Staying Connected

When planning this trip a few of my concerns were being able to have fast reliable internet, the ability for folks from my office to contact me, and the ability for Summer and I to stay in touch with family and friends.

Voice Calls and TXT messages

The contract on Summer’s cell phone ended 1 week before we left for Peru. On the day it ended I ported her phone number over to Google Voice for a one time $20 fee. This will allow us to keep her number without having to pay a monthly fee to a US mobile phone provider. This also allows her to use the Google Hangouts app on her phone and laptop to make and receive calls and txt messages. Calls to/from the US are free and calls to numbers outside the US are very cheap. I already had a Google Voice number for myself and forwarded my mobile number and my office number to it. This allows anyone to call my office line at work or my mobile number and it will ring my Google Voice number and I can answer it on my mobile phone or laptop. Since Google Voice works off of an internet connection it will only work while my computer or phone are connected to the internet. 

For communicating with people in LATAM while we are traveling we are using WhatsApp. Everyone from co-workers of mine, Airbnb hosts, and tour companies use it. It allows us to txt them or call them for free without getting charged even the cheap rates that Google Voice would charge us.

Video Calls

Since all of the family we want to do video calls with have Apple devices, we have just been using Facetime. It does not require a 3rd party app and is easy to use on all of our devices. All the place we have stayed, hotels included, have had good enough internet speeds to Facetime with the exception of one hotel that was located in the very Southern tip of Chile. 

Hardline/WIFI Internet

As I was doing research about internet speeds and reliability in Latin America I started to get very concerned that the speeds would not be good enough to do my job. Since the only way we can pull this trip off is for me to continue to work while we are gone, I started getting concerned that this was going to be an issue. Our plan is to mostly stay in Airbnb rooms while we are gone. Airbnb allows you to filter out places that do not have internet which is great, but they currently don’t have any way to know what the speed of the internet access is at a place. That means that we will have to contact the host of any place we are looking at staying at to see if they can tell us what the speeds are. What we found very quickly is that to get the speeds we will need, we will be paying more for the rooms than I was originally planning on. We also found that the only way to get the speeds we need is to stay in the larger cities as the smaller ones just don’t have the infrastructure that is required for fast internet. I realized that the company I work for has offices all over the world including some in Latin America. I found a list of the offices on the company website and started reaching out to contacts I had to see if I would be able to work from some of these offices. If I could, my concerns about internet speed would not be as much of an issue. I was able to line up contacts at offices in all of the countries that we will be visiting with the exception of Panama. These contacts will sponsor me to work from these offices while we are in Latin America. We will still need to have good internet in the rooms as Summer will still need to be able to do her contract graphic design work, but it will not be as critical.

I brought 2 pieces or hardware with us that I thought might come in handy. The first is an Apple Airport Express WIFI router with a flat cat7 cable.

This has come in handy multiple times as some of the Airbnb places we have stayed have very flakey WIFI routers that either hang and need to be restarted often, drop out constantly, or have bad enough range that they do not even reach throughout the entire apartment. I just plug this in and we have good solid WIFI signal. The second is a High Gain USB WIFI adaptor with a short USB cable allowing me to hang it off the back of my Macbook Pro using velcro.

Some of the Airbnb places we stay at are setup like a hotel where it is shared WIFI for an entire building and sometimes we stay in hotels when we are only staying places 1 or 2 nights. I have this for those times as the WIFI in hotels often has weak signal sometimes not even reaching into the room. One of the places we stayed our iPhones, iPad, and Macbooks would not pickup the router till we walked down the hall and sat in a little lobby area. For times like this I can use this USB adaptor which has about 2.5x the signal range of the built in WIFI in our other devices. In the case of the hotel where we had no signal in our room I was able to get a very strong signal once I hooked this up to my Macbook. I was then able to rebroadcast that signal over the builtin WIFI adaptor in the Macbook creating a wireless bridge allowing all of our other devices to also have internet access in the room. Even if I can get a signal without this adaptor, if the signal is less than full when I use this I get a stronger signal giving me faster internet speeds than the builtin adaptor. In the above example when I would walk down the hall with my Macbook pro I could get a signal with the builtin adaptor, but when I would hook this up my internet speeds would just over double and my latency would drop in half.

Mobile Internet

I was able to add an international data plan to my mobile phone. This gives me 1GB of data per month while we are in LATAM. It is not much but I have turned off all services on my phone that use internet over “Cellular Data” other than Google maps, Google Hangouts, Uber, and WhatsApp. Normal voice calls and txt messages are still very expensive on this plan which is why I am using Google Voice for those. Since Summer’s phone is no longer on a monthly mobile phone plan I found an international data SIM from KeepGo that works in all of the countries we will be in. It came loaded with 1GB of data and we can add more as needed. The data stays active on the SIM for 1 year from the time of purchase and if we add more data it will extend the expiration date out 1 year from the date we add it. The only thing that is set to go over “Cellular Data” on Summer’s phone is Google Hangouts so that we can keep in touch with each other when she is not on WIFI. That being said, I think the 1GB will last her the entire trip (3 months in and she has only used 50MB). Using an international SIM like this for Summer means that her phone works right away when we land in a new country. This saves us the hassle and expense of seeking out a local SIM card as soon as we land so that we can txt each other. In doing my research before we left Portland I found that Peru is one of 2 countries in the world, Pakistan being the other, that you need to go through a special process to get a SIM. They require you to prove your identity with your DNI (Local ID) or a foreign passport to get a SIM. From what I read it can take around an hour to go through the whole process if you are using a foreign passport. They do this as security measure to cut down on nefarious uses of disposable SIM cards.

VPN (Virtual Private Network)

Having access to a VPN while traveling outside the US if a good idea for a few reasons. 

  1. When you are using WIFI that is not encrypted you never know who is sniffing the data and stealing your account information from websites you are visiting. If you are using a VPN connection all of you data is encrypted and even if someone it trying to read it, they can’t.
  2. Some US websites will not allow you to use their site if your internet connection is not in the US. If you are using a VPN with an endpoint (server) in the US you can fool the website into thinking that you are in the US thwarting their efforts to stop you. This means if you want to watch Netflix or Comcast you can as long as you are using a VPN endpoint in the US.
  3. Some websites change the price of goods or services they sell depending on where your connection originates from. If you are looking to buy airfare in Chile, and your internet connection is in Chile then you may get cheaper airfare. If you are in Peru the rate may be higher. If you have a VPN connection with an endpoint in Chile you can get the lower rates.

There are many options out there for cheap VPN connections. I chose Private Internet Access (PIA) due to their large number of end points you can choose from and the low cost ($39.95 per year). I also have VPN connections on all of my devices through my work just in case PIA is ever not working for any reason.

Conclusion

So far we have had pretty good luck. We only had an issue in 1 city we were in where we lost all internet for a long period of time. The Hotel WIFI was down for around 36 hours and the 3G on our phone was down for 18 of those hours as well. Luckily this was while I was on a vacation from work so it did not cause any major issues other than not being able to keep in touch with family. We have had many other times in small cities while traveling on weekends or short vacations where the internet was very slow, but we at least were still able to email and txt with people to keep in contact.

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