The High Cost of Roaming

Silves Town Square is a Delightful Place with Free WiFi

We all need to remember to pack our smarts when we leave on a trip.  I always think I do, and sometimes I’m surprised to discover that I only brought my brains – my smarts got left behind.  And nowhere is this more true than being aware of the high costs of data roaming charges for international travel.

Like on my recent trip to the Algarve.  Before I left home I downloaded a whole bunch of apps for my beloved iPhone.  I can now turn it into a flashlight, play a bunch of games, find free wi-fi spots, listen to CBC radio ‘live streaming’.  I even got an app that allows me to take pictures and then have them inserted into a map so that family, friends and clients can track my progress.  How wonderful!  What I totally forgot, despite being warned about the high cost of international data roaming charges, is that most of these apps use data transfer in order to function.  Duuh.

So I merrily explored the Algarve once again, vaguely aware that I was using my iPhone more than in the past but secure in the knowledge that I had all these new apps and had pretty much figured each of them out.  Roaming charges didn’t even register in my mind.

Now I’m not a stupid person.  I made no phone calls ‘cause they were $2.00/minute.  I sent no e-mail (but I did download my inbasket regularly, alas) and I was very prudent with my texting, using it only a dozen or so times at a cost of $.75/message.  My carrier had kindly reminded me to pay attention to these International travel pitfalls.  But I wasn’t very smart.

The penny never dropped that each time I searched for free wi-fi’s I was sending and receiving data.  The one or two times that I tuned into CBC Radio it never occurred to me how much data was flowing.  And that great picture taking/tracking app that I kept testing has been sitting unused since I got back 3 weeks ago.  Too much else to do.

My bill arrived yesterday.  My heart attack thankfully didn’t arrive, but the palpitations I received from looking at that bill are still echoing!  $600 in data roaming charges for a 2 week trip.  I doubt that I used my iPhone for more than 5 minutes a day.  Oh Lord, why didn’t I just go and pay €10/hr at an Internet café instead of trying to find something ‘free’, at a much higher cost.

So next time I’ll definitely remember my smarts.  I might even try to find an app that tells me how much I’ve spent in roaming charges!  My advice to you is put those wonderful electronic devices away.  Bring a laptop, go to an Internet café or one of the many town squares with free wi-fi, connect with people at home via Skype.  Enjoy knowing that you won’t receive any post-vacation surprises in the mail!

How do I find places?

While places in the Algarve frequently have street addresses, forget simply using a map and street coordinates to locate them!  I also don’t think you need to spend mucho dinero on the GPS units car rental agencies are happy to provide.

By and large you’ll find that using landmarks is a much more efficient way to find places than is a map.  It is also a lot more fun than working with a GPS.  But is does mean that those of you who aren’t terrifically visually astute are going to have to hone your skills.  But for those of us who are very visually oriented, locating stores, restaurants, homes and public buildings can be a lot of fun because of what you’ll discover en route.

An 'obvious' Algarve street market - very atypically large & easily seen

And here’s the reason.  Streets and roads are not signposted the way we’re used to.  For one thing, what signs exist are located down low to the ground, not high up on little metal posts.  For another, street names are often painted on or carved into stone or cement markers which can’t be seen in low light situations.  So it is easier to pay attention to landmarks.

Those of you who use my Gwen’s Guide to Dining Well in the Algarve will find that I use this landmark system to lead you to the restaurants I review.  The tour guides at hotels and even directions given by car rental companies all also use this process.

Let me give you an example.  Let’s say you are trying to make your way to the wonderful Saturday morning market (mercado) at Loulé.  Here’s how I’d direct you in:

Take the N125 to the traffic circle marked “Loule/A22” or take the A22 to the Loule West exit.  Travel North until you enter the town of Loule.  At the Cyclists traffic circle, exit right and proceed along to the stop light.  Turn left and you’ll immediately see cars parked up on the curb. After 2-3 blocks you’ll see the Market Building and farmers stalls on your left.  At the main Loule traffic circle with the fountain, you can take any of the exits and find parking spots. Arrive early, tho because parking is at a premium.

Or let’s say you are looking for the Modelo Shopping Centre in Albufeira.  Here’s how I’d direct you, assuming that you were coming from the East.

Take the N125 into Albufeira, always heading West at the Globe and Worms Traffic Circles.  When you get to the Swatches circle, go 3/4 round (or 270˚) and exit onto a service road.  Go 1 block West, get in the left turning lane.  As you turn left, turn right immediately into the Modelo parking lot.

It isn’t difficult to find places, but you have to be open to doing things differently than you’re accustomed to.  And you have to be awake and alert as you travel.

On the up-side, the Portuguese aren’t as up-tight as we are about arriving on time.  So if you get lost, don’t worry about it.  Actually, if you get lost, have fun with it.  Some of my best discoveries in travel, especially in Portugal come from the times that I got lost and proceeded down a road I’d never traveled before.  And then there is the luxury of going around in circles in a traffic circle while you make up your mind which exit to take.  When you are stuck at a 4-way stop and the guy behind you is honking, you have to make anxiety provoking split second decisions.  The beauty of round-abouts or traffic circles is that you can take your time deciding and you are slowing no one else down!

And let me know if you have special ways to find places in the Alarve!