Friday, November 27, 2015

Tips for Traveling to Papua New Guinea


(Note: I've been traveling around the world for 30 years, and as I've gotten older and bigger, I've found that flying coach for long flights is painful.  This blog is not for backpackers or folks seeking the cheapest deal on flights.  It's for folks who prefer to spend a bit more money to fly comfortably, hopefully in business class, to dive destinations).  Some of the tips below do apply to anyone traveling to PNG, such as the "visa on arrival" and cell phone tips. 

I just traveled to Papua New Guinea to join the Golden Dawn live-aboard dive vessel, and here are some tips.  I had to meet the boat in Kimbe Bay, at Hoskins airport; and leave from Alotau. 

When planning my itinerary to PNG, I discovered the following:

Flying Air Niugini to Hoskins (the only option) meant researching gateway cities.  I could fly Air Niugini from Brisbane or Cairns (Australia); or from Manila (Philippines).  Flying from Melbourne or Sydney to Hoskins on Air Niugini was not logistically viable.  I discovered that flying from Brisbane (BNE) offered more times and better prices from flying from Cairns.  Flying all the way from Manila was not a good option for me.  Air Niugini proved to be a fine airline -- far better than the delays I experienced flying Silver Airlines to Bimini earlier this year.  But if you are traveling Air NG and traveling through Port Moresby especially, make very sure that your carry-on bags don’t weigh  more than 15 pounds!  I cannot stress this enough.

To get to smaller towns like Hoskins and Alotau, you must fly first to Port Moresby, whereupon you will connect to those smaller towns on smaller domestic flights.  To get to Port Moresby, there are more options.  For instance, you can fly Virgin Australia from Sydney to Port Moresby; or you can fly Air Niugini from Brisbane or Cairns (flying Air NG from Sydney or Melbourne usually involves very lengthy layovers so is not advised).  

Getting to Brisbane:
I initially booked a SkyCouch seat on Air New Zealand, which took me from SFO to Brisbane (BNE).  The SkyCouch seat is three coach seats combined into a "couch." 
I have a separate blog post about this SkyCouch seat, which I ultimately did not use. 

Air New Zealand had a relatively good cancellation policy.  I paid $899 for the coach seat and $1199 for the SkyCouch upgrade.  Cancelling the flight could be done up to a few hours before the flight, and it would "only" cost $300.  This is where the flying consumer is now -- paying $300 to cancel a ticket is considered "not too bad." (!!)

I've learned in just the past year that booking award travel (plane tickets using miles) can result in great deals if you wait until 72 hours before the flight leaves.  Sure enough, 72 hours before my Air NZ flight left, a biz class seat on United Airlines from SFO to Sydney opened up, at the Saver Award level (70,000 miles).  Most experts rate airlines miles at 2 cents per mile (and I've routinely been offered the opportunity to buy United miles at this rate), so that biz class seat "cost" me $1400.  This was far better than the one-way tickets to Brisbane from SFO that cost on the order of $8000 for business class. 

The United flight was OK.  The business class seats lie flat, but they are pretty narrow, and your neighbor is very close to you.  Fortunately, once the seats lie flat, there's a barrier between you and your neighbor.  Still, the seats seem only as wide as coach seats used to be.  I can't see paying more than I did for a biz class seat on United. 

I then researched and booked a business seat on Virgin Australia from Sydney to Brisbane.  I used points from my Virgin America account, and this was one of the best decisions I've made in a while.  Virgin Australia biz class was simply awesome.  I've written a separate blog post about my experience. 

Traveling to PNG:

Arriving in Port Moresby and getting a visa:
First, one should always allow at least three hours in Port Moresby between flights, to get luggage, go through customs, etc. 

You must get an ETA (electronic visa) to enter Australia as a US citizen.  I did this online and it was easy.  It cost about $15. 

I and others in the group on the boat had a question about whether we should get a visa for PNG ahead of time, or upon arrival.  Craig deWit from the Golden Dawn advised us to get a visa upon arrival. 

Howard and Michele Hall arrived before I did, and they gave me the following great tip about getting a visa upon arrival.  I've added some more detail:

“After you exit the plane at Port Moresby, you will enter a passport check line before getting your bags.  When you enter that big room, you will see a booth in front of you (in front, and to the right of the lines to get passports checked) saying "visa on arrivals."  This is for business travelers.  As a leisure traveler, you can ignore that booth and go to the "visa on arrivals" line to the far right of all the other lines to get your passport checked.  This could not have been easier and there was no fee!!! It would be helpful of PNG to add a sign to the first booth that said "visas upon arrival for travelers on business only". 

I had earlier asked Craig about the possibility of getting Internet in PNG. He wrote: “There are a number of options open to you for Internet. Yes when we are on the high seas we do have satellite Internet access. Its actually reasonably quick however does not come cheaply at US $ 10/mb. Most days that we are on charter however we have local mobile network, so you can buy a local Digicel SIM at the airport in Port Moresby when you arrive from overseas. Then you can purchase data for as little as 3 cents a mb. Its works slowly mostly but gets the job done. I have a range extender for the mobile network so that helps too.”

