Thursday, November 17, 2016

Traveling with DATA

Traveling, backpacking, and wandering the world today is markedly different, with the Internet inevitably an integral part. And even travel with the Internet has changed quite abit over the years, from the visits to internet cafes, to the widespread availability of Wifi, and then now the widespread availability (and general affordability) of mobile data SIM cards.

These data SIM cards have eased travel quite abit, with the use of Goggle maps and booking of accommodation and tickets on-the-go etc. More importantly for me, it has eased the communications with couchsurfing/airbnb hosts and hostels/guesthouses etc. However, on long trips through multiple countries, sometimes it may not be practical nor cost-effective to get multiple SIM cards. And the data roaming solutions currently are not exactly cheap.

Recently, I came across something on my preparation for a 3-month trip to Europe and South America. It's a "virtual" SIM data-roaming solution from Flexiroam called FlexiroamX. It is an ultra-thin microchip film that you apply onto your own SIM card, and together with an app which you can download from their website, it will provide data roaming to over 100 countries!

I contacted Flexiroam and received a review set. Indeed, the X Microchip (that's what they call it) is literally a sticker that comes with an applicator that help you to stick it onto your SIM card. It is just 0.08mm thin, and so after sticking it on, my nano-SIM could still slot into my iPhone. It was quite amazing that a chip is made into so thin. It works on all sized SIMs though in their FAQ, they state that it will not work on those nano-SIM that has been "cut" from micro/regular SIM. The whole process is simple and to see how the microchip sticker looks like, you can see it in their tutorial on their website which I embed below. Photos I took were left on my home computer, forgetful me!


I am now one month into my trip and I find their solution perfect and most cost-effective for my uses. For a start, I am not a data-hungry user/traveler. I also don't require myself to be always connected. As it turns out, this is not exactly a "always-on" solution. Basically, to use the virtual SIM, you need to switch to it via the app. Once you switched to the FlexiroamX SIM, your own SIM becomes dormant, so you will not be able to receive SMS etc. You can switch between the SIMs anytime you want. This is different from phones with dual SIM slots where you can use voice/sms on your own SIM and data on the other SIM slot.

For me, I use Wifi in my accommodations or cafes/restaurants whenever I have access to them. The FlexiroamX SIM is switched to only for those times when I need data and there's no wifi. As I'm an avid travel instagrammer, there are times where a scene is screaming to be shared immediately and I'm glad I have roaming data! ;).


This solution was especially useful for iPhone users like me, since (sadly) iPhone do not come with dual SIM slots. So previously, when I do get a local country data SIM, I had to put my home SIM in a spare phone or physically switch SIM when needed!

As mentioned previously, this solution was perfect and cost-effective for me but not just because of the single SIM slot limitation. Generally, the best value data SIM is one from an operator from that country. However, when traveling to multiple countries in a single trip, getting multiple SIM cards is not just a hassle, but probably not cost-effective as well. So when I went from Ireland to Portugal etc, I am "data-covered" without having to look for new SIM cards or physically swapping cards. You need to subscribe to their membership before using the data but the subscription last for a year, so again, perfect for long trippers like me... :p. Well, even if you don't go multiple countries in a trip but frequently travel to many countries, it's still valid. For the past 3+ weeks in Europe, I've only used 200+Mb of data. Even if my trip ends now, my remaining data is still valid for my next trip! If I had gotten local SIM cards, most of them would be wasted.....

So for those who are in similar situation as me, check out FlexiroamX on how to get started.
In summary,
  • download their app (of course both IOS and Android supported) and register an account 
  • get their Starter Pack containing the X Microchip, which is free but you gotta pay for shipping (US$5) but I think you can get it in KL airport
  • stick on the microchip when you receive it
  • activate their membership subscription (US$9.99 for a year)
  • start using (switching to it) when you need it when you are overseas
More importantly, now they have some promotions to earn free data (700Mb worth!). Otherwise, you have to buy their data packs but free is always better :). In summary,
  • when you register an account with them, you get 100Mb data
  • if you use my referral code 3DR23XRY, you (and me) get 100Mb of data 
  • Use this code 'SAVEONROAMING' in the app (valid till end of year) to get 500Mb of data. This is obtained from their blog post here.
You can monitor their blog or Facebook page for more promotions and codes (I've done one for you). You can also earn yourself more data by using your own referral code of course. And remember their membership last a year, so after earning the free data, activate the membership closer to your trip date to maximize the membership!

Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Discount Codes with ShopBack

It's the year end, and as usual, I was scouring the Net looking for cheap airfares and the such. Ok, to be honest, I do that all-year-round :p. One of the most common questions I get asked is, which websites do I use for booking my airfares and accommodations?

My default stop for searching for airfares is at Expedia. Oftentimes, where available, I would book directly with the airlines website itself. For accommodations, I would go to Hostelbookers or Hostelworld for booking hostels, and either Agoda or Booking.com for mostly everything else, though recently, AirBnB seems to be coming on strong.

Recently, I found a rebate website called ShopBack. Basically, you do your online shopping via direct referals from the website and you get cash rebates! The rebates is a small percentage but they have hundreds of merchant site partnerships, so they do accumulate if you do alot of online shopping, and needless to say, you can find travel sales and promotions with ShopBack too! And guess what? The sites that I used are represented!

Not only that, they may do specific partnership with the merchants that provide extra benefits (extra rebates etc), eg. you can find the very best of Expedia promo codes there and you can also use Booking.com discount codes and save. A lot of my friends use Hotels.com, so you can find Hotels.com discount codes now too. Just browse their list of merchants and you'll definitely find something you do use. I mean, ebay, taobao, lazada etc are all there too!!

You can see how ShopBack works in this video if you are still not sure :


Like I say, year-end and Christmas is coming and shopping is fully underway! Strangely, I do not see a Christmas specific promo but you can instead book your travels now at their Boxing Day sales. And if you do think this is useful and want to sign up and try, you can use my referal link here so that I can get some referal benefits ($5). You'll also get $5 for a new signup. Check it out!

Thursday, June 4, 2015

A Tuscan Escapade

I was really looking forward to Tuscany. Visiting the smaller villages, tasting the Tuscan cuisine, drinking Chianti wine, and of course, photographing the beautiful countryside.

But nobody told me that June 2 is a public holiday in Italy. And the small village I have booked my B&B is so off the main circuit that, well, on a public holiday, there are no buses going to it.

So the day before, I spent half a day in glorious Florence sorting out the logistics. I had to take a bus to a nearby town where my B&B host had arrange a 3rd-party private taxi. At the cost of almost another night stay :(

When I arrived at Fattoria Poggerino though, I was grinning. A beautiful traditional old stone house retrofitted to modern living. Perched atop a hill overlooking the Tuscan countryside laced with vineyards, the setting is just picture prefect. Poggerino is also a family run winery right in the heart of the Chianti Classico region. As a small family run business, they are very passionate about their land and what they do, and have adopted organic farming in their operations. So their wines, olive oils and vegetables are a testament to their beliefs.

My Bed & Breakfast!

First thing first though, I had to pickup my scooter in the village of Radda in Chianti 2km away. Traveling by public transport in Tuscany, while possible, is quite inflexible, as evident from my trouble in getting to Radda. So I had decided to rent a scooter for my 2-day stay in Radda in Chianti (and well, Poggerino is not exactly in the village and I had to somehow get there too). Touring Tuscany in a Vespa, is quite popular it seems. The scooter rental requires only a valid driving license, and I had a brief experience with a scooter in my travels in China some years back, so I thought why not? Unfortunately, the rental agency recommended another scooter model for beginners instead of the Vespa. Slightly disappointed, as the Italian Vespa is almost synonymous with the scooter, I had to make do with a Sym Mio.

It turns out the scooter rental guy is not based in Radda and had left the scooter and the paperwork to his friend, the sweet old lady in the tourist information centre in Radda in Chianti.

"How do I, erm, operate and check the scooter?" I asked somewhat apprehensively.

"I don't know... I am just helping out in the administration."

"Why don't you call Luca?" She replied in the most motherly manner.

So grasping her mobile which she kindly loaned me, I trudged to the parking lot, and went through the checking and operating procedures over the mobile.

