Sunday, January 13, 2013

Struggle for Mobile Data

I’d done my research about getting a SIM to allow me to keep all the benefits provided by access to the internet on the move – and in the USA it looked like it might be rather convoluted – including purchasing a pre-paid VISA card to use to pay for a month-to-month contract, then cancel it after I left the country…

In Australia and New Zealand it had been incredibly simple – less than 15 minutes at the airport, only complicated in Australia, by the fact you couldn’t use a non-Australian credit card to top up you account – and Vodafone Australia failed to let you know why your attempts to credit your account were failing any where on their website or the automated phone system….

So I was pleasantly surprise when checking where the nearest AT&T shop open on a Sunday was, to notice that their goPhone, pay as you go (PAYG), plan had added the ability to add data as a “feature packages” – on top of the unlimited data if you didn’t have a smart phone….

Acquiring a goPhone SIM involved a pleasant mile long walk amongst the skyscrapers of downtown Miami. The sales person in the store wasn’t aware that you could add data on a smart phone to a goPhone contract – but I decided to go ahead anyway despite the rather step $50 for the unlimited plan, plus $25 “activation charge” – plus of course taxes… Even if I only ended up with a mobile phone with free calls within the US, that would be useful to avoid expensive hotel calls, or international roaming charges on my “home” numbers….

Returning to Wi-Fi coverage at my Hotel, I was pleasantly surprised when AT&T allowed me to charge the rather expensive $25 for 1GB to my Amex – despite having to declare my home state as being Florida and enter a ZIP code rather than the correct post code…

That is where the frustration began, it didn’t work despite texts from AT&T indicating I’d added data to my goPhone account…

After a few more Google searches it was apparent that it was certainly possible to use goPhone data on an iPhone – but mine refused to work – so I call AT&T… Having battled past their automated system that attempts to keep you away from actually speaking to someone using voice recognition – which it did quite well with the only benefit of not having to “Select 1 to do X, Select 2 to do Y, etc.…” The system had the incredible addition of fake typing noises when it had to pause to think. It took a while, but I eventually persuade the system it couldn’t help me and to let me speak to a real person… To give AT&T credit, for a Sunday afternoon I was quickly talking to someone, but then it when down hill…

“Sir – your iPhone 4S is a very good phone, but goPhone data only works on SmartPhones not iPhones”

That wasn’t stated anywhere in the documentation or on AT&T’s website and other people’s experiences would indicate that wasn’t the case….

“You can’t access data because AT&T haven’t finished upgrading all our cell towers to support 4G on goPhone – the iPhone 4S supports 4G so it won’t work”

The poor call centre person that ended up trying to assist me, rather than watch the NFL play off games, understood my frustration – and did have the good grace to offer to refund the $25 I’d paid to add data to my phone – but that would still leave me $78 out of pocket without mobile data…

The reference to it being a problem with 4G not being available to goPhone users gave me some hope – I’d seen that with my GiffGaff SIM in the phone connected to AT&T there was an option to switch off 4G data – and any data would be great…. So I thanked the rather flustered support person, promising to call back for the offer of a refund if switching off 4G data didn’t work – not something I could test while still talking to him…. 

That is when I discovered that in their wisdom, AT&T had chosen to remove all the option within the iPhone that allows you to check/set the mobile data configuration when you inserted their SIM. Possibly a good way of stopping people fiddling with them, and then having to calling customer support to set them back to the correct values – but that is only a good ideal if you set the configuration correctly automatically!

Then, when I was just about to resign my self to either not having mobile data or having to try again, out of pocket by $78, with one of the other networks, I returned to Google – refining my searches to include APN – the hidden set of setting, normally correctly applied automatically when you insert a providers SIM that which configure your device to connect to mobile data from that source. I’ve had issues with these settings before when using a GiffGaff SIM – the GiffGaff SIM is really an O2 SIM, and sets your phone correctly if you had a O2 contact, but you don’t, and need to configure you phone to use GiffGaff’s infrastructure… GiffGaff are very aware of this and don’t hide the menus that allow you to set the needed configuration manually and even provide a simple way of setting them from their iPhone application.

This was a good line to investigate – I quickly found pages indicating people had successfully configured iPhone 4S devices to use goPhone mobile data – then I got lucky – thanks go to Jay Versluis’s page and Unlockit I soon had mobile data working…. Live Google maps on the move will make navigation so much easier. More Facebook posts, Tweets and FourSquare checkins will also occur…

The small UK, user supported, GiffGaff out performed one of the largest mobile network provided in the world on this occasion…. AT&T was recommended to me because their customer support was better than the alternatives – I hate to think how bad the alternatives are… Surely AT&T’s FAQs for support staff, if not their customers, should know about why on inserting the SIM, mobile data doesn’t work on an iPhone 4S ( and possibly other iPhones), rather than have the supports staff making stuff up!

