On holiday with a PC and the Internet

I’ve spent one month on vacation in Australia and I had my netbook with me, a SSD-based eeepc 901 with eeebuntu 3. I planned to use it to check my mail, upload pictures and travel notes for my friends to see and occasionally do some urgent work for my customers (it turned out that I had to). I didn’t think about bringing my main machine with me (a notebook) because it’s more than twice as large, three times as heavy and the battery time can’t even be compared: it’s 7 hours for the eeepc vs 2 hours for the notebook (when its battery was new, it’s much worse now).

I learned some lessons in this month on the move and I want to share them. Most of them are about keeping your data safe. That means you can keep using your pc for all the time you’re away from home, which is important: if you don’t you’ll regret that extra weight in your luggage and the things you won’t be able to do.

  1. Have a backup of all programs and data you need on a server on the Internet. If something goes very wrong you can download them and start over. I lost a program I only had on a USB stick and couldn’t reach my pc and my backup disks at home to get it again ;-)
  2. Keep a local copy your mail because you’ll have to spend some time offline. Furthermore if you have local copies you won’t be forced to go online when it’s inconvenient or expensive to do it. I’m using Thunderbird and downloading every message, even from the gmail accounts I have to use for part of my work.
  3. Backup everything on USB sticks or to the Internet. I was rsyncing my mail to the flash drive and pushing code to git remote repositories. I had too many photos for uploading them over the average Australian Internet connection but I had three copies of them on SD cards, the pc’s SSD and the sticks.
  4. USB keys get corrupted sometimes and can’t be read anymore. You’re in trouble if you have something only there. Bring two sticks, maybe 8 GB or more. I had one and had to reformat it.
  5. Internet connections can be very slow and very expensive so don’t count only on the Internet to sync and backup data. Luckily I didn’t but read more about this below.
  6. Don’t plan to rely on 3G unless you know it’s available everywhere you’re planning to go. If it is, check the local data plans before you leave and buy a local data SIM card. I didn’t but I saw many people using them.
  7. Encrypt your file systems just in case your pc gets stolen or lost.
  8. The firewalls of some hotels let through only very few ports, sometimes only port 80. If the ssh port is open you can setup a ssh tunnel to smtp and pop servers (you need your own server on the Internet). It’s a bit painful but you can keep use your mail client. If it doesn’t, you need to use webmail until you get into a friendlier place or, if you planned in advance, you have a server on the Internet accepting ssh connections on port 80 and you tunnel over that.

Internet connections and phones deserve some more thoughts.

In my experience Internet was slow everywhere in Polinesia (tested in 2006) but they only have satellite links. Internet was slow everywhere in Mongolia but in the capital (2008). Australia fares better than them but worse than anywhere in Mexico (2005). That must be excused because bits have to go along cables under the ocean to reach every destination outside the country. Very remote areas such as Cape Tribulation might have incredibly slow connections reminding me of 56k modems. Those connections tend to be very expensive, maybe even more than 1 AUD per 10 minutes. Large cities have cheap connections which sometimes approached 1 Mb/s of real bandwidth. Not much actually but very fast compared to what you can get used to. Must locations in Australia have Internet access with Global Gossip. If WIFI is slow where you’re staying find out if they have a local shop and go there.

Always buy a local SIM card for your phone if you can. This is not possible in every country of the world but I got mine shipped from Australia to my home after making a VIP Backpackers card. I redirected my Skype account to it using call forwarding (you must pay for that but their rates are cheap) so customers and friends could talk to me without paying anything. I also created a Skype online number with my home town area code so people not using Skype could call me at their usual rate (you pay for that too).

When going to Australia keep in mind that phones often don’t work outside cities, even on the highways. The country is as large as Europe or the USA and there are not many people living there (20 millions) so a complete coverage it’s not economically feasible. Combining my experience with what people told me,Telstra has the best coverage followed by Optus. Vodafone has a small network (apparently merged with the one of 3) and it’s worth using it only if you’re staying in large cities. There are some virtual operators so check which network they use.