Michele emailed me the following tip also:
“One more thing:
After you clear immigration and customs in POM, you'll exit through glass doors. There's a Digicell store right there for purchasing your SIM card: 10 k for the card, and you'll want to buy the 30 day data package which gives you 1.5GB data. That's an additional 65kina. Total comes to about $27. “

Thanks to Michele, I did stop at the Digicel store.  I bought a SIM card for my GSM-enabled phone and the 30-day data and voice package.  It ended up costing $39.  The 3G Internet on my phone worked in some of the most surprisingly remote areas in PNG. 

By the way, I bought a Nexus 4 quad-band GSM phone about a year ago.  It was inexpensive at $150, and it has proven very useful when I travel overseas.  I simply buy a SIM card when I arrive somewhere (Scotland, PNG, Australia, etc.) and a data package -- and voila! -- I have a smartphone with Wi-Fi tethering.  The 3G speeds in PNG are excellent and quite fast.  I've been hugely impressed with Google's Nexus line of phones and tablets.  I use a Nexus 5 while in the US on the Freedompop network; a Nexus 4 when traveling overseas; and a Nexus 7 tablet for my drone. I wish I had just one phone for everything but that's a while away. 

The international terminal at Port Moresby is fine.  It is relatively cool, and I spent a good two hours at the cafe there.  

Now I'd like to describe what Air Niugini charges for excess bags -- which is something I could not find anywhere.  
First, for the international leg from SFO to SYD, United allowed me to check in three bags at 70 pounds at no charge.  This is because I am a Gold elite member traveling via business class.  Sometimes United only allows me two bags at 70 pounds for free. 

I then investigated what Virgin Australia would charge me for three bags.  By buying a biz class ticket, I got two bags at 23 kg free.  I then paid online for my third bag, which cost about $25.  I ended up packing my three bags so all weighed around 50 pounds.

Trying to figure out how to pack my bags for Air Niugini was complicated and confusing.  Their web pages give conflicting information.  This is what I've learned from actually flying:

You want to travel from Brisbane or other international destination like Cairns or Manila ALL THE WAY to your local PNG destination like Hoskins on the same day.  This is because if you travel from BNE on the same day, you are treated as an international, not a domestic, passenger. 

Air Niugini gave me the following bag allowance both when checking in at BNE and at Port Moresby.  They did not charge for a third bag but they DID charge for the baggage that weighed over the following allowances:

I was given a baggage allowance, as an economy class passenger, traveling internationally from BNE, 30 kg (66 pounds).  As a scuba diver, I was given an extra 15 kgs (33 pounds). 

Here's a link that describes the extra free baggage allowance for scuba divers:

On another web page, conflicting information was given:
Air Niugini offers the following baggage allowance for scuba divers:
International flights – 20kgs (44lbs) plus an additional 15kgs (33lbs) per person.
Domestic flights – 16kgs (35lbs) plus an additional 15kgs (33lbs) per person.

Summary: from my practical experience, Air Niugini gives international passengers 30 kg (66 lb) plus an additional 15 kg (33 lb) for scuba divers, for a total of 99 pounds.  They don't seem to charge for a third bag, but they do charge for excess weight. 

In Brisbane, the agent at the check-in counter actually was a Qantas employee, and she directed me to another counter to pay my excess baggage weight charge.  The agent there was interested in my diving in PNG, and he let me go without paying anything.  I estimate that my three bags weighed about 120 pounds, 20 pounds overweight. 

Once I arrived in Port Moresby, I brought my bags to be transferred to the domestic terminal.  The agent wanted to charge me an excess baggage weight fee, but I argued that my bags had already been checked through to Hoskins and I had already been approved for the excess weight.  She relented and did not charge me anything.  At this point, normally I would not have to worry about a thing.  The bags had been checked all the way to my final, local destination and I just had to get to the domestic terminal, get through security, and get on the plane.  I've found over hundreds of flights that the security checkpoint folks don't care how many carry-ons you might have or how much the carry-ons weigh. 

I made the mistake of waiting in the international terminal too long.  I walked over to the domestic terminal in Port Moresby and when approaching the security checkpoint, the guard noticed that my carryon bag was too heavy, and he directed me to an agent.  Fark!  This was a pain in the butt.  I ended up having to check in my rolling carryon bag and having to pay the excess weight.  I believe it was 11 kg, and I paid $66 to get the bag from Port Moresby to Hoskins.  I did use my Scottevest for the first time (a vest with many pockets) and put a bunch of batteries and heavy gear in the vest and in my backpack.  That likely saved me another $60. 

The process of having to pay for excess bags in a domestic terminal in a third-world country is immensely frustrating.  You have to go to another agent behind a window.  Sometimes you have to wait for other folks, and almost always the clerk takes a very long time to process your payment, until you start panicking that you will miss your flight.  The same thing happened to me here. 

Summary: when traveling from the Port Moresby domestic terminal, be sure that your rolling carry-on is not too heavy -- or you will be forced to check it in and pay for it.  I believe that carry-ons are limited to 7 kg (15 lb).  Some more tips are below. 

On my domestic flight from Port Moresby to Hoskins, I was forced to check my carry-on bag, which was about 11 kg.  I was charged PGK 171.40 (US $60).  This equates to approximately US $6 per excess one kilogram, or US $3 per pound of excess baggage.

