The Best Cell Carrier for International Travelers



By Robert McGarvey


Stop the debate. There really shouldn’t be any.  When it comes to picking a cellular carrier for frequent international travelers the best by far is Project Fi from Google.

Second best is TMobile – but it’s a distant second.  Subscribe to T-Mobile’s “Simple Choice” and what you get is calls at 20 cents a minute, unlimited texting, and unlimited data. But the hitch with the data is that the first 2GB are high speed. Then it slows to 2G.  If you want higher speed, T-Mo upsells you into a week pass with 200MB of data for $25.

The problem: 200 MB of data is almost nothing.  It’s fine for email, checking social sites, posting a handful of pix but don’t go crazy. Photos can really eat through data.  Be very careful with mapping. Be very careful with everything in fact.

Right now, many pundits are busily crowning T-Mo as the best carrier for international travelers. But they are mistaken.

Enter Project Fi.  It offers high speed data access in 135 countries (just about any place you want to go) at a flat $10 per GB – which is the same rate you pay in the US. With Project Fi you pay for what you use, in 1 GB tranches.  Sign up for a 3GB per month plan, only use 1, and you pay $10, not $30.

The Fi Basic plan is $20 per month for unlimited domestic talk and text.

Internationally, calls are 20 cents per minute.  Texting is free. Data is the same price in 135+ countries.

The Project Fi goal is simple but bold. It wants to make the whole world safe for one phone, from one carrier.  No horrifying high roaming charges.  No need to swap SIM cards.  The single Project Fi phone will do you.

What’s the hitch?  The only hitch is that Fi works only on a couple of phones.  The 6P is $349.  The 5X is $199.  Google sells both.

As for the network, domestically, Google uses T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular and it hops among them and latches onto the strongest signal.

In Europe it uses Three and probably other carriers.  

Elsewhere, Google is not especially transparent about who is carrying its calls and data but why should it be? It probably swaps carrier partners as business needs dictate and certainly as they change.

Where it can, Project Fi seeks to use WiFi – it almost certainly will in your home and office – for calling. How good is that? In my tests – I have had Project Fi for about a year – WiFi calling has erratic quality. Sometimes it is good, sometimes no and my home WiFi has a generally strong signal.  So I’m not sure why it sometimes is poor quality. (Note: you can turn off WiFi calling as an option. I don’t advise it. But if you wish, you may.)

Use WiFi when abroad to make international calls and rates tumble to far below 20 cents per minute. A call from the UK to India is 1 cent per minute. Most calls to the US are free. Those low rates are not atypical.  All WiFi calls are processed via Google’s Hangout app.

Walking around downtown Phoenix and using cellular networks, Project Fi on average is a stronger signal, less likely to drop than the T-Mo signal I have on an iPhone.  I have experienced similar in Las Vegas.  

I detected no differences between them in New York and that’s true in much of the country.

How can Google make money on international calling and data? Probably it does not.  Google is reticent about divulging data on particular lines of business, and does not breakout Project Fi’s financials, but the general belief is that Google runs Fi as a kind of cudgel to goad cellular carriers into offering technologically better and more consumer friendly plans.

Back to T-Mo which apparently is not willing to surrender.  Through August T-Mobile now promises unlimited 4G LTE data in much of Europe and, honestly, that puts it ahead of Fi – assuming it extends that deal beyond this summer.  Right now there is no indication T-Mo will, or won’t.  We just don’t know.

Until we know, I’d go with Fi,

Oh, there is no contract with Project Fi.  Sign up for it and if you don’t like it, quit. The phone – unlocked – will happily accommodate a T-Mobile SIM, probably also AT&T.  
Once you needed an invitation to sign up for Project Fi. No more. Just visit the website.  

The Death of the Hotel Business Center, RIP

By Robert McGarvey


I come not to praise the hotel business center but to bury it.

I don’t even come to eulogize it.

Whenever I see one – and I still see way too many – I wince. Does this hotel think it is 1990?

But business centers aren’t just anachronistic, they are hazardous.

Understand this: business centers, many of them, are radically dangerous to your data security.  They can be every bit as bad as public WiFi.

They also radiate the cluelessness of whoever thinks they are necessary to keep. That’s especially so when the business center is tucked away in a forgotten space – I have seen them in the basement – and often the computing equipment honestly is so old it is valueless.  

When Travo, an event based planning tool, surveyed some 32,000 hotels, it found that 71% claimed business centers as an amenity.

But is anybody using them?

First, tho, here is why a hotel business center is bad for your data security. When it is tucked in a forgotten part of the hotel, a crook can easily gain access and install keylogging software or other malware.  Exactly that is known to have happened and on a scale large enough to trigger a warning from the federal government.  

Could it happen again? You bet. Many hotels are known to have slim to no security precautions in their business centers so you must use them at your own risk.  

Business centers ask customers to assume the best – that they can use these resources with confidence.  But that objective undermines a proper security education position where you try to tell users to be skeptical,” said Scott Petry, co-founder and CEO of Authentic8, developer of a secure browser.

Petry’s strong advice: just don’t use a hotel business center.

It’s not just a matter of keylogging.  There’s also the possibility that a criminal can go in as you leave, sit at the machine, and – with a little bit of computing skill – retrieve much of what you worked on.  Trace images stay on computers and can be retrieved and criminals know the how to.

