones. Obviously.
  • Automobile GPS. If we’re flying somewhere and renting a car, we bring my Garmin Nuvi. But if we’re going on a local road trip, we typically take Ken’s car, which has a built in navigation system.
  • Kindles. Ken and I each have one. You know, for all that “free” time and “relaxation” you expect to have on vacation!  But, we definitely use them on airplane rides!
  • A packing cube filled with chargers (iPhone, car iPhone chargers, camera chargers, video camera chargers, laptop charger, and one Kindle charger depending on the length of the trip, and a mini power strip).


Even with all this gear, we typically manage to travel with just carry-ons. What’s on your tech gear packing lists?