Tips for Staying Connected Off-The-Grid

Apps, Tracking Devices and International Cell Phone Plans

After we decided we wanted to take an 8-month road trip across Central and South America, our families made it abundantly clear that we’d need to be accessible in the case of an emergency. But besides that, we needed to maintain a business from the road and we knew we'd want to stay connected to friends, family and yes… to social media.

The following post outlines the devices, apps and cellular provider we used to stay “plugged in” knowing we needed to consider not just the cities, but also all of those off-the-grid locations we’d put on our itinerary.

Talking and Texting in Central and South America

T-Mobile

We have been long time AT&T customers and we’ve loved our service with them. Living and traveling in North America has always been completely pain-free. Even traveling to Europe and the UK earlier this year was no problem with AT&T Passport. For $20 we were covered for the entire month and had unlimited texting. We didn’t get much data, but finding Wi-Fi in those large cities was no problem.

However, after comparing the plans and offerings of EVERY carrier I could find, it came down to one solution for long-term travel to our specific destinations: T-MOBILE. No questions asked. I saw their Simple Choice Plan offered UNLIMITED TEXTING AND DATA in every country we’d planned to visit. Phone calls were only $.20/minute after that. And all you have to do is pay for a monthly cell phone plan with them (at competitive rates, comparable to other providers). They’ll even let you use your current device (iPhone, Android, whatever – you’ll just need to “unlock” it first and that process depends on your provider).

Trust me, I didn't believe this either. “What’s the catch? No really… where are the hidden fees? So you’re saying I can leave my data roaming turned on when I’m hiking a mountain in the middle of Ecuador and I won’t be charged extra? I can watch Netflix from my phone, cruise Facebook, download Apps, text my friends, post to Instagram, and search for recipes online anytime I have LTE, 3G, 4G cell coverage and I wont be charged extra international fees?” CORRECT.

I calculated what I would spend using the other plans with enough data power to send 15 emails, download 1 app, watch a 2-minute video, and visit 8 websites each MONTH and it would cost me $625/month. That’s $5,000 for the duration of my 8-month trip ON TOP OF my regular cell phone bill and additional calls at $1/minute!! Absolutely not

I promise I don’t work for T-Mobile. I know the other providers offer exceptional service in North America (and I can’t speak for other parts of the world). All I know is that for an extended trip through THIS particular part of the world, T-Mobile was the ONLY option.

What’s App

With iMessaging and our new T-Mobile plans, we figured What’s App would be unnecessary, but we already had it on our phones from previous international trips and were glad we did. If you haven’t already heard of What’s App just know it’s a way to send text messages using Wi-Fi, so communicating for free via smart phone is no longer an international issue.

Apparently most of the world has come to realize this too, so everyone in Central and South America (from friends you meet to the tour guides in the area) use What’s App to communicate with tourists and other travelers. For instance, when booking the shipping container for our car, our customer service agent gave us her What’s App number so we could get in touch with her more easily. We continue to tell everyone we have regular texting but they seem to prefer What’s App anyway.

Maps and Navigation

Maps.me

This little gem saved our lives this trip and we didn’t even know about it until Guatemala. One of the travelers we met was shocked to find we didn't have it already and this information couldn't have come at a better time. We love our Garmin, don't get us wrong, but we’d just finished Mexico and were not confident we’d downloaded the Central and South America maps correctly... or at all. In other words, if we were in the mountains without 3G and couldn't use our iPhone maps, we’d be stuck on the side of the road unfolding large maps and asking for directions (remember those days?).

Maps.me is an application you can download to your device and it can locate your current position (I’m honestly still not sure how that’s possible) AND give you directions to your destination EVEN IF YOU DON’T HAVE INTERNET OR CELL PHONE SERVICE.

*Important: because it works off the grid, you DO have to pre-download the maps of the countries you plan to visit. To do this, simply enter a destination you’d like to visit and select “Start”. If you haven’t already downloaded the map for that specific country it will prompt you to do so – and it will require Wi-Fi or 3/4G.

Example: Type in “Casa Mariposa” (if you’re trying to find this particular hostel in Costa Rica) and then route the destination. A box will pop up that says “Costa Rica” with a button that says “Download Map” – just click that, wait a minute or two and you’re done!

Garmin

The upside to a good GPS system for your car (versus a handheld device) is being able to see the map while you’re driving. Garmin worked like a charm in Mexico and Tyler really enjoyed being able to SEE the road while the woman speaking gave him the directions. PLUS, if we ended up lost, it was “her” fault rather than the person who was reading the directions from the phone (aka, me).

The huge problem with Garmin is that you must PAY for each country you plan to visit. This isn’t unreasonable of Garmin, because it costs money to make the maps and they must be downloaded to the device. But for our 8-month road trip where we planned to visit 16 countries, we would have spent hundreds of dollars on maps alone. And that was simply not an option. So we started to research free map downloads compatible with Garmin and found this: Cycling About. But unless you’re incredibly tech-savvy, this is a VERY complicated process. We consider ourselves to be technologically inclined but I still have NO idea how to download free maps and transfer them to the Garmin device. Nothing about the process is clear (which is a good thing for Garmin). Even if it were clear, there’s not enough space on the device to hold both Central and South America entirely, so you have to buy extra space or store it on an external hard-drive and transfer the maps when you’re ready.

