Category Archives: Travel

Roaming an iPhone on Data Only

Since 3 relaunched their free roaming Feel at Home scheme we’ve been a little spoilt when traveling – we went on a trip to the USA and used our iPhones pretty much as we would do in the UK. It was therefore a bit of a shock when at short notice we had to do a trip to Canada, and we took a look at the roaming costs over the border… Calls across the board are £1.40 a minute, and data, for which I have unlimited in the UK is £6 per MB – definitely not a Feel at Home destination…

In the past we’ve got hold of a local SIM for Canada. HolidayPhone do a Canadian SIM card but they’re not cheap, and they wouldn’t be delivered in time for our trip. Canadian company Similicious have better prices, but on a short notice trip they also wouldn’t be able to get the SIM card to us in time, as international shipping would be about fourteen days.

The other option was to get an international SIM, but looking through the options they’re all primarily focused on voice calls and texts, you can get an international SIM with data, but that adds to the cost even more.  However looking at what we use day by day, the vast majority of the use we now make of our phone is data, not calls. Our phones are essentially handheld computers that just happen to make calls. Quite often we’re communicating through chat apps like Google Hangouts or Facebook Messenger. On the ground in Canada apps like Citymapper and Uber would be essential for getting around. If we wanted to make voice calls we had FaceTime and FaceTime Audio to talk to other iPhone users, and apps like Skype can also be used to call conventional phone numbers for fairly minimal costs. So it seemed like we could get by with a data only SIM – so would those be any cheaper.

Having a search around I came across the Love2Surf card on next day delivery with Amazon. It comes pre-loaded with 100Mb of data, and has a website that allows you to add more, so we thought we’d give it a go.

In the UK the card runs on the EE network, so we swapped out the normal 3 SIM before leaving for the airport, and were able to give it a test run whilst still in the UK. On arrival in Canada it hooked up to the Rogers network and it quite happily made a FaceTime call from the baggage claim hall.

The main issue we had on the trip was a hiccup when we added data to the card part way through, which was a technical issue at the Love2Surf end, that left us with the card unable to connect to any network for a few hours, but it came back and we were able to carry on. There were a couple of occasions when we forgot we couldn’t make voice calls, but you’re not going to end up with a big bill from doing so as the card is only authorised to roam data. All in all it seemed like the little bit of convenience was worth it for the cost saving.

Comparing the prices for Canada if you’ve got enough notice it won’t beat the cost of a local SIM from Similicious but if you’re visiting multiple countries touring around the Love2Surf card is certainly cheaper than buying a local SIM for each country.

A universal plug socket… at last?

Three pins. Two pins. Slanting pins. Straight. Circular.

In a world where there is no global standard for plug design, taking electrical items abroad can be fraught with difficulties. But now a solution may be at hand – and already in use in China.

via BBC News – A universal plug socket… at last?.

So it seems one of the problems we left the Chinese in 1999 was Hong Kong having the British three pin plugs, and rather than change the colony they seem to be rolling out a new multi-standard plug. What the article doesn’t mention of course is that it’s not just different physical plugs, in North America the voltage is different also, now if they have a plug socket that deals with that problem, that would be really interesting.

Garmin or TomTom

I guess I was an early adopter of satellite navigation. Over ten years ago I had a navigation package from TomTom (or Palmtop as they were then called) installed on my Psion 5mx and through a complicated series of cables hooked it up to a Garmin eTrex and powered the whole thing in the car. It wasn’t bad, but it was a bit clunky, had no voice instructions, took an age to recalculate if you went off route, and had a number of mapping errors – Micheldever Station was marked on a railway bridge half a mile from the station for example.

From there I progressed onto stand alone units, sticking with Garmin as my handheld GPS units were Garmin’s and could share desktop software and maps. Currently I’m running a Garmin Nuvi with full maps of both Europe and North America and an FM traffic receiver, and that has served us fine.

Last week it turned out that both Beth and myself needed the satnav as both of us were going to be going to unfamiliar places. Obviously we didn’t need a second satnav, but since my iPhone has a nice little GPS on it I thought I’d take a look at the options. Conveniently PCPro have just done a group test of satnav applications, and TomTom came out top of the pile. Since one of my biggest bugbears with the Garmin Nuvi is the fact that the FM traffic often reports traffic jams when it’s too late to avoid them and I’d heard good things about the TomTom Live Traffic service I thought I’d go for the TomTom application despite it being one of the premium priced satnav products in the app store.

First off, it is a nice little app, slightly confusing to navigate around until you get used to it, but fine on the road. The Live Traffic service is impressive, and indicated traffic pretty consistently, and the routing based on actual road speeds certainly allowed it to pick routes which matched much more closely with short cuts I knew about rather than the more obvious routes the Garmin would take.

However there is a really big problem, even ten years later, there are still problems with the TomTom maps. Whilst Micheldever Station is now in the right place, other things aren’t. For example a local petrol station whilst close to the right spot is the wrong side of a road junction, speed limits are wrong, and whereas my Garmin will guide me right to my front door, even saying on which side of the street it is the TomTom app can only manage to get me to the street.

There are more serious problems too. We live adjacent to a military base, and whilst there are roads that go across, they are closed with security guards on the gates – the TomTom map doesn’t reflect this. The map is also just plain wrong in places, a major example being around the Atrium in Camberley.

Below are three screenshots from my iPhone. The left hand one is from the Maps application showing an up to date satellite picture of Southern Road down the side of the Atrium. The second shot is from TomTom, the only app of the three that costs any money. The third is from Waze, the community navigation app that is a free download.

