Friday, September 23, 2016

Using Smartphones Overseas: Google Fi Works Great!

Using a smartphone overseas has gotten a lot easier. 

In the past few years, I've kept a Google Nexus 4 smartphone (Android) in my workshop, ready to go with me on any trip overseas.  Once I arrived at my destination, where I'd spend a couple of weeks to a month, I'd head to the airport's phone store, where the store staff would give or sell me a SIM card.  This SIM card would let me use my Nexus 4 phone on GSM networks.  It is a quad-band GSM phone, unlocked.  In simpler terms, this phone works on just about all cell phone operator's networks throughout the world, but on the slower 3G networks.  In the US, GSM operators are AT&T and T-Mobile.  Verizon and Sprint phones were CDMA, not GSM, meaning their phones would generally not work overseas. 

Most overseas operators use GSM technology.  With an unlocked GSM smartphone like the Nexus 4, I could put any operator's GSM SIM card in my phone, pay for data and voice/text package, and within a few minutes (thanks to the expert staff), my phone would be ready to go.  I could get email on the phone, make calls, and browse the Internet.  I could even use the phone as a Wi-Fi hotspot. 

(An unlocked phone is not tied to a particular carrier.  A phone that is locked will ONLY work on AT&T's network, for instance, unless AT&T gives you a code to allow you to unlock your phone). 

The above has worked for me for the past few years.  Nearly all good Android phones, like Motorola’s Moto G and Google's Nexus phones (made according to Google specifications by companies like LG and Asus) are unlocked and are quad-band.  Newer phones are able to run on the faster 4G LTE network -- but I won't discuss this here. 

The one thing that I'd like to get across with the above is that anyone traveling to South Africa, Papua New Guinea, or the UK (all places I've recently spent weeks and months in) can bring a quad-band, unlocked smartphone, buy a SIM card, buy a data/calling package in that country, and be set.  I've gotten emails on a boat sailing in the farthest reaches of Papua New Guinea -- amazing. 

On my recent trip to South Africa, I brought my trusty old Nexus 4 phone.  However, I also brought a Google Fi phone.  Anyone who travels internationally a lot should consider buying a phone that works with the Google Fi plans. 

Google Fi phones are designed to work in 130 countries around the world.  I bought a Google Fi phone (a Nexus 5X phone) to use in South Africa.  It worked great.  I landed in Dubai and London during my flights, turned on the phone, and was able to use the phone in all three countries almost immediately. 

Google Fi phones are world phones, meaning you can use them all over the world, in over 130 countries.  You just turn on the phone and it generally starts working.  You can use your Google Fi phone in the US, then go to China and use it without any hassle, and other countries like Taiwan and South Africa, England, etc.  Someone can call you on this Google Fi phone (a US number) and it will ring you in China.  It is a full-featured Android phone. 

In the US Google Fi phones use both the Sprint and T-Mobile network.

Here are the rates and countries that Google Fi phones will work in:

The rates are extremely reasonable.  Each month you pay $20 for voice and texts in the US.  If you use data, you are billed only for the data that you use, at $10 per Gb.  Calls to and from China are $0.20 per minute; for instance.  When I used this phone in South Africa, calls were $0.06 per minute. 

It took quite a bit of experimentation to figure out how to use these phones to call within South Africa and back to the US.  Here's what I figured out:

1.  Nexus 4 phone with local Vodacom SIM card.  The key to using a phone to make calls internationally is to realize where the SIM card in your phone has originated.  With a local SIM card in my Android phone, I needed to dial phone numbers like I was using a local South African (SA) cell phone.  For some reason I needed to dial the country code (27) first, then the number in South Africa.  I stupidly bought a data-only package at the Johannesburg Airport (JNB) when I arrived, so I had to use Google Hangouts Dialer to make phone calls.  Here's what I did. 

For instance, there's a hotel near Johannesburg Airport.  The website lists its phone as "Phone: +27 11 394 5555" (not the real number).  Another hotel, near Kruger National Park, had its phone number listed as "011 27 087 550 5555." 