On my domestic flight from Alotau to Port Moresby, I was charged PGK 106, or US $36.78.  I believe this was for 5 kg excess but I am not sure.  From Port Moresby to Brisbane, an international flight, I was charged PGK 205 (US $71.14) for what seems to be 6 kg excess (from a note written on my itinerary by an agent).  That equates to about US $12 per kg, or $5.38 per pound.

It was impossible before the trip to get any sense whatsoever of what it would cost for an excess bag or if my bags weighed more than the free allowance.  I hope that this gives travelers some idea.  Unlike other destinations, if you have a lot of gear that goes over the 30 kg free allowance (plus 15 kg for scuba divers), DO NOT try to get around this by carrying a bunch of stuff with you on the plane.  I tried this, and I was stopped and sent back to the ticket counter repeatedly to check in my heavy carry-on bag, to pay, etc -- to the point where I almost missed my flight out of Port Moresby.  See my earlier blog post for excruciating details on this experience. 

Here are some notes from various websites and forums pertaining to the above:
Air Niugini honors the International allowance for International passengers in direct transit on same day to a domestic port in PNG.

At the transfer desk, if they want to charge you for excess or overweight baggage, make sure they know you have come from America (and not just from Australia). People traveling up from Australia are not allowed the same number of bags.

Air Niugini has just announced new economy baggage allowances for its passengers travelling on its Australian routes – Cairns, Brisbane and Sydney. Effective immediately passengers travelling in economy will be allowed one bag – 23 kg/50 lb (it was 20kg/44lb).  (Norb’s note – I was allowed 30 kg traveling from Brisbane, and an extra 15kg as a scuba diver). 

On your domestic Air Niugini flight, you are only allowed 7 kg/15 lb of hand luggage per person if you have transferred from an international flight, 5 kg/11 lb if just domestic. They have stopped anyone carrying large carry-on bags and weighed those on the scale that is right by their desk. If you can’t re-pack your things to get the weight down, you will have to step out and check your bag. If at all possible, check in those large carry-on bags with your luggage at the transfer counter. Or, redistribute the weight between all your carry-ons to lessen the load of the larger bag. Do not assume you can sweet-talk your way in with excess or heavy carry-ons.   (Norb’s note – I should have listened to this forum post – it would have saved me one of the worst airport experiences ever). 

Sometimes they will open the Transfer Desk INSIDE the Customs area (to the left after you go through the Customs line) so you can go straight there to check your bags through to your next flight and get your boarding passes. If that is not open, come through the double doors and go to the Transfer counters which are at the other end of the same building (don’t go outside). After you check your bags and get your boarding passes, then go outside and all the way down to the Domestic Terminal.

The Airport and Airline From Hell – Trying to Leave Port Moresby via Air Niugini is Outrageously Stressful

I just returned from 25 days on a diving liveaboard boat in Papua New Guinea (PNG), with my friends Douglas and Emily Seifert, and Howard and Michele Hall.  The boat was the Golden Dawn, run by diver and PNG resident Craig de Wit.  I'll talk more about the boat and the diving in a future blog post.  The diving at some sites was off the charts.  

However, the one thing that I will remember about this trip is how incredibly stressful it was to get out of Port Moresby on Air Niugini. 

Air Niugini and Port Moresby Airport to Me: F*** YOU.”

I'd like to warn other folks traveling to PNG about my very stressful experience trying to get on my Air Niugini flight from Port Moresby to Brisbane, Australia a few days ago.  Trying to get on the plane through Air Niugini and Port Moresby Airport's multiple security checkpoints resulted in the most stressful 1.5 hours of traveling in my 30 years of traveling. 
Some of this was my fault and a lot of this was the fault of Air Niugini and the airport.  I can tell you that I am not eager to repeat the experience so probably won't be traveling back to PNG because of this. 

Airlines and tourism boards should realize that if they wish to attract tourists, and keep tourists coming back, they should make it easy, rather than difficult, to travel.  As an example, perhaps 25 years ago, I had a horrible experience with Qantas Airlines giving me a lot of grief for carrying on a big telephoto lens on a plane.  In the ensuing 25 years, every time I’ve thought about using Qantas, I remember the experience – and I choose another airline. 

Yes, I tend to come onto a plane with a lot of carry-on stuff.  I am a professional photographer and I need to arrive in a location with my camera gear. Therefore I tend to carry on a lot of stuff.  These days, I am forced to bring any lithium ion batteries on board with me rather than putting the batteries in my checked baggage.  That means that I am carrying on even more stuff. 

I've developed tactics for traveling over the years, where I would carry a lot of heavy items like batteries in my carryon baggage and backpack. I did not heed the warnings from numerous websites, and ended up sweating like crazy, begging, and running thru that airport to check and re-check my normal carryons.

I travel with a Lowepro rolling carryon case, which is filled with camera batteries, video light batteries, hard drives, a change of clothing, various chargers, camera bodies, lenses, and other essentials.  I carry a backpack that ranges from very large to normal sized.  In the past year, I've been carrying a small soft cooler on top of my rolling carryon case that contains a small amount of items like granola bars, strobe batteries, etc.  In the US, Scotland, and Costa Rica, I've had no trouble with this arrangement.  This is because I am a frequent flyer and I am familiar with airline practices -- and the practices of just about every airport in the world as well.