"So you hold the brakes, and press the electric switch to turn on the scooter.... yada yada yada..." Luca droned over the phone.

Before long, I was heading back to Poggerino on the scooter.

The setting sun on the Tuscan countryside was fabulous, and I was glad I had the scooter with me. The freedom of exploration was intoxicating.

Chianti region

Chianti region

My scooter in the Tuscan countryside
***

I've been a fan of small family-run bed & breakfasts for a long time. I remember my first bed & breakfast in Canada many years back. Together with some friends, we had a self-drive holiday in the Candadian Rockies, and stayed in this B&B. The host asked if breakfast at 8am was fine with us. It was certainly fine and next morning, as the few of us struggled lazily to go to breakfast, we reached the dining table at 8.25am. To my horror, our hosts and all his guests were waiting at the table, smiling as we make our entrance. I was so embarassed. But it was a super cosy experience, and I was so impressed that the food on the table was grown in the garden. It left a deep impression.

Breakfast at Poggerino was different - buffet style with guests on their own table, but no less warm. Benedetta, owner and resident cook, was on hand to explain the spread, as each group of guests arrive. The homemade yogurt and granola made me sad - I now live with the knowledge that back in Singapore, I will be missing out so much goodness. The cherry tomotoes served with the omelette was flaming red and seemed to be bursting with freshness. The 4 different sweet pies begged to be tasted, but I've had my limits. It was a great breakfast and a fantastic start to the day.

Breakfast spread

My omelette

I am so looking forward to the dinner later that night.

***

The air sweeping past my face felt good as I scootered through the countryside. However, as I leave Radda in Chianti to go further afield, the traffic seemed quite abit heavier. The curvy roads in Chianti didn't help a newbie rider as well.It was beginning to be a little harrowing.

And all it takes is a momentary lapse of concentration.

I turned at the intersection catching a glimpse of a car at the corner of my vision a tad too late. A short screeching, a loud blaring of horn, and I wobbled and slowed to a stop by the side of the road. A car pulled over and I had an earful of French (I think) tirade. I was also somewhat dazed, and all I could say was just "Sorry" repeatedly. They left with something that sounded like "You lucky".

Indeed. I took a moment to compose myself before I moved on.

I decided not to go further, and had an early return. I felt lousy, relieved, stupid, and a whole lot of other feelings all vying to take control, but in the end, I just waited for the dinner.

Dawn from Poggerino, with the Tuscan moon not set yet

Dinner was more proper, with all guests being seated before being served. There was a Taiwanese family of four, me, and the rest were from France, Italy, Germany and Denmark, making a total of 15. Bernadetta was again on hand to explain what was being served. It was a simple 3-course meal, with the antipasto (starter) immediately winning my heart with its different bruschettes and a uniquely presented aubergine. The primo (first course) consists of gnocchi which was good but nothing spectacular. The dessert though, brought things back to "spectacular" levels. A thick aromatic expresso concluded the meal, though Bernadetta later offered us a taste of her homemade grappa as well.

My antipasto and of course, Poggerino's own wine

The French lady have been staying in Poggerino for more than a week, and I asked how many dinners had she had. Surprisingly, this was the first! Apparently, Bernadetta only prepare dinners when there are enough guests, and I counted myself lucky that in my brief two day stay, I got to try more of her cooking. With good food, good wine, and good company, the episode of the day earlier was soon washed away.

Sadly, I had to miss Bernadetta's breakfast the next morning as I had to catch the early morning bus to the next town. All I could get was a cold sandwich pre-made the night before. I also managed to get a lift into town, or rather, my luggage manage to get a lift into town. The staff at Poggerino offered to bring my luggage into town while I rode my scooter to return it. I had been apprehensive about riding the scooter with my luggage behind but thankfully, everything turns out well.

Well, relatively speaking I suppose. The original plan was to get a bus from Florence to Radda; rent a scooter for 2 days; use the scooter to transport myself around Radda, including to Poggerino; return scooter on final day and take bus to next town. Things completely didn't go as planned. But they "turned out well" I guess, considering that I am still in one piece!!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Money Matters

Money matters is quite strange and unique in Zimbabwe. While I had heard and read about the Zimbabwe currency crisis in the past, I did not quite find out about the details until I found myself in the tourist town of Victoria Falls.