To reach these numbers in South Africa using my Nexus 4 phone, I needed to dial (using Google Hangouts Dialer):  "27 11 394 5555" or "27 87 550 5555."  I did not dial any "0's" at the beginning of the numbers. 

My friend Andy had my Google Fi phone at times.  This was a US number in the form 831-789-5555.  For me to call him using my Nexus 4 (with a local SA SIM card), I had to dial "00 (the SA code to call internationally) then the US country code, and then the US phone number, e.g. "00 1 831-789-5555."

Note that if I am using a US landline to call a SA number, then I need to dial "011" in the US to indicate that I am calling overseas, then the country code of 27, then the phone number.  Because my Nexus 4 had a local SA SIM card, to call the US, I needed to first dial the international code of "00" and then the US area code and number. 

2.  Google Fi Nexus 5X phone. 
The Google Fi phone was activated in the US.  It had a US phone number.  Whether I used the phone dialing app or Google Hangouts Dialer, I did the same thing. 

To call a number in South Africa, I had to realize that my Google Fi phone was US-based.  Therefore, to call a hotel with the number "+27 11 394 5555", I had to dial "011-27 11 394 5555".  In other words, I called by dialing the international US code of 011, then the country code for SA of 27, then the SA phone number.  I normally did not dial any initial "0's" in any phone number. 

My Nexus 4 phone with the local SA SIM card had the phone number of 079 082 8403.  To call this phone using my Google Fi phone, I dialed 011 27 79 082 8403. 

Calling a US number, like home, using my Google Fi phone was simple.  I just dialed the area code and phone number!  I was able to do this, again, because the Google Fi phone "thinks" it is based in the US.  

I hope that the above helps travelers trying to figure out how to call within a country or back home when traveling internationally.  The key is to figure out where your phone was activated and where your phone thinks is "home." 

Renting a Car Overseas: What To Do About Insurance?

Here's my attempt at clarifying what you should buy, in terms of insurance, when you rent a car overseas. 

I recently traveled to Mexico and just returned from a trip to South Africa.  For both of these trips, I needed to rent a car.  When I looked online at the prices to rent a car from Cozumel Airport in Mexico, I was surprised to see prices for a ten-day rental ranging from $500 to only $50. 

The rental rate of $50 was obviously too good to be true.  Even though I had rented a car in Mexico before, it had been a while, so I did some research.  Sure enough, the really cheap rate to rent a car in Mexico comes with some very expensive "required" insurance. 

Please be advised that these are notes that I've come up when doing research on this topic, but I am not a lawyer, nor does this blog post constitute legal advice in any way, shape, or form.  You should consult a lawyer or other expert before renting a car or buying insurance rather than relying on the information given here. 

Renting a car in the US and Canada:
If you rent a car within the US and Canada, you are generally covered by your auto insurer in the US -- if you have an auto policy for your own car in the US.  This policy generally will cover you for collision damage insurance (CDW, also sometimes called loss damage waiver or LDW) if you rent a car in the US or Canada.  CDW covers you in case your rental car suffers physical damage, from collisions with other cars, objects, and even animals. 

Your auto insurance company often will also cover you in the US and Canada for liability insurance.  I'll describe liability insurance later. 

Because you are covered for collision damage (as opposed to liability), you generally can decline any insurance offered by the rental car company.  I myself always decline, knowing that I am already covered for collision and liability by both my auto insurer and my credit card company. 

In the US, whenever I rent a car, I know that I am covered by my credit card benefits for collision insurance (but not liability insurance!).  Here's what one website says:

"Most top-tier travel rewards cards, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or the Marriott Rewards® Premier Credit Card, are Visa Signature cards. These cards are a certain class of product within the Visa family and come with benefits simply for being Visa Signature cards. While there are additional perks, specifically in the case the of the Sapphire Preferred, such as the Primary Auto Rental CDW, simply by being a Visa card there are benefits."