In every single airport that I've been to in the past 30 years of traveling and diving, the place where you have to pay excess bags, and the one place in the airport where anyone cares about your bags, is the ticket counter where you check in.  As long as your carry-on bags are within reason and pass the scrutiny at the ticket counter, then the folks at the subsequent security checkpoints rarely care how many bags you are carrying onto the plane. 

I've only been stopped once by an airline for having too many carry-on bags.  The soft cooler that I have on top of my rolling case is purely for convenience and to get stuff off my back.  I simply put the contents of the soft cooler (granola bars, an apple, a water bottle, a port for my housing) into my backpack, and shoved the soft cooler into my backpack also.  Presto – no problem. 

Well, after my experience in Port Moresby, I have learned my lesson.  I am going to put everything that I can into my checked baggage and pay the excess baggage charges, particularly when going through third-world airports like Port Moresby.  It’s still going to be difficult to meet the rules of a place like Port Moresby, because I have to bring lithium ion batteries, camera bodies, my laptop, and other essential items on the plane with me – and Port Moresby strictly enforces a limit of 7 kg for carry-ons.  Here's what happened, and hopefully other folks can learn from this. 

I booked my travel through Air Niugini's website, and they had a flight that left from Alotau (Milne Bay) to Port Moresby, with 1.5 hours in between to get on the Port Moresby to Brisbane flight.  This fairly short connection was APPROVED and TICKETED by Air Niugini.

I arrived into Port Moresby on time, 12 noon.  I collected my checked baggage, and then walked the cart over to the international terminal.  I waited in line until about 12:30pm, and finally was able to check in for my flight which was to leave at 1:30pm.  At this point, the agent told me that I had to pay for my excess baggage. It was something like US $60.  Fine.  I never like paying for excess baggage, but it's just something that we divers and photographers have to do. 

The problem in third-world airports, however, is that if you have to pay excess baggage charges, then you have to walk across the terminal to another office, usually a window, where you have to wait in another line to pay your excess baggage fees.  I had to use a credit card to pay my fees, and in this case, like all cases, the wait to get to the clerk took a long time, and then the wait to have the clerk write up all the paperwork and process my credit card took a long time.  On the outbound leg of my journey to PNG 25 days earlier, I stood in line a full 30 minutes before getting this done, but I had a three-hour wait before my next flight.  This time, I started getting nervous since I only had 60 minutes before my flight left.  I needed to get on that plane!

I cut in line by asking (thanks folks) and the woman surprisingly only took about 10 minutes to process my excess baggage stuff.  Great.  I rushed back to the check-in counter, showed the agent my receipt, and got my boarding pass.  I collected my rolling carry-on case, the small soft cooler, my backpack, and a photographer’s vest that I had stuffed with heavy-ish items like plates for my underwater tripod, Ikelite strobe batteries, and the batteries for my Phantom drone. 

It was my mistake to carry on the vest and soft cooler along with the backpack and rolling carryon.  In my defense, in nearly all other airports in the world, I would have been able to get through security and on the plane with these carry-on items.  The one time I've been challenged, it was an easy matter to take the items out of the soft cooler and put everything in my backpack.  In this case, however, I was in a rush.  The plane was to leave in 45 minutes, and I did NOT want to miss the flight and end up spending the night in Port Moresby, one of the crappiest and most dangerous cities in the world. 

I took the escalator to the second floor, where the security checkpoints were (and the first of three sets of guards, I was to learn).  In front of the doors to the X-ray machine stood a first set of guards.  One of them steadfastly refused to let me through, after weighing my rolling carry-on in his hands.  He said it was too heavy, and he was also unhappy that I had the soft cooler and vest.  If I had been more careful and knew what was going to happen, I would have worn the vest rather than carrying it in my hands, and put the soft cooler and its contents inside my backpack, which was pretty empty.  As it was, I put the contents of the soft cooler in my backpack and showed them that I could put the vest in there too – but that was not good enough for him. 

Air Niugini has a stated weight limit of 7 kg for carry-ons. No other airline in the world enforces a weight limit for carry-ons, as far as I have encountered.  If I had a rolling carry-on and a backpack only – which I did at this point – I would have been fine in just about any other airport.  However, this guard told me that my rolling carry-on was too heavy.  He would not let me transfer anything in the rolling case to my backpack, and told me to go back downstairs to check it in and pay the excess baggage fee. I begged and pleaded with him to give me a break and let me through, but he was immovable. 

I was close to panic at this point. My flight was to leave in about 35 minutes, and there was just no frigging way that I was going to be able to pay excess bag charges and make it on my flight.  I ran back to the check-in counter and told them the situation.  I was sweating bullets, on the verge of freaking out, because I needed to get on that flight. 

Fortunately, Emily and Douglas Seifert were checking in there and helped me.  They convinced a manager to go up with me to the first checkpoint, to tell the guard to let me through.  She did so.  It was now 30 minutes to flight departure.  The manager convinced the guard to let me go through. 