With the collapse of the Zimbabwean dollar, Zimbabwe has been using the US dollar since 2009. When I went to the stores, the prices were listed as such - $2.40, $1.75 etc. I made my purchase and paid with a nice $20 note. My change was a couple of filthy tattered notes and some coins. I had no problems with the dirty notes and then I noted (pun intended) the coins. They were South African Rands.

As 1 rand is almost equivalent to 10 US cents, what is happening is that the country is using US dollars for the notes and South African rand as the "change"!

Strange indeed when a country uses two other countries' currency as their legal tender, and sells their own as souvenirs!

Indeed, every visitor to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe would be accosted by locals pushing wads of billion/trillion dollar notes in your face.

"You know how much these are worth? Buy them as souvenirs!", they would all say.

Things got stranger still. Apparently, change is in short supply. This Canadian chap in the hostel related an incident at the supermarket. His receipt reflected a credit of $0.47 when the cashier ran out of rands for his change. A search online revealed that this is but one of the ways the stores handle the problem. Others offer candy/pens/merchandise as "change"! My encounter was equally bizarre. My purchase came up to $2.40. The cashier asked if I had exact change. I dug into my pocket and found 3 rand. I was about to shake my head and put my coins back when she quickly gestured for the coins and grabbed it.

"Tomorrow you bring me the 10 cents ok?", she deadpanned.

It took a whole 10seconds before I replied ok....

So now, I still owe the supermarket 1 rand :)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Bicycle Diaries

I lay on the ground, legs stiffened and face contorted in an ugly grimace. I massaged my thigh vigorously and finally managed to coax the muscles to relax. It was a good 10 minutes of cramps sitting on the road beside a highway and this was my most pathetic cycling experience yet.

Not much of a cycling fan, I only had a couple of cycling excursions during my travels. A nice summer jaunt in the rolling hills of Biei and Furano in Hokkaido; A wine-on-2-wheels cycling tour in Mendoza; An exploration of the Lijiang countryside in autumn; Here in Ezulwini valley in Swaziland, I joined a fellow backpacker on a cycling day-trip because, well, it sounded interesting.

We were to visit the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, and apparently, it could be visited on bike - perfect for folks without private transport. The idea of cycling through a wildlife park in Africa sounded refreshing. Of course, there is no Big 5 in this reserve, otherwise, I have doubts anyone could peddle away quickly enough with a lion hot on his back.

My years of inadequate usage of my cycling legs came quickly to bear after the 10km of tar-road, and 3km of off-road peddling to reach the park. But luckily in the park itself, the frequent stops for nature appreciation dictated a leisurely pace.

We knew we had our first encounter when we saw a group of people congregating around an area. In the middle of the river, like a personal small island, a huge crocodile lay basking in the sun. I mounted my biggest lens, and proceeded to find my angle. A jeep soon rolled by, with a family and their guide in it. The guide beckoned to me, and in a calm robotic manner, warned me off the water's edge. I did not grasp the full extent of his well-intentioned warning until he pointed to a ripple in the water. Barely 10 metres away was another crocodile lazily swimming across the water's edge!!

Huge crocodile basking in the sun
Only when I remounted my bike did I see the sign - "Do not stay too close to the water's edge"! On hindsight, that crocodile was really uncomfortably close, but well, ignorance was really bliss!

The rest of our encounters were alot less intimidating, though, no less interesting. In particular, we were chugging along when Sarka, my cycling companion, caught sight of movement in the trees just 30m from our cycling path. Almost blending behind a blind of trees trunks, grazed a couple of zebras, probably shying away from the open. We crept nearer steathily, but they moved away cautiously, easily detecting our intrusion.




I see you!
We caught sight of other wildlife - deers/antelopes of various kinds, birds of the ibis/heron variety. And then we came to the "Hippo Pond". Alas, the hippopotamus did not make their appearance. And it was one of those animals I had wanted to see in this sanctuary...!