In other words, Visa Signature is a line of premium credit cards that gives premium benefits.  One of these benefits is primary collision coverage for auto rentals -- as opposed to secondary coverage.  I'll explain this further below. 

I have an airline-affiliated Mastercard that offers similar benefits as the Visa Signature cards.  This Mastercard is in their line called "World Elite Mastercard."  With Mastercard, however, you can't be sure that all cards of the same line offer the same benefit.  For example, my Mastercard offers primary car rental coverage (collision) but some Mastercards in the same line (World Elite) do not. 

As an example of this coverage, my credit card's benefits booklet states the following:

"Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver
Decline the rental company's collision insurance and charge the entire rental cost to your ... Mastercard. Coverage is primary and is provided for theft and collision damage for most cars in the U.S. and abroad."

American Express cardholders can buy Amex's product, called Premium Car Rental Protection.  I've heard and read that if you get into an accident and have opted in for this coverage, they take great care of you.  I am not sure that Mastercard's benefits program will take the same great care of you. 

From a forum:
...this coverage is primary--it pays collision and comp (but not liability) damages before your regular auto insurance does. In theory, your insurance carrier wouldn't ever have to know about a claim...


Once you opt-in to the product, your Amex card is automatically charged a flat $24.95 each time you rent ($17.95 for California residents).


I use the Amex Premium Car Rental Insurance at $19.95 per rental.

In summary, whenever I rent a car in the US and Canada, I decline the collision and liability insurance offered by the rental car company.  I am pretty sure that I am covered for collision insurance by my credit card; and for liability insurance by my auto insurer.  But only in the US and Canada. 

Primary versus Secondary Insurance:
The above premium credit cards offer primary coverage.  This means that your credit card benefits administrator will take care of any damage to your rental car first, before your auto insurer.  It appears that these credit card coverages will take care of all costs related to a collision, and there's no deductible.  You're therefore, theoretically, completely taken care of in case of an accident (only for collision and damage, NOT for liability).  Some credit card policies may also have a deductible.

This is great -- because if you don't have credit card coverage for damage to a car, then you will have to call your insurance company.  Relying on your own insurance company likely means that you'll have to pay your deductible, and filing a claim might drive up your insurance premiums.

Most non-premium credit cards offer what is known as "secondary" coverage, which  means that it will only pay out after your personal auto insurance policy has been exhausted (assuming you have such a policy).  Therefore, you'll still have to file a claim with your insurance company, and the credit card will only pick up your deductible.

The folks at have a great explanation of CDW, LDW, and primary verus secondary coverage at:

Renting a car overseas:
If you rent a car outside of the US and Canada, use a credit card that offers collision insurance, and decline the car rental company's insurance, then you are covered for collision damage either primarily or secondarily -- just like the examples above when renting a car in the US and Canada. 

From other websites:
"Most major credit card companies automatically provide this [CDW] coverage to their cardholders if they waive the rental company's coverage and use their credit card to reserve a car and pay for the rental.

Generally, credit card programs do cover you when renting a car overseas, but not in every country. Visa excludes coverage in Israel, Jamaica and Ireland. American Express and MasterCard exclude Australia, New Zealand and Italy too."

In planning to rent a car for my South Africa trip, I was told by my Mastercard credit card benefits administrator that I should decline any CDW offered by the rental car company.  By doing so, the credit card will offer primary CDW coverage.  Many credit card companies offer only secondary CDW coverage.  If I am forced to purchased CDW coverage by the overseas rental car agency, then the credit card offers secondary CDW coverage -- and it will cover the cost of any deductible ("excess").  This is great! 

Some credit card coverages will NOT insure you at all -- unlike my credit card -- if you don't decline CDW offered by the rental card company.  Check with your credit card benefits administrator to be sure about the rules. 