I went through the glass doors to encounter the staff operating the X-ray machine.  I had to beg and plead my case all over again.  The manager had left after telling the first set of guards to let me through.  The X-ray guys finally relented and let me through and much insistence and groveling on my part.  I had to ask one of the first guards to vouch that a manager had OK’d my carry-ons. My anxiety was increasing as departure time drew closer. 

I rarely panic, and I always try to allow plenty of time between checking in and the departure time.  In this case, however, I had trusted Air Niugini to schedule a connection that proved to be too short.  I had put myself (and was put) in a situation where I had too little time, and I was nearly hysterical.  Any diver can tell you that panic is no help in any situation, but here I was.  I had previously filled out a yellow exit immigration form, and I asked to cut to the front of the line when I got to the immigration counters.  The officers stared at me but one let me come to his window.  When I got there, I realized that in my mad dashes around the terminal, I had lost track of this form.  I had to step aside and fill out another form.  My sweaty hand was shaking as I filled out the form as fast as I could.  Thankfully, a kind female immigration officer let me through after questioning me.  She was suspicious about my activities in PNG until I mentioned the name of Walindi, a dive resort that she knew about.

I now had about 15 minutes to departure time, and I rushed into the main gate area to find my flight.  The flight was to leave from Gate 3.  I ran to Gate 1 and 2, which were clearly marked, and then ran past a sign pointing to Gates 3 to 5.  I ran to the end of the gate area and saw no signs for any gates.  It turns out that in the Port Moresby Airport departing area, Gate 3 is unmarked.  This was not helpful.  I asked some folks waiting in a cafe if they were going to Brisbane, and they told me that they were, and showed me the unmarked door that was Gate 3.  Fortunately, the staff had not yet started boarding the plane.  I had made it!  So I thought. 

About 10 minutes later, I was able to go through the gate to the plane, but was surprised by yet another checkpoint.  I had to go through all my arguments once again as a guard opened up all my bags, and told me that I had too many.  I begged and pleaded for mercy again.  I was drenched in sweat.  The guard called someone else over, they conversed, told me that I was a bad, bad person; I agreed and said that I would never do it again, like a schoolkid. 

I finally got to the entrance where a passenger gives up his boarding pass, to be allowed through the hallowed tube to the sanctuary of the plane itself.  She looked at my boarding pass, looked at me, and told me that it was the wrong boarding pass.  She was correct -- it was the boarding pass from my earlier flight, from Alotau to Port Moresby.  I could not find the correct boarding pass!  Panic again.  Blessedly, an Air NG manager (the only white guy on staff there that I ever saw) came up holding my boarding pass.  I had dropped it at the last checkpoint a few feet away when arguing my case.  I finally was able to board the plane. 

After all that, the flight was about 33% filled, and there was plenty of room for my carry-ons. 

I know that airlines have to have rules, but Air Niugini's strict enforcement on the weight rather than the size and number of carry-ons only causes problems.  I can tell you that I will avoid Air Niugini like the plague for the rest of my short life.  I hope that those of you who read this will also avoid Air Niugini, or take my experience to heart, and carry on a minimal amount of stuff.  Either that, or pay to join Air Niugini’s Executive Club and buy a business class ticket so that the staff won’t mess with  you. 

PNG is a great place for diving, but I am not sure that the hassle of getting to good destinations there is worth the trouble.  There are now only three liveaboard dive vessels in PNG waters, and only a few really worthy land-based diving operations.  Walindi is one of them, but I can't stay there because none of their bungalows has air-conditioning.  I have health issues if I get too hot, and the one time that I stayed at Walindi twenty years ago, I had a pretty difficult time trying to get comfortable in the heat. 

I will always remember my time in Port Moresby as the most stressful 1.5 hours of traveling I have yet to go through.  Sweat and adrenaline dripping off my body.  Almost in tears as I was forced to beg and plead, "I promise I won't do it again!" to not one, not two, not three, but four fucking checkpoints on the way to the plane.  Driven to hysteria and panic so that I lost critical pieces of paper, having to beg to cut to the front of lines, having to fill it out these forms again with my sweaty hands shaking from panic and stress.  Not good.  Hopefully never again. 

As a final "F*** YOU", Air Niugini lost one of my bags. Once I arrived in Brisbane, I had the good luck to be forced to stick around the airport another two hours to look for a missing bag and file a claim.  That's always fun, being the last person at the baggage carousel.  I said to myself "I love to travel."  It was great to get some exercise by walking all around the cavernous baggage claim area several times to look for said missing bag, being questioned repeatedly by the same Aussie customs officers about my customs forms and what I was doing.  It was a lot of fun, I have to tell you.  A real "adventure."

I have spent the past few days at home trying to track down someone at Port Moresby airport to try to find my bag and barring that, to send me forms to claim this lost bag.  It has not been fun. 

Air Niugini and Port Moresby Airport gave me a big “F*** YOU” when I tried to leave.  That's unfortunately the first thought that will come to mind the next time someone mentions diving PNG.  Airlines and tourism boards should realize that if they wish to attract tourists, and keep tourists coming back, they should make it easy, rather than difficult, to travel.  


Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Sprint/FreedomPop Nexus 5 Phones Suddenly Won't Connect to 3G Service -- Solution

I've been using Freedompop phones and their service for the past two or more years.  The service really is free if you stay below the 500Mb data limit (easy to do), are willing to put up with crappy voice quality, and are careful about their sneaky rules.  I use the phones to get email while on the road, and I use Waze and Yelp when driving or traveling.  I also routinely use a spare Freedompop phone as a wifi hotspot when I am traveling in the US -- I use the Wifi Tether app rather than paying Freedompop's tethering fee. I rarely make or receive calls using my Freedompop phone and actually have a cheapass Verizon phone to do that.  I also have a FP Overdrive Pro wifi hotspot and pay $3.99 per month for the ability to get 3G service on that device.  It's well worth it. 

Freedompop uses the Sprint network.  I find that I am usually in Sprint's 3G network areas and rarely in the 4G LTE areas.  So my phones have to connect to the 3G network. 

I have two Freedompop Nexus 5 phones.  Both have been working fine up until November 21.  Starting that day, the icon showing the wireless signal included an exclamation point, and the phones were unable to get data over the cellular connection.  The exclamation point went away when the phone was near a wifi hotspot that I could connect to -- but once away from wifi, the exclamation point reappears and I was unable to get data over the cell connection. 

This meant no phone calls, no Internet, no email -- the phone was useless.  I tried updating the PRL and profile and restarting the phone, but these methods did not work.  It seems to me that these phones are now unable to access Sprint's 3G network.  I did drive into an area that had a strong 4G LTE signal and the phone downloaded emails, and then worked on 3G for a bit -- but the same problem started again. 

I researched the web for this problem and possible solutions.  Here's the one that worked for me, and thanks Bradley!

The solution can be found here:

And here is the solution:
I had a similar problem. This resolved my issue:

I had the same problem (no data at all using cellular network) after updating my unrooted Nexus 5 to Android 5.1.1 using the OTA update (build LMY48I), but managed to solve it using these steps:

Type star#star#4636#star#star in the phone dialer. You will see a rather messy dialog "Phone info".
Tap the three dots in the upper right corner and tap "Enable data connection".
This fixed the issue for me.

This seems to have fixed the issue for me too! The cell signal icon now shows 3G and a triangle, as it should.  The phone is downloading emails and getting on the Internet even though wifi is turned off. 

PS -- You might have to update the PRL and profile, and then restart the phone.  Here are some links on how to do this:

Update the Profile and PRL (Preferred Roaming List) on your Google Nexus 5

Steps to update the PRL on your Google Nexus 5

Keeping your Preferred Roaming List (PRL) up-to-date can improve your network coverage if you are roaming.

From the home screen, tap the All Apps icon.
Scroll to and tap Settings.
Tap More.
Tap Cellular networks.
Tap Carrier settings.
Tap Update Profile
After the update completes, tap Update PRL

Phone using too much data?  Try this: Google Play settings -- auto update apps over wifi only.  

 One more tip: Before this post, I had new Nexus 5 phones from Freedompop, which worked fine -- except that after a few days of use, suddenly my 400Mb of free data was all used up!

After searching some forums, I discovered the problem and the solution.  It appears that Google Services was attempting to download an update to the Android OS on my Nexus 5.  I saw the update, kept allowing it to happen, and was then getting an error message that the update failed.  Once the update failed, Google Services downloaded the update again, to try and try again. 

The forums gave the answer: Freedompop phones have some kind of layer over the Android OS, and this layer in the Nexus 5 phone has a bug.  This bug prevents the Nexus 5 phones from ever being able to install an update.  That's OK with me.  To prevent this constant updating, here's a forum post:

I did the below:
Option 2: Go to Settings>>Data Usage>>Click "Google Services">> Scroll to the bottom and click "Restrict Background Data". Now your phone will stop downloading the 4.3 update until you uncheck this option. I have found a few cons to doing this, however. You will notice your signal bars will stay gray now when you are on mobile data, and not blue. You will stop receiving notifications from apps like Snapchat, Google+, and Google Hangouts, as well as other apps that use sync, until you are on WiFi. Google Plus is not usable on Mobile Data anymore. And these are just a few things. But it all generally only happens on Mobile Data. Once you are on WiFi again, there are no problems and your phone will be back to normal.

MAJOR NOTE: Some people have recommended to black the background data usage of Google Services. When I tried this fix my phone was no longer able to receive incoming calls or texts. If you are 100% on wifi this is not a problem, but if you're not this can be a big problem.

Update 12-2-15: I just discovered that the DJI Go app on my Nexus 5 (which didn't work well with my quadcopter) sucked up a bunch of data in the past few days.  So I set it to allow data only on wifi. 

Freedompop: Why make it so confusing for people to post to a forum?  

I was surprised at how difficult Freedompop makes it to post to a forum, and how little information it gives to folks who are trying to post.  It's ridiculous and a complete waste of one's time. 

Let's say you would like to make a comment on a Freedompop forum.  Well, like all the other folks before you, you will spend 20 minutes or so trying to figure out how to do this.  You'll log in with your FP user name and password.  No joy.  You'll search in vain for a "comment" box.  You then try registering a completely new username.  Still no joy. 

