How To Travel The World (Without Unplugging)

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TechOnTheRoad_slide03Photo: Courtesy of Arikia Millikan.
I spent the past year traveling around the world. I circumnavigated this pale blue dot from west to east — literally from L.A. to Tokyo — visiting 62 cities in 19 countries, by myself, with two suitcases and a laptop bag. I’m really not that fancy, though. In fact, anyone could do what I did. You don’t need a hot-air balloon or a rockstar budget — just the Internet and big case of wanderlust.

Now that I’m back in New York, everyone has been asking me how I did it. In the moment, I just did what came naturally to me, but in retrospect, there were a lot of practical details I figured out along the way that I wish I would have known before embarking on my journey. The world is almost 25,000 miles around and, if you travel somewhat aimlessly, like I did, you won’t be going in a straight line. Here are a few of the techy tricks and Jedi mind flips that got me over the Atlantic and back home again.
TechOnTheRoad_slide02Photo: Courtesy of Arikia Millikan.
Flip Your Pad
Chances are, your biggest monthly expense is rent. But, if you’re going to leave your ordinary life behind for the open road and are on a budget, the first expense to cut is the dwelling space you won’t be using, so find someone to rent your spot. In the era of AirBnB, this has never been easier. I created an active listing on AirBnB to showcase my apartment, but marked it as unavailable for rental. Then, I posted the listing to my Facebook page along with my desired rental duration (one full year). Within days, I’d found a reliable acquaintance to sign a sublease agreement and provide a two-month deposit. While abroad, I used Venmo to collect rent from my tenant, cashed out to my bank account, and paid my landlord electronically every month.

Set Up Your Finances
Visa and Mastercard are accepted in almost every country (American Express, not so much) and ATMs are plentiful. But, there are a few financial obstacles that can trip you up. The first is ATM fees. Larger banks like Chase or Bank of America will often charge a foreign transaction fee up to 4%, and a hefty ATM fee in addition to whatever the machine collects. To minimize this, I got a PayPal debit card, which only charges up to $1.50 in ATM fees and a 1% transaction fee. One way to go fee-free is to apply for a Charles Schwab investor debit card, which refunds any foreign ATM fees and has no foreign exchange transaction fees. Some local credit unions also have this option.

Ditch Your Telecom Company
If you’re not on a month-to-month payment plan with your telecom company (which I recommend), put your contract on hold or terminate it completely. Then, get an unlocked Android smartphone or unlock your current one. Almost every country will have several local service providers that offer a usage-based or monthly plan with prices that correspond to the exchange rates of the local currency and living wages. So, guess what? In the U.S., you’re paying way more for slower Internet speeds than basically anywhere else in the world.

Learn To Trust The Internet
I have no idea how humanity made it out of Africa without Google Maps and TripAdvisor, but these things definitely make traveling a lot more convenient in the present day. Wherever you touch down, make it your first order of business to locate Wi-Fi and map your location relative to your destination. The next steps will fall into place. Internet is “Internet” in every language, computer is “computer,” and Wi-Fi only varies slightly to the European “Wee Fee,” so don’t be shy about asking for what you need most. If you don’t know how, pre-load Google Translate with your questions and simply ask a helpful soul to read the screen to forge language barriers.

Get Connected
I always made my first day’s activity getting set up with mobile Internet, which gave purpose to my exploration and allowed me to warm up to the language and the area without having to wander aimlessly. Many foreign telecom companies have plans just for travelers which include a SIM and a month’s worth of service for some low price (about $20 in Europe). Just be aware that Internet usage usually isn’t “unlimited,” so disable your bandwidth-hogging phone apps like Skype, and toggle others like Spotify into offline mode to reduce usage. If you’re not sure what apps are doing the bulk of the streaming, get in the habit of turning your phone to airplane mode when you don’t need it — possibly the only practical use of that setting.
TechOnTheRoad_slide01Photo: Courtesy of Arikia Millikan.
Ask For What You Need
Nothing compares to a recommendation from someone who knows your tastes. Once you have your destination set, enter the city into the Facebook’s search bar. It will return a list of your connections who either live there currently or have traveled there in the past. You now have a direct, instant path to the best, free travel advice you would ever hope to find: your friends. If you’re lucky, your worldly friends may even be able to offer you a place to rest your head or introduce you to their local friends who are willing to host you. If you want to really test the limits of people’s goodwill, turn to Twitter and send your request into the ether — you may be surprised with what the hivemind provides.

Find Your Homes Away From Home
I stayed with friends and friends-of-friends for about 75% of my journey. Most of these connections came from Facebook and Twitter, but another trick if you’ve cast several lines and aren’t getting bites is to use the AirBnB Facebook integration feature to help you find friends-of-friends abroad. Just log in, filter by city and mutual friends, and find cool places you want to rent. Then, instead of booking through the site and letting them take a huge cut of the rent, ask your mutual friend for an introduction on Facebook. Often they’ll cut out the middle man and offer their digs at a lower price than the listing since you have a trusted mutual friend. Failing that, the Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor websites are great for honing in on highly rated guest houses and hostels for the best value.

Fly Cheaply
My greatest expenses this past year were my plane tickets across the Atlantic and Pacific. But, once on Eurasia, I was introduced to the world of non-U.S. airlines where flight cost actually corresponds to distance traveled. You don’t need to know what each country’s cheapo airlines are, either — just use my handy go-tos: Hipmunk and SkyScanner, which will scour most of the local airlines for the best deals. SkyScanner has better listings than Hipmunk in Europe but Hipmunk will still return some cheap flights and give you an idea of which airlines to search more specifically. The cheaper airlines (such as EasyJet and RyanAir in Europe), do make up their costs in luggage fees, which aren’t factored into the base rates of flight search sites, so be sure to check the baggage allotments of the individual airlines before you purchase through a third-party site. And, if your intended trajectory is as aimless as mine was, check out Kayak’s Explore option which shows you the cheapest flights to various places from wherever you are if your travel dates are flexible.

Public Transportation Is Your Friend
A wise man once said “the journey is the destination,” so turn every bus ride into an adventure. If you don’t speak the language and are worried you may wind up at an unintended destination, remember that regardless of if you have 3G service, the GPS on Google Maps will still function to let you know your position on the map. I got in the habit of putting stars on destinations of interest before I left for the day to have a general idea of where I wanted to go — and how to get back.

The World Is Your Office
In so many of the most beautiful and remote corners of the world, Wi-Fi is available freely in restaurants and and as a convenience for customers and to keep their POS systems alive for credit card transfers. Do not resort to Starbucks or McDonald’s for Wi-Fi on the go — I never stepped foot in one while abroad despite the apparent convenience. Instead, I went where I wanted most to be, and traded my business for Wi-Fi. This worked everywhere from the swankiest of hotels in Dubai to the tiniest of beach bars in Thailand. If you’re not sure if a place has WiFi or not, go in and sit down near an outlet if you can find one. Look around and browse the menu. When the waiter comes to take your order, ask if they have Wi-Fi. If not, get up and go! This is 2014 and you have needs.

Bon Voyage! (And, remember to pack an extra charger.)

Tech Journalist Arikia Millikan — who founded the LadyBits collective in 2013 — has contributed everywhere from Wired to Gizmodo to Vice. So, it's only appropriate that the self-described feminist cyborg has helped launch The Techtress. Here, she's the lady you turn to for smart, personal tech support — whether you're gadget-savvy or not.