Petry acknowledged that at many hotels – especially ones with newer computers – they have installed software that automatically resets the device and wipes out trace info at the end of a session.

But how will you know that software is installed and operating? You won’t.

Said Petry: “When I’m done and ready to walk away, how long before the machine re-images?  Should I wait for it or should I try to restart the device.  When the machine is re-imaged, is that document that I needed to download in order to print really deleted?  Or just moved from the trash when the session ends?”

There is no end to the security worries raised by hotel business centers. They may even be more dangerous than public WiFi.

The good news: really, we do not need a business center.  I always travel with a computing device – an iPad at the least – and a cellphone or two.  Pretty much everybody else I know does likewise.

What about printing? Uh…I don’t do much of that anymore. Email a file instead.

Some hotels get this – they are pulling out business centers, said hotel technology consultant Adam Gillespie, because they want to monetize the space.  

Gillespie added that a trend at some hotels is closing the business center, then installing a sleek kiosk – or two – usually a flat screen monitor and keyboard – off the lobby, where traffic is high.

A plus is that configuration – in a high traffic, public space – is inherently more secure than a computer in a forgotten basement room is. Those kiosks, said Gillespie, usually also are good at reimaging when a user finishes and that is comforting news.

Some users sing praises of new set-ups.  Business travel expert Carol Margolis, who blogs at SmartWomenTravelers, said in an email: “As a very frequent traveler, I love hotels that have the shared workspace vs a business center. When a hotel has a working space, whether it be off of the lobby or restaurant, I always bring my laptop and get work done. It feels so much less lonely than sitting at a often not-very-comfortable desk in my room. As a solo female, this feels safe to me as well as there are often many of us solo-travelers working in this type of space.”

She continued: “Hotel business centers, usually a small room with two computers and printers are great for printing documents but that is about all — at least to me. They’re even lonelier than my hotel room!”

The list of obsolete hotel design/technology thinking keeps growing.  Yank the in-room phone, sure. Ditto the TV. And definitely shutter the oldfashioned business center.    

Said travel researcher Craig “Buzz” Conroy, “Traditional hotel business centers are not a growth industry and much as the traditional payphone was a mainstay of every hotel lobby from the 5 star to the no tell hotel they are approaching extinction.”



What’s In Your Wallet: Credit Cards for Travelers


By Robert McGarvey




I used to believe in a kind of Tolkien style “one card to rule them all” philosophy for business travel – that is, that one perfect card was all I needed on the road.  

For me that has been the American Express Platinum card ($450 per year).

But I no longer believe that one card is sufficient.

Changing realities – particularly my lack of interest in elite status on airlines – has prompted me to carry more cards to insure better, smoother travel. One card just won’t do the job anymore.

Mind you, I remain a fan of Amex Platinum. First off, the card wins free entry to the Centurion Lounges – now a new one in Houston – and they are the best domestic airport lounges by far.

There’s also a gratis enrollment in Priority Pass, with some 900 airport lounges.  If one is convenient to my gate, I generally will use it.

There’s reimbursement for the fees associated with TSA Pre-Check or Global Entry.

No foreign transaction fees.

There’s also $200 available for refunds on fees charged by an airline you designate (you may change it annually).  

Use that $200 fund – which will cover things like bag fees, club entry charges, booze and food inflight – plus maybe a half dozen Centurion Lounge visits and you have gotten your fee back and more.

Plus you have traveled in comfort.  

What Amex Plat does not help me with – boarding planes sooner, when there still is overhead compartment space – is what my other two cards handle.

My second card is MileagePlus Explorer via Chase ($95 annual fee).  The big get: priority boarding on United.

That usually means no need to check baggage, but the other card perk is free checked baggage (for you and a companion).

Two United Club passes are thrown in.

No foreign transaction fees.

Double miles on United tickets purchased with the card (that’s miles earned on the purchase price).

With this card I no longer need bemoan my loss of platinum status – and my slide into no status. I don’t recall ever having to gate check a bag when I have traveled on this card.

My third card: AA Advantage Aviator Red Mastercard ($89 annual fee)

Priority boarding is the main benefit.

There’s also free checked bags.

25% off inflight purchases.

No foreign transaction fees.

Note: there are no free passes to the AA club but, really, do I care?

The real perk of course is priority boarding.

No, these airline cards do not deliver upgrades from coach to business class but, guess what, those upgrades are available less and less frequently anyway.  That was the one real, tangible plus of elite status. But it’s gone.

And so is my interest in regaining elite status.

I no longer need it.  My three travel focused credit cards give me plenty of weapons to succeed – in comfort – as a road warrior.

So far I have ducked adding a Southwest Airlines card to my portfolio but if I eventually decide I need it, I will buy it without hesitation.  We need to take actions to maintain comfort on the road. That is fact.

Every traveler will have his/her own list of must carry credit cards. That’s reality.  My list may not suit your needs.

When I lived in Jersey City, really, I did not need or have the American card. But when I moved to Phoenix, I did.  And I keep the United card because the airport I still fly into most is Newark which means I am still flying United.

Your travels will be different and so should be your cards.

In that vein, here is frequent traveler Joe Brancatelli’s round up of his must carry cards. Joe, by the way, recommends Amex Plat, Chase Sapphire Prefered, and he also has some (qualified) affection for airline and hotel branded cards.

Which brings us to the question: what’s in your wallet?