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Looking at it you’ll see that the TomTom version is very inaccurate. It incorrectly shows Southern Road running all the way to Southwell Park Road, and running all the way to the A30 at the other end – it doesn’t. Instead it is blocked at both ends with an access road a short way down. There is also an entire roundabout missing which in the TomTom version is replaced by a pair of junctions. Whilst the Atrium is pretty new, it’s been built for a number of years, and the road layout TomTom has doesn’t bear much relation to what is there now, nor to what was removed when the Atrium was built. The third screen shot shows the layout according to Waze which is correct, and the layout is also correct on my Garmin Nuvi.

It is fair to say I’m not impressed. TomTom, much like Waze has the ability to report map errors, but with Waze I’m not paying a premium price. Garmin have up to date maps, is it too much to expect that TomTom could do the same? Suffice to say my experience with TomTom is not going to have me switching. Whilst I am impressed with the Live Traffic it is pretty fundamental to have accurate maps, having found a number of errors locally where I know the area, how can I have the confidence travelling in a strange area that the TomTom is correct?

Over the Sea to Skye

Once upon a time there were three ferry routes to Skye. The ferry from Kyle of Lochalsh, which has now been superseded by the Skye Bridge, and the longer ferry route from Mallaig exist largely thanks to the railways – the ferry route from Glenelg is a bit different – and much, much older.

Glenelg sits across a stretch of water called the Kyle Rhea narrows, the narrowest stretch of sea between Skye and the mainland, historically it was the point where routinely cattle raised on the island were made to swim across to be herded to market, it is also from here that Dr Samuel Johnson made his crossing in 1773. This was once the main route to the island. Now on both sides of the narrows the approach is via minor roads, much of it single track with passing places, and with the proximity of the bridge and the main A87 road why would anyone want to take the diversion over the Bealach pass to catch the ferry any more?

Now I have to say that the A87 is a great road, whilst you do get the odd speed freak and plenty of caravans, the road is wide enough and with enough clear stretches to make passing the caravans straightforward and give the speed freaks the chance to pass without too much tailgating. It’s certainly got some spectacular scenery along the stretch you’d miss taking the ferry, and the bridge is quite a spectacular engineering feat in itself, but it certainly isn’t quite the same experience as taking the ferry. If you’ve got the time to spend, I can recommend taking a ride on the now community owned Glenelg ferry.

Unlike the bigger ships running the route from Mallaig, the community are running the route from Glenelg with the last manually operated turntable ferry in Scotland, now forty years old. The service runs as required, and amazingly is operated by only two people, even turning the turntable itself with up to six cars on board. The crossing takes barely five minutes, but especially if you’ve just driven the long drive up from the lowlands there is a chance to pause and take in the quiet and stunning scenery before boarding.

On our last trip up to Skye I took the opportunity to film our whole crossing – watch out for a curious seal who pops out of the water as the ferry nears it’s destination.

So there you have it, it certainly isn’t the fastest way to Skye, but it is a much more memorable way to start your time on Skye and along with that you’ll be helping to keep a little bit of the history of the area alive.

Ghost Town

On the way to visit Beth’s parents, the last township we pass through is Atlee, Alberta. As you can see from the wikipedia entry, it officially has a population of 28, but I’m guessing that is a bit optimistic. This is a video we shot a couple of years ago – we drive through Atlee about a forty seconds in, and then cross the track bed of the old railroad before continuing on towards the ranch.

Canadian Gravel from Richard Peat on Vimeo.


As you can see, there really isn’t much there. There is even less now.

A few weeks back, Beth’s parents headed off for some winter sun in Hawaii, and when they returned, the one remaining building, the old schoolhouse was gone, burnt to the ground, apparently by the local authority because the building was considered dangerous.

As anyone who looks at my Flickr photostream will know, I have taken lots of pictures of the building over the years – despite being pretty exposed and windy up on the prairie, and getting increasingly dilapidated, it has withstood the worst that Alberta could throw at it. The dilapidation, combined with the prominent location (you could quite literally see the building from miles away down the road) and the fantastic skies out there made for some fantastic pictures.

Perhaps because Atlee is a bit out of the way, it has survived where many other of the one room schoolhouses have now gone. Whilst I’ve seen a lot of signs marking the locations of the old schoolhouses on our travels around the province, this is perhaps the only one I’ve seen that was still standing in situ – indeed when you looked inside it was very much as if the teacher and children had just moved out – the blackboard was still on the wall, and the frame for the swings in the grounds still stood, along with the outhouse. True, it’s location probably isn’t suitable for any kind of tourist spot, but as a piece of Alberta history, it was probably one of the last relics of how the people of the prairie used to live.

In it’s heyday, Atlee was one of a number of townships, regularly spaced along the railroad line – next along is Buffalo, then Cavendish (note the alphabetic naming too). The local farmers would bring their produce to the railroad line where it would be shipped, and the township had a school for the local children. As the roads and transport has improved, the need for frequent townships grew less. So Beth went to school at the one room schoolhouse in Buffalo – that building too has long since gone, moved to provide extra classroom space elsewhere. Grain and produce can now be shipped by truck, so the railroad line has gone. People can drive to the post office, so Beth’s parents go to Jenner for to collect the mail, and their postal address is Jenner. The only place the Atlee name is still used is by the oil companies, and for a communications mast that stands nearby, and now the last building is gone.

Certainly it is going to be strange next time we head out that way, not having the old schoolhouse marking the way. Atlee really is now just a dot on the map…