Here's one thing to watch out for, from a forum:

"I know that most credit cards will pay for the collision damage to the car,
up to a certain limit, but be careful of exclusions.... Some have exclusions
such as collision coverage will only extend if on a paved road, etc. "

Liability Insurance Overseas:
Note that credit card companies' insurance do not cover liability insurance, even the Amex premium policy -- whether in the US or overseas.

If you rent a car outside of the US and Canada, your auto insurer in the US generally does not provide any coverage, be it collision or liability, for your rental car. 

Here's what insurance agent Teresa Carr, of Johnson-Carr Insurance/Farmer's Insurance in Lacey, Washington State wrote:

"...your auto insurance will only cover you in the United States, its territories and in Canada.  ...If you have a policy in California (umbrella) then you have international coverage under the umbrella...[Umbrella policies]... are a BARGAIN for what they cover, under $200 per year for a million in coverage...However, there is a retained limit with that.....meaning you are on the hook for the first 250K, then your umbrella kicks in."

A second insurance agent told me:

"Although your underlying auto policies will not cover any cars rented outside of the US and its territories, your umbrella policy WILL extend the $1,000,000 [or whatever your coverage is] of LIABILITY ONLY to PERSONAL PASSENGER VEHICLES rented on a personal basis anywhere in the world.  For the umbrella liability to flow to the rented car, you should rent the car in your name, and be using it for your personal transportation...Regarding the possibility of damage to the car... the umbrella will not cover this..."

BOLD: So, when you rent a car overseas, it seems that you SHOULD purchase liability insurance.  In South Africa, this is called TPL.  This is required when you rent a car in Mexico also. 

It seems that if you have an umbrella policy, then your auto insurer may cover you when renting a car internationally -- but the deductible may be a staggering $250,000 or more.  

Here's a summary:
1.  In the US and Canada, decline collision damage insurance (CDW, also sometimes called loss damage waiver or LDW).  You are likely covered by your credit card (if it is a good one) and your auto insurer for CDW. 

Also, in the US and Canada, decline liability insurance.  Your auto insurance company probably already covers you in the US and Canada for liability insurance.  Your credit card almost certainly does NOT include liability insurance. 

(If renting a car in the US, try to pay for the car rental with a premium credit card, and decline the car rental company's collision and liability insurance. 
Your credit card benefits administrator should cover damage to your rental car with primary or secondary coverage.  Your home and auto insurer should also cover you for both collision and liability if renting in the US -- but it's better if your credit card benefits administrator ends up handling any claims first, so your car insurance premiums don't go up. )

2.  If renting a car overseas, try to pay for the car rental with a premium credit card, and decline the car rental company's collision insurance. 
Your credit card benefits administrator should cover damage to your rental car with primary or secondary coverage (note the countries excluded above). 

Your home and auto insurer will generally NOT cover you for liability insurance overseas, unless you buy an umbrella policy.  In my research, your best strategy is to decline the rental car company's collision insurance (your premium credit card will provide primary coverage for collision); but you should probably purchase the rental car company's liability insurance.  Credit card companies don't provide liability insurance as a benefit; and your auto insurer generally won't provide liability insurance overseas unless you have an umbrella policy -- and that will likely have a huge deductible. 

So what did I do in South Africa?  I checked a few rental car websites.  The prices were reasonable, and all car rentals included, automatically, both collision and liability insurance in the rental price.  I therefore just paid the rental price and got collision and liability insurance that way -- it was extremely difficult to decline these coverages.  So I was covered by paying for it. 

The rental car company also tried to sell me windshield and tire coverage.  I declined these items, which were about $1.50 per day.  I was covered by my credit card company for this insurance. 

I hope that this helps you the next time you rent a car overseas. 

Some notes: South Africa's car rental agencies rent cars that include "free" CDW.  I cannot decline CDW.  What to do? 

