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Telestial International Cell Phone for No-Roaming Calls

international cell phoneUnless  you’ve been living under a rock or never read financial or travel advice, you should know by now that using your regular cell phone overseas can cost you a small fortune. Some unlucky travelers have found their data bill to be even more than their vacation cost them. Even with data turned off, making a quick “I made it” phone call home can cost you $3-$4. Try to take care of business or close a deal over several days and voice calls alone can cost you $100+ before you know it.

There are three general ways around this (besides going off the grid): using Skype, buying a sim card locally, or using a service like Telestial.

The advantage of the latter is that you don’t need to be in a Wi-Fi hotspot (as you do for Skype or similar services) and you don’t need to arrange a new sim card every time you cross a border. I tried Telestial’s service on a recent trip to Eastern Europe, a trip where I was hitting Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary in the space of three weeks. Each country has its own telecom system and I would have had to buy four sim cards to keep talking and be reachable in each place.

As it was, I carried one phone that Telestial provided, with their one sim card inserted, and people could reach me on the same European number no matter where I was. I was impressed how the phone figured out where I was each time. Only once did I have to turn it off and back on again when it didn’t recognized I’d crossed into a new country. The other times it seamlessly switched over from one service to another.

The way the service works is, you sign up for a specific period and they sell you a phone to use (as little as $19) or you just get the sim card for your unlocked phone that will work where you’re going—in much of the world that’s GSM band, but a tri- or quad-band phone is a safe bet anywhere. The sim card has a specific number for you to use. Mine was a (44) country code Isle of Man number, but your rates vary by where you’re going, not where your number is.

Your incoming calls are free for the period of the service, so loved ones can ring you up with their international plan, their pre-paid calling card, or using their SkypeOut account and it’ll be cheap. When you dial out, either to a local number or to someone in your home country, you’ll get charged at the rate specified for that country. Where I was, it ranged from 11 to 29 cents a minute for a land line call, 14 to 69 cents for calls to a mobile phone. You’ll get a credit for some of these calls up front depending on which sim card package you buy, then after that you get charged for the rest.

There is one oddball twist to this arrangement. If you’re getting a multi-country card, it generally comes with a callback system whereby you make the phone call, hang up, and then answer when it rings you back. When you do that, it connects you to the number. Unless you’re in a huge hurry though, it’s a minor inconvenience and this arrangement enables these far-lower rates. I rarely had any trouble connecting and when I did it was because of the same dropped call issues you would have with any cell phone in regions with spotty local coverage.

All in all, I was happy with this service and would use it again if traveling to a country where Telestial is more cost-effective, which is most GSM-band parts of the world outside the Americas. The company can set you up with one country so you can hit the ground running with no language barrier issues upon sign-up. Or they can set you up with a multi-country solution so one phone/one card can work anywhere.

And yes, you can get a smart phone (or use an unlocked one you bought on eBay or abroad) and get a much cheaper data plan through them as well. For 25 countries, the rate is just 39 cents per MB—a fraction of what AT&T or Verizon is going to charge you unless you’re lucky enough to have one of those grandfathered international plans for a Blackberry that were $20 a month.

See their getting started section for answers to how it all works and see prices for the different plans on their site.

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Goal Zero Guide 10 Adventure Kit and Solar Charger

Goal Zero Guide 10 Adventure Kit Solar Charger

What’s the most irritating thing that can happen to you when you’re on the road? Okay, well there can be lots of answers here. But, one of the most irritating things that can happen to me is not having a place to plug in my iPhone charger when the batter is running low.

I often find myself in foreign countries without the proper adaptor (as was the case in Nigeria last month) or squatting on an airport floor because all the outlets are taken (as was the case in Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Charlotte, and New York last month. Oh and don’t forget Cincinatti where some lady spilled her coffee on my leg because she didn’t see me sitting there.) But, I digress.

I have been on the hunt for a solution for awhile and have purchased two different solar chargers that have performed so poorly I simply threw them in the garbage.