I hovered around the pond area while Sarka went ahead to further explore the park. I knew my return journey back to the hostel would take twice as long, and so had decided to leave earlier. On the way out though, I again caught sight of the family of zebras (ok, it could be another set, but indulge me). This time though, they decided to come out into the open, and sauntered right pass me! THIS is what I call a zebra crossing! ;)

I finally managed to stand up, gingerly picked up my bicycle, and started pushing. Unless there was a downward gradient, I was literally walking and pushing my bicycle all the way back. It was indeed my most pathetic "cycling" trip..... but certainly one of the most interesting!


Thursday, May 15, 2014

Of Trains and Border Controls

The train rumbled along uneventfully. The views were stupendous, albeit mostly glimpses where it was the most beautiful. I was on the famous Bar-Belgrade railway, and it had been rather frustrating.


You see, the railway journey between Bar Montenegro and Belgrade Serbia passes through 254 tunnels and 435 bridges. That's some insane statistics (based on Wikipedia entry) and I certainly won't be verifying that. But in reality terms, that means that there would be frequent ins-and-outs of the tunnels and very typically, distances between the tunnels were pretty short. And so it was so darn hard to get a photo of the sceneries! Coupled with the fact that many trees grow near the rail lines which blocked the views, it was particularly frustrating that you get only glimpses of some of the spectacular valleys.

Rain on the train window created nice effects

Beautiful sceneries along the rail

Mala Rijeka viaduct, the biggest of the 435 bridges along the Belgrade-Bar Railway
I would be content to just appreciate the views (which I did), except that for the 12 hours on the train, it was raining for the most part. Indeed, it was rather uneventful, though perhaps things would change as the train neared the border....

There were various accounts and information on travels to Serbia and Kosovo. As Kosovo is unrecognised by Serbia (and some countries, including Singapore), it would be prudent to gather some information before traveling through these two countries. Going Kosovo-Serbia may be problematic when you exit Serbia as you do not get a Serbian entry stamp. Going Serbia-Kosovo is probably ok if you are fine without a Serbian exit stamp (esp if you are not going back into Serbia). But if you had already visited Kosovo (complete with entry and exit stamps), there may be trouble with Serbian border controls when you try to enter the country. The accounts range from being turned back, to having their Kosovo stamps canceled/annulled, but yet allowed into the country!

I belong to the latter category. Having Kosovo stamps being canceled sounded interesting. The Kosovo border officials had been pretty enthusiastic about stamping my passport. "No problem! No problem!" they had proclaimed. And this was after some confusing border controls before this. I did not get any entry/exit stamps for Bosnia and Albania! (And I had enter/exit them multiple times!)

Not "cenceled"
Somehow, on rail borders, my passport would usually generate additional scrutiny. Even at the Montenegrin border, the officer had to refer to a folded piece of paper. And as the train stopped at the Serbian border, the junior border officer beckoned for his senior. I tensed.

The senior officer came, looked at my passport, almost nonchalantly mumbled something to the other, flipped through my passport, and then stamped my passport.

That was uneventful.

When I reached Belgrade, the rain had not relented. In fact, it seemed worse. Even in the Serbian countryside, I had seen flooding with cars/buses being stuck. The next day, I learnt that the night before, the government have declared a "state of emergency"!

Well, I'm glad my journey was uneventful!!


PS. News from Reuters on the state of emergency, apparently not only in Serbia :
http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/05/15/us-balkans-flood-idUSBREA4E0AX20140515

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Nature's Light

I enjoy landscape photography, and capturing phenomenal lighting is one of the pleasures of the craft. Rainbows, god-rays, irridescent clouds etc etc, these are not only awesome to see, but immensely satisfying to capture for me.

I was conveniently in my hotel, looking out of my balcony during the sunset hours, when something strange caught my eye. The hotel sits right at the edge of Pelister National Park in southern Macedonia, and the views of the mountains and villages were just fantastic. There were loads of clouds, and typically, with the sun behind them, occasionally you do get "god-rays". Technically known as crepuscular rays, these are rays of light radiating from some point (usually the sun). However, what I saw was something different.

The light seemed to be radiating from the fields in the valley! The patches of light on the ground are obviously lit from sunlight through breaks in the clouds. But somehow,  it seems to be radiating light!

Nature's light is just amazing!



PS.
Anyone who can explain this phenomenon please share. Thanks! :)