Productivity on the Road

I was supposed to finish this piece last Friday to cap off productivity, but, in fact, I was traveling. That’s right. I couldn’t do a piece on travel productivity because I was traveling.

Trust me: it wasn’t for wont of gear that I didn’t turn in my piece. It was because we just weren’t prepared for the strain travel takes on communications. You can carry your favorite laptop, cellphone, and power converter and still be as disconnected as if you were on the surface of Mars.

My advice is simple: make the most important thing in the information economy — connectivity — the least distracting. When Peter and I were traveling through Europe for CeBIT (Motto: It’s sucks! Don’t ever come back!) we had four cameras between us, two laptops, enough adapters to start a Radio Shack. What we lacked was connectivity. One afternoon we spent about $80 and four hours of searching for two hours of Internet connectivity. Here, then, is my advice for staying connected on the road.

My first recommendation is to scout out wireless access at your destinations. Never trust hotels when they tell you they have “free wireless.” Free wireless, like the continental breakfast, often ends up being sub par at best and non-existant at worst. Begin by talking to your cellular carrier about international Wi-Fi. T-Mobile has contracts all over the world with hotels and hotspots, so they might be your best bet. You obviously should have a GSM carrier if you travel at all, ensuring you can swap out SIM cards on the road, but don’t depend on cellular data networks if you want to save money and your sanity.

The best place to start is by visiting a few wireless providers and buying a monthly subscription for the duration of your trip. Here are a few:

  • The Cloud – Focused on the UK, the Cloud is available almost everywhere in Europe.
  • Boingo – Fairly popular in the U.S. A bit 100,000 hotspots. As low as $7.95 a month.
  • Fon – Popular in Europe, this service lets you share your own Wi-Fi connection and get free Internet around the world. Not for the non-technical. A la carte pricing.
  • Whisher – This service piggy-backs on other providers. Special plugins show you pricing for Wisher compatible hotspots. Enabling your router as Whisher access point gets you free wireless around the world.

The geeks in us recommend both Whisher and Fon, although Boingo might be a way to go for those who aren’t footing the bill.

With Wi-Fi sewn up, let’s talk about voice. Skype and Skype-out will work in most cases, but if you have Wi-Fi, why not use it? T-Mobiles Hotspot@Home is one of the best ways to make voice calls overseas I’ve ever found. Because it acts as your “home phone” when connected to a Wi-Fi network, T-Mo’s UMA plan is excellent for making and taking calls just as if you were in your U.S. office. You can use a Blackberry Curve or Blackberry Pearl to get your message on, as well.

Another choice is MaxRoam. This service lets you add multiple phone numbers to a single SIM card and make and take calls using a main U.S. based number. It is especially convenient if you want it to appear that you have a local number wherever you are.

Sadly, even all these best laid plans can fall through. Be prepared to hit the local cyber-cafe for some last ditch connectivity. A little prior planning, however, and you’ll be online in no time.