The Goal Zero Guide 10 Adventure Kit, however, is a different story. Perhaps the third time really is the charm. This easy-to-use, all-in-one-solution kit has all of the necessities in one place. Like other solar chargers, it relies on sunlight so a window is important, but it also stores solar energy too so it works in the evening hours. No electrical outlet needed.

Simply connect your phone/electronic device (it works with everything from a Blackberry to an iPod to a Kindle) with the 7-watt solar panel, and voila! It starts charging. And charging fast! It takes about an hour to power up my iPhone thanks to Goal Zero’s advanced solar cell technology that is light years above the competition. It can charge a cell phone for 30 hours, an iPhone or other smart phone for 7 to 10 hours, and an iPod for 40 hours.

The best feature, for me at least, is the nifty carrying case that it comes with including pockets for your phone or other small items and a Velcro closure to help it fit snugly into your briefcase. It’s lightweight enough to hardly notice it’s there, which is a blessing when on long trips (whether camping or on the road).

The panel is compatible with most any USB device and comes with a car adaptor and durable hooks that let you hang it from anywhere. This is the perfect, modern-day adventure kit for hikers or campers who want to remain connected, and thanks to its weather-resistant case it can be used outdoors. It also comes in handy in an emergency such as an earthquake, hurricane, or other electrical outage when power may be in short supply.

Also included are related devices such as the AA/AAA battery solar charger and interchangeable batteries. This is clearly the market leader for solar chargers as it weighs less than others, is easy and compact enough to pack in a carryon bag or backpack, and is more powerful than any others that I have tried.

The Goal Zero solar charger can be purchased at GoalZero’s web site or at REI.COM. The only downside of this excellent travel tool is that now I have no excuse to be disconnected from the office!

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P-Flip Foldable Solar Power for iPhone

It’s a drag to find yourself hunting around for a place to charge your phone when there are no outlets in sight, when you should have known better and charged up before you left the house. And while I’m not so phone dependent that I freak out when juice is gone, I do enjoy all the stuff my phone does for me when I travel — it helps me find my way, it knows where there’s good food, it’s a pocket still/video camera, I can check email, and, I’ll admit it, I’m a Twitter junkie, so I can use it for 140 characters of nonsense from anywhere I’ve got a signal.

The P-Flip Foldable Solar Power for iPhone is a back up battery  for those times when you’ve got a signal but no juice. It serves double duty as a docking station and charges up using either solar power or a power cable. Yes, there’s one for your Blackberry – and it fits the 3G and the iPhone 4.

I optimistically set this gadget to charge in my kitchen window in the heart of a Seattle winter. No dice, after 48 hours, it still needed to be plugged in to get fully charged. The site says it takes about 15 hours of sunlight to get a full charge. We hadn’t had 15 hours of sunlight during the whole month, so if you’re thinking you’ll use this as a back up battery at your cloudy destination, you’re wrong indeed. Something to keep in mind if you’re planning to rely on the sun.

My phone is an iPhone 3Gs. In order to use the P-Flip, I had to take my phone out of its protective case. I was hoping the battery pack would do double duty as both a case and a dock. No go, you can’t fold the P-Flip shut when the phone is in there, though it does make a nice dock. The P-Flip is very light and compact –about the size of an iPhone, actually — so it’s easy to find space for it in my laptop bag or carry on. According to the site, it extends talk time up to 6 hours, video or gaming time up to 10 hours, or music time up to 40 hours. That’s a lot of Angry Birds on a long flight.

Having an extra battery is handy when you know you’re not going to be able to charge your phone. I like the idea of a solar charged backup, though in practice this turned out to be not so practical due to my location. With so many off-the-grid apps available, the P-Flip might be a great thing to toss in the pack for a camping trip or overnight where there’s no power or for a journey where your phone acts as your entertainment center. I wanted this gadget to be more than an  backup battery, but that’s exactly what it is — and at that, it does a fine job.

Get a P-Flip from Amazon for about $40 or check prices online for other sites.

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PodFlexPro for Watching Video on Small Screens

Want to watch video on your small media player in multiple places and positions?

Sure, there are already all kinds of accessories out there that will hold your iPod, iPhone, or Touch on a little stand, but this new PodFlexPro holder is a different animal. The “flex” part has a double meaning here: the case itself is flexible, plus the way you can use it is quite flexible.