We didn’t exactly mention this part to our parents… but we had NO idea if our Garmin would work before we left. Driving into Guatemala, it had some trouble but we figured it out using our phones. So again, THANK GOODNESS we met fellow travelers when we did because being introduced to maps.me is the reason we’ve arrived at every destination since.

We will definitely go back to using our Garmin device when we tour the U.S. and Mexico. It’s nice to have something on the dash and the North America Maps are free when you purchase the device.

Location Tracking Applications

Find My Friends

We found this first and used it in the states. I think it began in college as a joke, for keeping track of friends while out drinking in unfamiliar cities ;) For this trip though, it's a good way to see your loved ones on a map. Find My Friends is a tracking device that shows you where your friend or family member is located and updates every few minutes. You just invite your friends and after they accept, you can view their location anytime. The only problem is that you have to be connected to Wi-Fi or have cell service (which unless you’re hiking a mountain or visiting some isolated location, is usually not a problem).

Life 360

Life 360 is almost exactly the same thing but we use it significantly more. The main reason is that not all of our family members had iPhones and the Find My Friends app isn’t available on all devices. Life 360 had good reviews and was available on both. For this one, you must create a group and then invite members to join.

The free option is fine and allows you to see the members of the group on a map, but we needed a little more. We wanted our family members to know when we arrived safely to our destinations and be able to track where we were going and where we had been.

For $2.99/month you can add specific destinations and (if the group members want to) they’ll receive notifications when you arrive or leave a certain radius of the parameter you set. This requires work on the traveler’s part but even the free version allows you to see when people from the group arrive at or leave their “home” (something you set up when you first download the App).

Going Off The Grid

SPOT Tracking Device

Our parents wanted to sleep at night. And despite considerable reassurance from us that our cell phones would operate normally across 16 different countries, we had to admit, certain places we planned to visit would NOT have cell towers or Wi-Fi. So when selecting a tracking device for our vehicle, we knew we needed something with satellite.

We reviewed many, but the SPOT Tracking Device was $100 (we didn’t want to go any higher), it had a long battery life, and it used satellite technology. We set it up online, added our parents to the email list and had everyone download the App.

For theft purposes, SPOT sends us an email immediately when the car moves. So assuming we’re connected to Wi-Fi or have cell tower coverage, we can know exactly when our car is moving and at what coordinates (great for times when we are sleeping or touring the city and have left our car alone). The device will track using satellite, but the notifications don’t come unless we have Wi-Fi… so while we may get updates a little late, our parents back in the States could check up on our location anytime they wanted. If they knew we planned to be off the grid, they could keep tabs on our location even if they couldn't talk to us.

We must admit that the usability and interface for the SPOT app, email system and website are a little more antiquated than our newer, more aesthetically pleasing Smart Phone Apps. BUT those Apps are less reliable than SPOT’s satellite technology. Not to mention, the customer service team emailed me personally within a week to ask how it was working and if they could be of service in any way.

ACR Locator Beacon 

We didn't end up going with the locator beacon because it was a out of our price range. BUT, if you want a PORTABLE tracking device that uses satellite technology (rather than limiting the satellite protection to your car), then the ACR beacon is your answer. In other words, if you're a big hiker and you know that you'll be off the grid for multi-day hiking excursions (especially unsupervised hikes NOT led by tour guides or outside of  national parks where you must register for permits and notify the rangers of your entry) then you DEFINITELY want to consider the beacon. Keep this guy in your backpack and if you're stuck somewhere, in danger, or fall off a cliff and break your arm (think 127 hours), just push a little button and a rescue team is on the way!

Summary

We definitely feel like we overdid it on the tracking devices but a lot of it had to do with our parents’ peace of mind. Now that we’re on the road, have somehow managed to stay alive, and are communicating with them frequently, we’ll have to ask for their opinion. You can’t put a price on the safety of your loved ones and if it made them happy, we were 100% willing to do it. Within a few weeks, their nerves had settled and they stopped checking up on us, just as we stopped checking in with them. I highly doubt our parents are still logging onto the SPOT website to view our location and we haven't touched Garmin since we got to Guatemala (so that’s almost $350 worth of tech we aren't using).

I think the most valuable assets are Life 360 and Maps.me (both free unless you decide to pay for the additional Life 360 capabilities). By the end of month 1 we stopped entering our destinations into the App but our parents continue to look at our location periodically because it's fun to see and it's easy to use. 

Do your research but be careful not to get overwhelmed. You can’t plan for everything and you’ll realize how resourceful you are once you’re on the road. If you wait until you have it all figured out you’ll never leave. Just be calm, stay safe, and use common sense.  

Meg (+Tyler)

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