Sunday, January 26, 2014

Staying connected by phone when you travel, for cheap

It can be extremely expensive to stay in touch when travelling, at least if you want more than a Skype connection in an internet cafe.

I finally found a solution that works for me. It took a little bit of time and effort to setup, and outgoing calls aren't as easy as they could be, but the price is fantastic, and the flexibility of being able to use a cell phone means I no longer find myself stuck in my hotel room or at an internet cafe making calls.

What you need

  • A dual-SIM, no frills phone. I bought the Blu Tank, which can be purchased new from various eBay sellers for around $25. The killer features are support for two SIM cards, as well as an extremely long battery life.
  • A SIM card from Piranha Mobile (can be purchased directly from the company, for £12.00). Their killer feature is the ability to do "off load" call backs, which lets you initiate 3rd-party call backs to and from arbitrary numbers. 
  • An account with, $5.00 minimum credit required to sign up.
  • An account with, which can initiate (via their Android app) call-backs to a Toggle number. €10.00 minimum credit required to sign up.
Getting it working

: £12.00
: £12.0)
  • Activate Toggle SIM and sign up for an additional permanent number in Denmark . By default you receive a permanent UK number that people can call, but you can also get a "local" number in 9 countries. These local numbers are for 30 days, but for £5 per year, you can get a permanent number in another country. Of the "local number" countries supported by Toggle, Denmark seems to have the among the cheapest incoming calls. (Note, people are reporting on forums that the Toggle US numbers are not as reliable as others in other countries).
  • Sign up for, and  "activate" the Toggle Denmark number with the account. This is a simple process that requires that they make an automated call your phone to verify that you control the number. 
  • Register a new US number with Localphone, which will cost 99 cents per month. Configure localphone to forward all calls from this new US number to your Toggle Denmark number.
  • Register account with VOIP calling service You can use VoipYo to initiate calls to your Toggle UK number, or the Denmark number (which seems a little bit cheaper right now). Total cost about 3 cents per minute for these calls.
  • Activate the Piranha SIM online.

How I use it
The Localphone service allows me to have a US "landline" number that anyone can call me at, at no cost to them, which will then reach me in 20 countries, for approximately 3 cents per minute

This is what I use for incoming calls. For convenience, I forward my Google Voice number to the localphone number, which means that people can call me on my "main" Google Voice phone #, and it reaches when I am traveling.

For outgoing calls, I have two options. The cheapest and easiest is to use the VoipYo Android app to initiate calls, but this requires an Internet connection, either at my hotel or somewhere with WiFi.

When I don't have internet, I can use the Piranha call-back service to initiate the call (the piranha SIM initiates the call-back and part of the calls is billed to my piranha account, but the incoming call actually comes in on the Toggle SIM...this is why having a dual-SIM phone is important).

The Piranha call-back is a bit of a pain, as it requires you to enter a long-string of numbers: *110*localphone_number*number_to_call#

(note, both the phone numbers above need a country code, such as 001 or 0044)

This isn't the most convenient for a quick call, but it is easy to program in frequently called friends and family, after which, it is no effort at all to initiate callbacks.

If I am feeling lazy, and just need to make a quick call, it is generally cheaper to use the Piranha SIM. I try to avoid this though.

With this setup, I can make incoming and outgoing calls, at extremely low cost, and no longer waste time and money buying SIM cards in every country I visit (which is time consuming, can be expensive, and must be repeated every time I go back, since the SIM cards and the credit on them tend to expire after a month or two if they aren't used).

If you find something better that works for you, please leave a note in the comments.

Note for using it outside of the Toggle free 20 countries

People on the forums report that you need to use the UK Toggle number for incoming calls when in the 16 countries where incoming Toggle calls have a connection fee (but are otherwise free). Be careful, or you could get a nasty bill.

Potential for improving this setup

This scheme would be much, much easier if I could get rid of localphone, and have a Toggle permanent US number, rather than a permanent Denmark number. This would save me the $0.99 I pay per month for the Localphone US number each month, which is only used to forward calls to the Toggle denmark number.

I'll keep my eyes on the forums. If Toggle's US numbers prove to be stable, I may ditch the Denmark number, and cancel my Localphone account.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Easy living in Seville

Now that the jet lag is finally lifting, I'm slowly settling into the Sevilla life.