Basically this is a holder at the top with a plastic cover, then a snaking covered skeleton that can be bent and shaped to fit the place where you’re resting it. So you can set it on a table by forming an S shape or a V. You can hang it on an airplane seat back by making a hook at the top. You can use it on a machine at the gym by wrapping it over the top of the control panel.

The covering is a stretchy synthetic membrane and it’s a bit of a tight squeeze getting your device in there the first time—if you’ve attached a hard case or extra battery pack it’s a no-go. Plus your ability to pinch and spread your fingers for controlling it is limited through the clear plastic. The best way to use this is to get the video going, hit pause, insert it, plug in the headphones, and then watch your video or movie. You also have to play with the PodFlexPro a bit to figure out the physics. With a bit of time it gets easier.

I’m not normally the type to watch a whole movie on a tiny screen, but for the sake of research on my last flight I watched an episode of Ren & Stimpy I’d downloaded for my daughter. (What can I say, she has a warped sense of humor already.) It was nice not to have to sit there holding the thing in my hand and I could act like it was my own seat-back entertainment system, just smaller.

And hey, it’s not just for the Apple crowd: 8 different Android phones will fit in it as well.

This accessory lists for $25, which is not too painful, plus it stores flat, easily jammed into any kind of bag between layers of clothing or in a laptop case. Retail distribution is just rolling out right now, but you can get it immediately at the company website or at AccessoryGeeks.com.

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Wrapsol Skins Protect Your Gadgets and Phones

Now that you’ve got that shiny and expensive new gadget in hand, how are you going to keep it from getting all scratched up and smudged? Do you really think your electronics are any match for the rigors of the road? A protective skin from Wrapsol can be a great investment in protection.

I haven’t jumped on the iPhone bandwagon for a lot of reasons. The main one is that in the U.S. the phone is sold locked into the AT&T monopoly, which is getting ready to drop its unlimited data plan (because it can) and they suck from your wallet like nobody’s business if you dare try to use it internationally. Another key reason is the truly sucky battery life. I do have an iPod Touch, however, which is almost an iPhone but without the phone part and the hefty ongoing charges every month after purchase. (Think of the iPhone as a  timeshare with maintenance charges, the Touch as a condo.)

So when the Wrapsol people offered to send me one of their skins to review, I slapped one on my new iPod Touch and have been using it ever since.

I like these transparent skins a lot. They let you retain the sleekness of the original Apple design instead of mucking it up with something bulky, like a rubbery case. The screen touch functions work just as well as they did before the skin application, but with no fingerprints on the screen. I can wipe this on my shirt without any worries about scratches. And if I drop it, which is going to happen sooner or later, there’s added shock absorption built into these Wrapsol skins. If your kid drops food or juice on your expensive device, there’s extra protection. You can see a video of how they work here.

They don’t just make the skins for Apple products though. You can get one to fit a Droid, a Blackberry, a Nexus One, even netbooks, Kindles, and cameras. The skin comes pre-cut in the exact right dimensions, with all the necessary holes already in place. This template below shows what you get for the Droid Eris that Kara reviewed a while back.

As you’ve probably started to realize, the hard part of this is actually getting that skin perfectly aligned onto your device. I’ve tried this with three different brands now and I never seem to get it 100% right. This Wrapsol version is repositionable to an extent, so you can nudge it a bit one way or the other during the process, but it’s still hard to line it up perfectly, even on the sleek Touch.

That process involves wet fingers and a little squeegee too, so don’t think you can just pop this on as you’re walking out the door. (Unlike with the BodyGardz brand I reviewed before, there’ not a spare skin in the box with these, so you have to get it right the first time.)

If you’re patient though, you’ll get it close enough to be be able to get to all your buttons and then your fancy new device will stay scratch-free and protected.

Update: Wrapsol.com is out of business, but you can still find their products on Amazon

Get the iPod Touch version at Amazon.

Get the Wrapsol Kindle cover at Amazon.

Related Posts:

Otterbox Blackberry Commuter Case

iDox Accessories for iPod and iPhone

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