Some tech tips to ease your travels

Bob's Tech Talk

Q. I have not flown in quite some time. When I flew last month, missing was the usual preflight announcement asking everyone to turn off all electronic devices. Now that we can use smartphones and tablets on airplanes from gate to gate, why do they still have an airplane mode?

A. It took a very long time for most airlines to accept the inevitability of a cabin full of passengers happily tapping away on personal electronic devices. There was an especially humorous few months as the cabin prohibition continued while at the same time pilots demonstrated the usefulness of iPads in the cockpit. Although policies and services vary between airlines and individual aircraft, there is a good chance that you will be welcome to keep reading your Kindle or check your email on your next flight.

Airplane Mode is useful because it works as a master switch to turn off all the radios in the device. Smartphones have at least three different radios. One for cellular phone calls, one for Wi-Fi, and one for Bluetooth accessories like keyboards and headsets. Every manufacturer uses Airplane Mode a little differently. In most cases enabling it will shut off all the radios, but allow you to manually reactivate Wi-Fi and Bluetooth as needed.

Each radio consumes power even when it is not in use, and turning them off will extend your battery life significantly. Cellular radios are particularly wasteful of power. While they do not work in flight, they continuously search for a cell tower, increasing their transmission power to maximum. There is no reason whatsoever to have a radio continuously blasting RF in your pocket from coast to coast. The very worst time for a smartphone battery to die is when I need it the most, near the end of a journey when I first arrive in an unfamiliar city.

Q. We are planning our first cruise next month, and according to the cruise line website the ship has Internet available. I imagine there must be a catch, what is it?

A. The quality of Internet connections on cruise ships at sea is predictable: slow, intermittent, and expensive when compared to anything available on land. Yet considering the limitations of satellite-based Internet, the fact it works at all is a small miracle.

Internet afloat comes in a few different flavors. The most common is similar to a hotel business center or an Internet café, with a roomful of computer terminals each charged by some allotment of time or data. Useful for checking email or dashing off a reply, but anything complicated like sending a photo, can be rather difficult.

A big step up from the café approach is ship-wide Wi-Fi, where a local intranet allows device-to-device communication aboard ship. Typically intranets provide a bridge to the Internet ashore, but again that capability will tend to be slow and relatively expensive.

Ship-wide Wi-Fi services vary from ship to ship. On a ship recently, my wife and I were able to review a daily schedule of events, check our account balance, and send messages to one another from our smartphones. Having that functionality in our pockets was handy on occasion, but it could be a good deal more useful. For example, messaging is limited, and the ship’s server did not include a location index or a graphic deck layout.

Shipboard messaging is probably more awkward than you expect. It’s where the biggest tech-related surprise awaited us, because there is no beep or vibrate alert for an incoming message. The only way we could find out if the other had sent a message was to manually check for new messages. We’re used to being able to find one another in a large store with a quick message, and that we couldn’t do the same on a ship was a notable inconvenience.

Q. Whenever I travel I find it nearly impossible to make sure my device has enough power to last unless I keep it turned off and only turn it on when I need to. There must be a better way. Any suggestions?

A. About the only thing more precious than Internet connectivity on the road is reliable power. Travel puts an unusual burden on batteries, making it difficult to predict if a battery will make it through a day.

Electric outlets are hard to find in public spaces under the best of circumstances. Add in competition from other people each looking for electricity makes it nearly impossible to charge a device while traveling. The solution is to carry an external battery – which have come a long way in both quality and power in the last few years.

My personal favorite are batteries made by Anker. ( Note the spelling – several other battery supply companies have very similar names.) The two I use most are the PowerCore+ 26800, which has enough reserve to recharge a laptop or several tablets and smartphones, and the PowerCore Mini, which is an exceptionally lightweight battery with enough power to use my phone or tablet in a pinch or recharge my Bluetooth headset. There are plenty of sizes to find the best to meet your needs.

Wander the Web

National Geographic Tours of a Lifetime

The National Geographic Web site is a treasure trove of information for travelers seeking the unusual and the exotic. This list of 50 tours they offer is a great starting place to spark ideas or discover new places to visit.

Vacation Rental By Owner (VRBO)

VRBO was around long before AirBnB existed, and their extensive inventory of rental properties reflects that history. I have used this site several times during the last decade to rent homes for family reunions and each time was pleased with the results.

Trip Advisor

Given its success at finding the top placement in Google searches, chances are good you have seen this site at least once or twice before. In general I find it a good place to display a list of hotels by price category in a given city to get an overview of what is available before searching for more specific information.

Bob can be contacted at

Author Bio

A tech enthusiast his entire life, Bob can be contacted at

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