First things first, before I arrived, I placed an order for a SIM card from Simyo, which charged 3.95, and included 5 euros credit. I plugged this SIM into my 3G modem (purchased in Malaysia back in December), and without any hassle, I'm instantly able to access Internet anywhere in the city. Prepaid, no contract, coming in at roughly 1 euro per day for a max of 100 megabytes. Since WiFi is mostly locked down here by default, this has been a lifesaver.

Next -- transport. Sevilla has a free municipal bike system. You pay 10 euros per year for a resident's card (which my mother has done), and then can pick up a bike from one of a huge number of pickup/dropoff spots around the city. The first 30 minutes is free, after which there is a modest charge. However, if your 30 mins is coming up, you can quickly return the bike, and then check out another one. So far, it has been pretty good, although there does seem to be a fairly high percentage of malfunctioning bikes.

As a result, I've been able to wake up at 8AM, jump on the bike, ride a couple miles down the road to the river, and then grab a coffee in one of the more alternative (well, formerly artistic and now thoroughly yuppified) areas of town. As I write this, I'm enjoying breakfast, editing a research paper, and starting my day in style.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008


I've often dreamed about finishing my PhD from a developing world paradise -- an Indian mountain top, or a tropical beach. However, there is always the fear that once I get there, I'll slack off. Since all of my leisure travel up until now has involved sitting in hammocks, reading books, and relaxing, this is a very reasonable fear.

I spent 8 days on an island last week, with no Internet, no phone, no one else but 3-4 staffmembers, most of whom spoke no English. There was electricity for 5 hours a day, in the evenings..

In that time, I managed to read 5 books, and write the better part of 4 research papers. Sure, they've been in my head for a while, but I was amazed at the rate at which I was able to put stuff down onto page (or in this case, into my laptop).

I go back to the beach tonight, and my hope is that I can finish all the papers off.

This sort of thing gives me confidence that I really can trust myself, and that if I wanted to jump on a plane at some point in the future for a few months, that it wouldn't destroy my productivity.

Cool, eh?

Back to the Islands

Within hours after arriving here in Gorontalo, my buddy Mike called to tell me that he was on the Togean Islands... Which meant I had wasted time, money, and a 12 hour boat trip to come back here to find him. Sigh.

That meant I'd have to wait 3 more days before I could go back to the islands.. and this time, it'd be on a horrible wooden boat -- with a cabin shared with 3 other people. No private cabin, no A/C, no life rafts. Eeek.

Tonight at 10PM, we catch the boat. I'm sharing a cabin with a few other foreigners. I've bought 3 bottles of bootleg arrak (the local strong spirit), which I've hidden in my bag. I've also purchased about $16 in fireworks (mainly rockets), which I'll be getting other people to let off (I'm not crazy ... I don't want to lose a limb 12 hours from the nearest hospital).

By Thursday morning, I should have found Mike. Hopefully. and then I can relax again.

If anyone needs to reach me, I may or may not have phone access, depending on which island I'm staying on. I expect to be away from reception for at least two weeks.. but plans could change.

The best way to reach me is via SMS. +62 85823042433

Happy Newyear

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Rising above the unwashed masses

The search for paradise creates strange incentives. While at times, in a land where no one speaks your language, it can be a wonderful sight to spot another foreigner -- someone to converse with, to play a game of chess, or to exchange a book.

However, when scarce resources become involved, the foreigner becomes your enemy.

Case in point, the night ferry from the Togean islands back to Gorontalo last night. There were around 15-20 foreigners on the boat, and only 4 nice cabins with A/C, electricity. Every foreigner on that boat was a threat to my abilit to get a cabin.

However, I was in luck, because I don't play fair.

Before heading off to catch the ferry, I had a chat with Lani, one of the friendly dive-instructors at the Black Marlin -- the same company whose agent in Gorontalo had reserved me a cabin the previous week.

Lani called his buddy, and asked to reserve a room for me.

Hours later, I met his buddy -- Ali, an english speaking gangster, with tattoos, needle marks, and a really friendly personality. He looked a bit like Vinny Jones, and we chatted for quite a bit of time. It seems that Ali knows -everyone- in town, and if anyone needs any business done, it usually happens through him. Not someone you want as your enemy, but a perfect person to have in your side of the ring.