Mastercard card benefit services (MCBS) says yes, I am covered in South Africa.  If CDW is REQUIRED, then sign for the minimum, and card benefit services will cover deductible, also loss of use, towing, and administrative fees.  CDW MUST BE REQUIRED.  Also decline all physical stuff to be insured, such as windshields and tires

What about additional drivers?  MCBS: I should rent the car in my name, put my friend as additional driver.  As long as he is an authorized additional driver, benefits will cover him and me in any accident.  I will have to file the paperwork. 

MCBS: No personal liability is covered (so in SA, get the TPL, personal liability).

The only way to be sure whether your U.S. car insurance policy covers overseas rentals is to contact your car insurance company and ask.

A good rule of thumb is to purchase international insurance that provides the same level of coverage as you have at home.

Before you go on your trip, however, don’t make assumptions about the rental car insurance coverage the card provides. Contact your credit card company to get specific details about your coverage. Particularly, make sure to find out:
Whether the policy applies in the country you are traveling to.
If it includes liability, collision, and comprehensive coverage.
The coverage limits.
Whether you need to pay an additional fee for this coverage.

International auto insurance from credit card companies may officially be secondary insurance, which means that it applies after your primary insurance kicks in. However, if your credit card insurance is your only car insurance while you are abroad, it may, in effect, act as your primary insurance.

The first and most expensive piece of an auto insurance policy is the liability coverage. This pays off if you hurt someone while driving and they sue you -- not just for the damage to their car but also for medical costs, loss of wages and possibly emotional distress. The amount of liability insurance you need wouldn't vary based on the car you drive. (That also means there's no need to take the rental company up on its offer of "additional liability protection," assuming you own a car.)

It's not so simple with comprehensive and collision coverage, which pay to replace or repair your vehicle if it's stolen or damaged. Many people who have older cars go without comprehensive and collision coverage to help reduce premiums.

Many people have auto insurance on their regular cars, which acts as the primary insurer in the case of loss or damage.

Mastercard’s insurance coverage varies by the issuing bank. A USAA World MasterCard, for example, provides largely the same benefits as Visa, but caps loss of use reimbursement at $500.

American Express card holders are afforded the opportunity to a pay a one-time fee per rental of $16 to $25 to change their coverage from secondary to primary. You can enroll online or by calling the company.

Keep in mind, although your rented vehicle is protected, you will need AMEX Premium coverage or a separate insurance to cover possible medical expenses and damages you may cause by accident.

Generally, however, the credit cards don't offer free supplementary liability insurance—damage to other vehicles, property, or people—and luxury vehicles are also excluded from protection.

Great fan solves travel problems if too hot on a plane, under mosquito netting, elsewhere

I travel all over the world as a photographer.  I've always run hot-blooded, meaning I am often too hot when other (normal) folks are not. 

It's a problem when I am on a plane or hotel room and it is too hot.  For the past 25 years, I've carried around a portable fan for such situations.  The old fan was a pain, however, to power.  It was a bit too big to hand-carry, so I had to store it in my checked baggage.  I spent hours soldering wires so that it would run off my Ikelite batteries (I love Ikelite!) and more recently, off AC adapters that ran on both 110V and 220V sources.  It was portable, but somewhat heavy, finicky, and large -- and clunky!

This Efluky USB fan is the answer to my dreams!  It is lightweight, compact (a bit bigger than the spread of my hand), and it has an internal battery that lets it run for hours.  I can power it off a USB power pack, by itself, off my laptop, and the list goes on. 

I just came back home from Africa and used this on a bed inside mosquito netting to help me get to sleep on hot nights.  Normally, trying to get to sleep under mosquito netting is a huge problem.  I used this on the flight home when the airplane got too hot also -- perfect!  I've always hated it when the plane suddenly goes from cool to too warm -- because the pilot up front suddenly decides that he wants to make it warm in the plane.  I just put this up to my neck and was able to fall asleep, no problem. 

 This Efluky is awesome.  Get one if you are a "hot" person!  It's on Amazon:

Efluky Mini USB 3 Speeds Rechargeable Portable Table Fan, 4.5-Inch, Black