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When it comes to using technology, a little preparation can go a long way — unless you’re literally going a long way. Then you have to think long and hard about how to use your cell phone, laptop or BlackBerry. That’s the lesson I learned on a recent trip to Peru. I thought I had done my due diligence, checking my wireless provider’s Web site to make sure my phone would work on the local network (it would), finding out the international roaming charges ($2.89 per minute — ouch), and coming up with a plan to avoid those fees. I’d been to Peru before and knew that I could buy a $5 phone card that would give me hours of talk time from any land line. It’s not as convenient as a cell phone, but a whole lot cheaper. Unfortunately, I overlooked a crucial detail: I was staying somewhere new on this trip, a beach that had all the breathtaking sunsets you’d want — and none of the land lines you’d need. Getting to one meant biking down a long, unpaved trail to the nearest shopping center. Meanwhile, back at the beach, my wife, faced with a sudden work emergency, spoke for hours on her BlackBerry. I’m not sure what her roaming charges will be, but she’ll probably need a federal bailout package to cover them. Yet here’s the real irony: The beach where we stayed was full of free WiFi hotspots, and we could have made tons of cheap voice-over-IP (VoIP) calls back to the U.S. — had we brought along the right gear. Like other travelers who have been burned by the nuances — and business models — of using technology abroad, I picked up some handy, if tardy, tips. Together, these can decrease unpleasant surprises — while increasing productivity. IF YOU’RE NOT USING YOUR PHONE, TURN IT OFF It seems a no-brainer: Don’t talk on the phone, and you won’t pay roaming charges. If only it were that simple. What most users don’t realize is that every call that goes to voicemail while the phone is on runs the meter on those hefty international fees (and with many handsets now doubling as PDAs and media players, it’s all too easy to leave the phone on). Keep it off, however, and those same voicemail messages cost nothing. Of course, at some point, you’ll want to check your messages, but you can save money here, too, by using a service like YouMail (it’s free). While you’re away, calls you don’t answer get forwarded to YouMail, which takes the message and lets you access it via the Web or a dial-in number you can reach from any phone. TURN THE BLACKBERRY OFF ON THE PLANE (AND NOT BECAUSE THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT SAYS SO) Frequent fliers know that the plane won’t really fall from the sky if they leave their BlackBerry on while in flight. So they may be lax about shutting it off. That can cause problems — not for the navigation computers, but for your inbox. “If you leave it on, you can go a long time after you land without getting your messages,” says David Gregson, chief information officer at the law firm Kilpatrick Stockton. “That’s because the local network isn’t looking for the device, so it doesn’t get registered. But if it’s off and you turn it on upon arrival, the BlackBerry will send out a signal, saying, “Here I am.” It gets recognized by the new network. And you get your messages.” DON’T SURF FROM A PHONE While it’s true that checking short e-mails on a BlackBerry won’t break the bank while you’re overseas, the story is far different when it comes to Web browsing. Much more data has to pass across the network, particularly on graphics-intensive sites, and you’ll be paying-and paying-for that. You’ll rack up the fees even faster if you use any GPS-type features on your device. “This is where people really get killed,” says Gregson. So if you need to find a restaurant for dinner, do it the old-fashioned way: Ask someone (just not over your cell phone). LET VoIP FILL THE VOID The days of “you get what you pay for” VoIP — low-cost but low-quality calls — are (mostly) over. Via a good Internet connection, VoIP calls rival, and often surpass, cell phone conversations. And with WiFi hotspots popping up faster than failed banks, it’s easier than ever to log on and call. Better yet, you don’t have to lug your laptop. Skype — perhaps the best-known VoIP service, with calls to the United States costing some 2 cents per minute — can be installed on Windows Mobile devices, as well as Nokia’s N800 and N810 Internet devices. You can even buy pocket-size Wi-Fi phones from vendors like Belkin and Netgear, preloaded with Skype software, though these devices can be pricey (at around $150) and have received mixed marks from early users. VoIP is also available on Apple’s iPhone and iPod touch, via an application called Truphone (available at Apple’s App Store). Calls cost a bit more than on Skype, but are still measured in single-digit cents-per-minute. IF YOU PLAN TO MAKE LOCAL CALLS AT YOUR DESTINATION, ASK YOUR CARRIER TO “UNLOCK” YOUR PHONE Phones that work on networks based on GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) technology — in the U.S., that’s AT&T and T-Mobile — have small chips, called SIM cards, that contain subscriber information that controls use of the phone. In theory, by replacing a U.S. provider’s SIM card with a foreign provider’s, you can make your handset act like a local phone — and pay the same rates the natives do when making calls within that country (you may not pay at all for incoming calls, since in many countries, local providers don’t charge for those). You’ll have to use a new phone number, which won’t be to every user’s liking, but the bigger catch is that U.S. carriers “lock” their phones so you can’t use another provider’s SIM card. That said, U.S. carriers have been known to “unlock” phones for some — but not all – who ask, typically customers in good standing who have been under contract for a while. Success can depend on whom you get on the customer service line, so if this option is appealing, keep calling until you land a sympathetic ear. KEEP YOUR LAPTOP CLOSE — AND YOUR DATA CLOSER Losing a four-year-old Dell may not be the end of the world, but losing the four years of data on it will sure seem so. Compounding the problem: Many of us now use a laptop as our primary machine, which means that everything is on it. If your machine is loaded with stuff that shouldn’t go AWOL, one idea is to remove everything that isn’t essential for your trip — once you’ve backed it all up, preferably in a couple of safe places. In some cases it may make more sense to leave the laptop home and put the files you’ll need on a flash drive that can be plugged into a computer at your destination. You won’t want to do this with confidential data — there’s too much risk you’ll accidentally leave it on the borrowed machine — but it’s a good strategy when you’re giving a presentation (so long as it’s not a top-secret one). ENCRYPT YOUR HARD DRIVE Requiring a password before users can access your desktop is a great way to keep the kids from accessing your e-mail, but it works less well with tech-savvy data thieves. They’ll simply take the hard disk out of your laptop and plug it into another machine, at which point accessing your data is simple. By encrypting the hard disk itself, you’ll keep them guessing-and the data safe. KEEP YOUR LAPTOP CHARGED When you’re traveling abroad, it’s not just airport security that can ask you to turn on your laptop. Customs officials can ask, too, and they may even want to see your files. That may not seem fair, but, hey, it’s their country. What will seem even less fair is when your uncharged laptop doesn’t turn on (don’t count on nearby power outlets) and the local officials confiscate it. “You’re supposed to get it back,” says David Useloff, an independent technology consultant in Framingham, Massachusetts. “But it doesn’t always work that way.” Follow these rules, and you’ll keep the grief — and the charges — down. My next trip, the only things I plan to be burned by are exchange rates, overweight luggage fees and the hotel minibar. Alan Cohen is a New York-based writer who reports on technology and the law.

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