Yet again the internet provided the solution – ironically to getting me access to the internet as I explore…

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Immigration into the US of A

I’ve flown direct into via a few US cities in my lifetime – San Francisco, New York (multiple times) and Los Angeles (multiple times) and have always wondered where the horror stories about long lines at immigration came from – this time at Miami International I discovered their source… Queuing for over 2 hours had many people in the line very frustrated – in the UK this would be headline news, but it appears to be accepted in the USA – at least it was “equal opportunity”  - the queues for American Citizens, US resident non-citizens and “other visitors” where all equally long….

Miami airport also takes my personal record for longest walk from the gate to immigration/luggage collection, previously held by JFK, beaten by some distance and added to by 10+ slow walks repeatedly left and right, up and down the immigration hall in the queue! At least there was absolutely no chance I’d have to wait for my luggage at the carousel!

I hope the long queue isn’t a sign that the travel gods aren’t with me on this journey – there is lots of opportunity for them to have adverse or favourable influences on the smoothness of my progress round the world….

Gold Status

Having earned most of the required tier points to qualify for BA Gold, OneWorld Emerald status last time I circumnavigated the earth but only flown short haul since then, my departure for Heathrow Terminal 5 was the first time my new found status noticeably impacted my flying experience….

The documented benefits included being able to use the First Class checking facilities – which at Terminal 5 is a mixed blessing for me since they are at the opposite end of the departure hall to the lifts from Heathrow Express, but the privilege was there so had to be used….

You also get entry to the First Class lounge – which at Terminal 5 is effectively the Gold lounge as those actually travelling first class have access to the Concord Lounge, somewhere I hope to experience one day… That means they are much quieter than the Business Class lounge – and they also had a better range of refreshments…. Having free lounge access will be an even bigger benefit in the USA – where as I discovered last time crossing the USA, even those travelling First/Business Class don’t get automatic complimentary lounge access for domestic flights unless they are at least a silver (BA) or sapphire (OneWorld) status flyer – I’m looking forward to yet another visit to the First Class lounge at LAX – the celebrity spotting opportunities there are at their greatest….

An undocumented benefit of my new status was first choice of food in the business class cabin – apparently I was the only Gold member in the cabin – which is a valuable benefit as I’ve come to the conclusion that meat “travels” much better than fish when being kept warm in the galley – so being able to avoiding the “sorry sir, we’ve run out of the….” message is welcome… You need to be in First Class before they cook your steak freshly for you to your own taste….

BA had no control of what happened when I left the plane – US immigration don’t permit airlines to provide “fast lanes” for even their most loyal customers – everyone gets equal treatment – being at the front of the plane can help – and I learnt a lesson – pick a seat on the left of the plane if you can – you are a little closer to the air bridge….

Friday, January 11, 2013

Round the world for a second time

To bring to a close my “middle aged gap year+”, I’m embarking on a 2nd trip round the world – making use of the great value of a One World Round the World Ticket – allowing you to visit up to 16 airports round the world for less than the cost of 2 long haul returns…

My itinerary this year includes 14 flights, 6 trains journeys and two long bus transfers – no ferries this time. The countries on the journey are the United States, Australia, South Africa (for two short stop overs), Botswana and Zimbabwe. I’m revisiting some of the places I either only saw briefly, or seamed to have more to share plus 6 places new to my round the world journeying.

Being a month earlier – I’m expecting New York to be colder than it was last year, and having the windy city, Chicago, on the route carrying the cold weather cloths needed for skiing less of a luxury than it was last time.

Having three more “warm” cities in the USA on the schedule – Miami, Las Vegas and San Francisco (Replacing LA last time) and Honolulu, together with the fact I’ll be in Australia a month earlier than last time, means my secondary aim of escaping the British winter isn’t compromised by too many wintery locations in America – or being in Australia/New Zealand in their autumn while spring is starting in London – autumn in southern Africa is going to be warmer than the warmest of summers in the UK….

There are bound to be lots of photos and I hope to be more regular in blogging as I go, some post might be augmented with pictures after they are initial published – Facebook and Twitter will get regular micro updates and Four Square will record as many of the places I visit possible….