Thus, when the boat docked, and the foreigners, indonesians, and goats all pushed and shoved their way to get onboard, I stood patiently on the dock.. Minutes later, once the crowd had cleared, Ali strolled off, handed me my key, and I was done.

No other foreigners managed to obtain a cabin on that boat -- it was packed to the gills with 2 local football teams.

I did at one point head downstairs to the economy class seats -- a sweaty, stinky den, melding the scents of urine, sweat and tobacco smoke. It made me glad, almost euphoric that I had managed to use my connections to get a cabin.

And thus, when I catch the boat _back_ to the islands on Wednesday, a crappy boat without A/C cabins, I'm going to experience something far closer to that economy class experience.

All because of you Mike, all because of you.

Soiled sheets

Cockroaches get everywhere.

On the tiny island where I stayed, I met a Swiss couple who had been there for a few nights. It seemed that somehow, cockroaches had made it into their bed, in spite of the mosquito net tucked under the corners of the bed. They reported waking up to finding a cockroach hanging out on the, er, wet spot of their bed.

Another couple I met on the boat reported the same thing. It seems that cockroaches are attracted to the proteins left over from sex.

Score 1 for me, I assumed -- I'm by myself, no ladies in sight, and so that should mean that the cockroaches will leave me alone, right. The swiss had been staying in a fancy $20 per night hut, while I had opted for a cheaper $15 a night room. I took some rather perverse pleasure in the idea that they were paying more money than me, yet had to share their bed with cockroaches, while I was free of the little beasties.

Unfortunately, I was wrong.

You see, my sheets were also soiled -- I just didn't know it. Each night, after the electricity got cut, tiny insects would descend upon my bed -- little creatures that were small enough to get through the holes in the net. They weren't mosquitoes thank goodness, but they still buzzed around me, landed on my body, and did their best to suck my blood.

Thus, For an hour or two every evening, before falling asleep, I'd spend my time, in a semi-panicked state, hopelessly swatting at the unseen creatures, occasionally scoring a hit, and smooshing a dead insect that had lingered for a moment too long on my leg or stomach.

After a few nights of this, my sheets had become a mass graveyard for dead insects -- mostly black stains, with a bit of red here and there, every time I'd hit one of the guys that had been sucking on me for a bit.

And thus, on my last night in the room, I woke up to see a cockroach at the foot of my bed -- not nestling in human proteins, but milling around the collected corpses of dead insects.

Ick ick ick.

The clusterfuck

I've just returned from the Togean Islands. It was paradise, I was happy, I had snorkled every day, read 5 books, written the better part of 4 research papers... but my friend Mike had yet to arrive.

He flew into Jakarta on Tuesday, and was supposed to meet me in the Togeans on Thursday morning... if he missed the Wednesday night boat, there was always the Friday night boat, getting on Saturday morning.

By Sunday, he hadn't shown up, and I was getting worried. The poor boy had spent several thousand dollars for airplane tickets, had never been off doing the backpacking thing before, and English isn't that well spoken. In many ways, he is my responsibility.

So, on Sunday, I catch a 7AM boat from my tiny island to the main island of Wakai, then pay some fisherman to take me to the main backpacker beach, which has the Black Marlin Dive Resort... a hub of backpacker activity, beer drinking, beach parties, and people in the know... They hadn't seen Mike either.

So... that night, I boarded a 12 hour night boat, back to Gorontalo, so that I could get telephone/Internet access, and figure out where the hell Mike was...

I get here today -- no emails from him, no text messages waiting for me on my phone. I email him, repeatedly, I email his parents... I contact a few hotels in Jakarta to see if he showed up there.

3 hours later, Mike calls me from the Black Marlin in Togean, to tell me he's been at the islands for the last four days, and arrived at the Black Marlin this afternoon.


So now, I'm stuck in Gorontalo, a sleepy little town with nothing to do, until Wednesday night, when a very unpleasant and crappy boat will depart for the 11 hour trip back to the Togean Islands. Instead of the nice and safe ferry (with a VIP cabin, with A/C and electricity) that I had last night, I'll be taking a rickety wooden boat, with no life rafts in case of an emergency.


So, 2 days of email/Internet/blogging, and then back to the islands.