Here's a link to clarify the problem:

Finally you might come across the forum post above and find the comments below:
"I was a little confused at the beginning too. I signed in with my FreedomPop account, but it wouldn't let me post or comment. I just kept getting "You don't have permission" type errors. I guess they were approving my account before allowing the first post? But it didn't say that anywhere. So I was wondering what the heck I was doing wrong. After waiting a day or so, though, I was able to post/comment normally.

..."just joined yesterday and had the same issue. The first email comes immediately and says:
You need to confirm your email address before you can continue.
Please confirm your email address by clicking on the following link:

Once I did that I appeared to be accepted as I was logged in. I then spent an hour looking around in every nook and cranny trying to figure out what the heck I had to do to make a post. Finally I decided to search for how to make a post, since if I was having this much trouble someone else must have as well, and I found this post. But that was after already wasting a lot of time.

It would be very helpful if you simply added another sentence to that first email saying something like:
After you confirm your email address your request will still need to be approved by an administrator prior to you being able to post. You will receive another email when that occurs.

This simple change will save others time and will start them out with freedompop and a much better note. Many of us are coming to the forum already frustrated and then having this happen just raises the level of irritation. I'm sure it's not intensional (sic), but now that this issue has been pointed out several times and it can be easily remedied, why not do it?

So in summary, if you ever want to post to a FP forum, you have to register with your FP user name or a new name.  You then have to click an emailed link to confirm your email address.  THEN you have to wait to be approved to make a post.  THEN and only then, will a "Comment" window show up in your browser.  Until then, it is just hidden.  FINALLY, once you make a comment, that comment won't show up until a FP moderator approves it. 

I don't have to say the obvious -- this is ridiculously difficult.  FP is making it that way and wasting their customers' time.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Wha...???? Maddening Customer Service Flubs From Today

Is it me, or is customer service a lost art?  I find that I usually know more about a product than a company's own technical support folks.  The cell phone companies like AT&T and Verizon are the worst -- sales people in the stores have no idea what their own company is offering.

I like shipping through USPS.  I just print out a label and stick the box in my mailbox, and the mailman picks it up.  Their website is usually pretty good.

But today I tried to order some supplies.  I was given the choice to order a quantity, say, more than 1.  I tried 2.  BONK!  Here's the error message:

So my question is -- why give me the choice of ordering a quantity more than 1, if you aren't going to allow me to order more than 1?

The other pet peeve I have about shipping through USPS is that they force you to choose a date to ship a package.  It would be easy for them to give you a choice -- and warn you before you choose a day that is a holiday -- where you CAN'T SHIP THE DAMN PACKAGE!!!  But no, those holidays are always presented as a choice, with no warning.  If you print a label and choose a holiday, then the whole process turns into a giant pain in the butt.  You have to print another label, beg the USPS to consider a refund, etc.

Here's a company to avoid : Eastwood.  The emails below should explain all:

Date: Mon, Nov 16, 2015 at 9:04 AM
Subject: Eastwood Shipment Confirmation E20282070000

        Dear: NORBERT WU

        Thank you for your recent credit card order.  Unfortunately, we are
        unable to process your order as the credit card number was not
        recognized by our software.  This in no way reflects on your credit
        rating but means simply that there is a problem with the number

        You may contact us with the correct credit card number at or call our Customer Service department at
        1-800-345-1178 between the hours of 9 AM and 5 PM Eastern Standard
        Please reference your order number with any inquiry.

        If there is a reason that you would prefer not to charge your
        credit card at this time, please enclose a check or money order in
        the amount of $ xx   in US Dollars.  We will process your order

        We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused and we look
        forward to being of service to you in the near future.

        The Eastwood Promise:
        At Eastwood, we want to do the job right....every time.  If an
        Eastwood product fails to meet or exceed your expectations, give us
        a call at   800-345-1178.  We promise to make it right!

        Thank you for shopping at Eastwood!

        Customer Service
        The Eastwood Company

From: Norbert Wu
Sent: Wednesday, November 18, 2015 9:29 PM
To: Orderhelp
Subject: Re: Eastwood Shipment Confirmation E20282070000

I am very surprised, as my credit card has been working just fine the past few days.  

Please try it again: 
xxx dddd

If that doesn't work for some reason, please call me at my cell ddd-ddd-dddd or try my Amex: 

I am  happy to send over my PIN for one or both of the above cards also.  

Norb Wu

From: Orderhelp 
Date: Thu, Nov 19, 2015 at 7:22 AM
Subject: RE: Eastwood Shipment Confirmation E20282070000
To: Norbert Wu

Hello Mr. Wu,

                We apologize for the inconvenience. Unfortunately as stated we will need to ask you to call in this information in order to proceed.

Best regards,

Customer Contact Representative

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Tips on Renting a Car in Australia and Brisbane: Insurance and Toll Roads

 I recently rented a car in Brisbane, Australia.  Here are some tips.

Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) Insurance:
I am currently researching all the requirements needed to rent a car in Mexico.  I'll have a blog post on that in the future.  For now, however, I learned some things about renting cars in Australia as a US citizen.

When I rent a car in the US, I always use a higher-end Visa or Mastercard to reserve and to pay for the rental car.  This allows me to decline the rental car company's insurance on all fronts.  I've double-checked the benefits of the credit card that I use.  The credit cards that I use have benefits such as "Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver (CDW)."  The credit card, as long as you decline the rental car's CDW (they require that you do so), will then reimburse you or the car rental company "for damage due to collision or theft up to the actual cash value of most rental vehicles."  There's no deductible, so this is my primary coverage.  In other words, "you do not have to claim payment from any source of insurance before receiving coverage under the benefit."  This is a great benefit.  Just make sure that your credit card offers this benefit. 

My personal car insurance covers the other types of insurance that might be needed. 

There's also this wording in the benefits brochure: "If you accept the collision damage waiver offered by the rental company, you will not be eligible for [our] Auto Rental CDW."

In Australia and some other countries, however, the car rental company may insist that you buy their CDW insurance.  In this case, the credit card will still cover you as long as the country is on their list of "exception countries."  I called my MasterCard benefits number, and they told me that the exception countries are New Zealand, Australia, Costa Rica, and Italy. 

Therefore, when renting a car in Australia, I could try to decline the company's CDW insurance, but if I was forced to buy it, my credit card benefits arm would still cover me in the case of an accident. 

I spoke to a friend who is also an underwater photographer.  He actually does highly recommend getting CDW insurance in Australia.  He did not get it once and was involved in an accident that was not his fault.  He therefore had to pay $3500 as a bond, and it was extremely difficult for him to get that money back, even though he was entitled to it.  He had to write numerous letters and make dozens of phone calls to clear the entire matter up.  From my initial reading, the situation can be even worse in Mexico.  

In other words, your credit card may cover you for CDW insurance in Australia, and you could decline the company's CDW insurance.  I did so when I was in Brisbane.  However, buying the company's CDW insurance in Australia is allowed by MasterCard benefits -- and it's probably a good idea.  Otherwise you will have to pay a $3500 or higher bond if you are involved in any type of accident, and it will be a hassle to get that money back. 

Brisbane Domestic and International Terminals:
 Here is a tip when renting a car in Brisbane, and it applies to other cities, anywhere.  When renting a car, double check to see if the car can be picked up "in terminal" or if you have to take a shuttle to the rental company location.  In Brisbane, companies like Hertz, Avis, and a few others had their facilities right on the airport.  It was thus a simple matter to pick up and return a car -- in Brisbane, I just returned my Hertz rental car right across the street from the domestic terminal one morning.  If I had rented from another company, I might have had to get up earlier and take a shuttle once I returned the car. 

Brisbane has separate international and domestic terminals.  They are about a 10-minute walk apart.  If you rent from Hertz, Avis, or other on-airport companies, they make it easy.  You can pick up a car from the international terminal and return it to the domestic terminal, or vice versa.  The rental car companies have counters and cars available at both the international and domestic terminals.  I liked Brisbane Airport a lot -- it was easy to get around in and picking up and returning a car was super-easy. 

Toll Roads in Brisbane: Don't Let the Rental Car Company Scam You

When I rented the car from Hertz, I was told that I had two options to pay for the toll roads around Brisbane.  I really dislike getting into situations where I am being scammed, and sure enough, the Hertz agent scammed me.  He convinced me to pay in advance of using any toll roads.  The options I had were:

1.  Pay AUD $11 in advance, and I would pay nothing more if I used a toll road(s).  I was not sure if the AUD $11 covered my entire rental, or if it only covered 24 hours or one day of my rental.  For example, if I kept the car for three days, would I be charged AUD $33 for three days at $11 per day, or just a flat $11? 
2.  Don't pay, and I would be billed the cost of the toll road fee along with a $16 Hertz administrative fee after the fact. 

What the Hertz agent neglected to tell me, which I discovered after a web search at my hotel, was that I could choose option 1 at the TIME I RETURNED MY CAR.  Therefore, if I never used a toll road in Brisbane, then I would not need to pay any fee; if I did in fact use a toll road, I could simply pay Hertz $10 for option 1 when I returned the car. 

That's what I ended up doing.  My Garmin unit had Australia maps loaded onto it, and it was programmed to avoid toll roads.  It worked just fine in Brisbane and I got to my hotel without having to use the M7 toll road from the airport (easy).  As it turns out, there are only one or two toll roads in Brisbane, and they are clearly marked so that you can avoid them. 

I also discovered that for at least the M7 airport toll road (the most likely road that a tourist driving to or from the Brisbane airport to the city would use), if you found yourself driving on it -- you could pay the toll online within three days. 

Here's how to pay the toll for the airport toll road:

For a casual user or a driver of a rental car -- buy a trip pass: Here's some wording from the website:
If you have already used AirporlinkM7 you have 3 days from the date of travel to pay for your trip by opening an account or buying a pass.

You can purchase a casual user pass prior to travel or 3 days after the date of travel.

A trip pass can pay for trips taken on AirportlinkM7 within the last 3 days; select the appropriate start date to cover any unpaid travel.

Hope this helps folks traveling to Brisbane!