New technology brings lower travel calling costs

ChatSim is a SIM card that offers users the ability to message on certain apps for a baseline price of $12 per year.

An Expedia.com study recently revealed what most suspected: The majority of travelers consider their smartphones to be the most important item to bring on trips. But signing up for and using overseas calling plans offered by U.S. wireless companies are among the most frustrating, and among the most expensive, experiences consumers encounter in their journeys.

Travel advisers have taken note: The importance of keeping their clients connected internationally has not escaped them, and many are now offering more convenient options for staying connected, including applications that enable cheap international calling via WiFi, in an attempt to combat the historically expensive and confusing international plans offered by most domestic carriers.

T-Mobile is now including in some of its simple choice plans international roaming in about 140 countries with unlimited data and texts. The plans start at $50 per line per month. WiFi calls made back home to the U.S. are free, but WiFi calls to another country are 20 cents per minute, the same rate as cellular calls.

Other carriers have more complicated  — and more expensive — ways to make international calls. For example, AT&T offers a three-tiered plan for coverage in some 190 countries with base charges of $30, $60 and $120. Each includes unlimited texting, but depending on the base plan, a user could pay as much as $1 per minute for calls and more for data.

In contrast, Wireless Traveler offers several popular solutions that travel advisers can share with their clients. In addition to renting and selling global phones, the company has an eponymous app that offers international calling for as low as 2 cents per minute over WiFi. It is a  voice-over-Internet-protocol (VoIP) service that is available wherever there is WiFi.

Rates vary by country, but for example, a traveler in France could call another country from the app for 3 cents per minute. Calling another person who has the app is free.

The company also offers a white-label version of the product, working with agencies and tour operators such as Valerie Wilson Travel and Collette Tours to create branded apps that offer the same calling technology. Wireless Traveler also has preferred-supplier relationships with Virtuoso, Ensemble Travel Group and others, according to CEO Ian Benson.

Valerie Wilson Travel Co-President Kimberly Wilson Wetty said she uses her company’s branded app when she travels and is impressed with the quality of the service for the price.

“It is the cheapest thing I have ever used as a service,” she said, calling the quality “so clear it was unbelievable.” Her agency promotes the app to its clients, including leisure and corporate travelers.

Wetty particularly likes that the app carries her agency’s name and logo, keeping it in the forefront of clients’ minds.

“As an agency owner, that’s one of the concerns as we look at the increased advancement of travel technology,” she said. “How do you maintain your own brand and your own relevance in a world where there’s information 24/7 and completely at your fingertips?”

Elaine Carey, an affiliate of Travel Experts, uses the app as a gift that she gives to some of her younger, more tech-savvy clients. Before they travel abroad, she pre-loads an app with $20 for them. It also provides them with a good — and free, for them — way to get in touch with her if something goes wrong on their trip, she said.

Benson said that while some agents do gift within the app, “not enough [do] in my opinion. … I think it’s a fabulous gift to give to somebody because it’s so relevant.”

Nicole Mazza, chief marketing officer of Travelsavers and NEST, said the companies encourage their agents to gift WiFi calling credit within their Affluent Traveler Talk App. Many use it as a value-add for their clients.

In addition to the Wireless Traveler app, the company offers global SIM cards, which Benson said are his biggest sellers. They work in most countries in the world through partnerships with some 400 carriers. The card costs $24.99, with $15 of free airtime included; it also includes a U.S. and European phone number.

Rates vary, but for example outgoing calls from France to the U.K. have a 40-cent connection fee and are 65 cents per minute. Text messages and data are available at additional per-country costs.

Like the Wireless Traveler app, Benson said there are agents who gift global SIM cards to clients, as well as the company’s pocket WiFi hotspots.

It is important to note that Wireless Traveler’s global SIM cards only work on unlocked GSM cell phones, meaning they will not work with Verizon handsets.

Travelers could, of course, purchase local SIM cards if they have a compatible phone once they reach their destination, but Benson said

he only recommends that for longer stays because it eats into vacation time, and the local cards cannot travel from country to country. They also expire after a set amount of time, while the global SIM card does not.

ChatSim, another relatively new international telecom service, is making its way into the U.S., and its investors are hoping agents here will start using the technology themselves and gifting it to clients, as the company is seeing internationally.

ChatSim is a SIM card that offers users the ability to message on certain apps for a baseline price of $12 per year. The card itself is also about $12, but it does not expire at the end of the year.

ChatSim works on messaging apps WhatsApp, Messenger, LINE, WeChat, imo, Kakao Talk, QQi, Hike and BBM. It provides coverage in 150 countries by connecting to over 250 service providers.

Pierre Brais, an angel investor in ChatSim, said the company differentiates itself from others thanks to its flat annual $12 fee to chat within compatible apps. The card can be ordered online through Amazon for $25, which includes the card and the first year’s $12 fee.

For an extra $12, users can buy a multimedia package of 2,000 credits, which they can use to send photos and make voice calls within apps. ChatSim estimates 2,000 credits would give a user enough bandwidth to send up to 200 photos or 50 videos or make up to 80 minutes of voice calls. Brais said around 60% to 70% of people buying the card are also buying the multimedia option.

Costs are kept down by preventing other apps on a user’s phone from running in the background, eating up data, according to Brais.

“Our tests have shown that 90% of data traffic on a smartphone now is used by the background applications on your phone,” he said, not by what the user is actually doing. The ChatSim card automatically turns off non-messaging apps to limit the amount of data used.

ChatSim has been on the market for about a year, and 100,000 cards have been sold, including to travel agents and tour operators, who are gifting the cards or selling them to clients.

The company attended the recent New York Times Travel Show and got a positive reaction from agents, Brais said, marking the start of ChatSim’s push into the U.S. market.

Brais said the card works in most unlocked, SIM-capable phones, both GSM and CDMA, meaning that unlike Wireless Traveler’s SIM cards the CDMA version of ChatSIM will work with Verizon handsets.

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10 Reasons to Choose a “Modern Luxury” Venue for Your Event

Yes, we know that meeting budgets are being scrutinized and “luxury” might not be part of your vernacular these days, but that’s no reason to cut back on service and quality – it’s more affordable than you might think!

Celebrity Redefines Modern Luxury

Celebrity Reflection Sky BarCelebrity’s concept of “modern luxury” begins with cool contemporary design blended with warm, inviting space to meet and connect. Now add in delightful dining experiences, breathtaking entertainment, beautiful conference facilities, world-class accommodations and intuitive service. These premium ships are designed to inspire and motivate meeting and incentive groups, with remarkable value built right in.

Top 10 reasons to choose a Celebrity ship for your next meeting or incentive:

1. Dedicated Meeting and Conference Space

Celebrity Reflection Conference CenterEverything you need for successful business programs are Included in your cruise rate: Freshly designed meeting rooms, leading conference technology, and comfortable theaters and lounges with built-in decor and sound – available for private group events. Meeting and Event Planners are already buzzing about the new conference center and ballroom on Celebrity Reflection.This area accommodates 220 guests or can be reconfigured for smaller groups. Reflection’s James Beard-featured culinary team offers traditional catering or you can select from an array of pre-set, multi-course menus.

2. Cutting-Edge Audio/Visual and Technology

Celebrity ships are equipped with the latest audio/visual equipment, all you need to produce an impressive presentation, meeting, or group event – with no additional fee. Theatrical elements such as hydraulic lifts, rotating stages and sophisticated lighting equipment in multi-tiered show lounges also add dynamic impact to your presentations or award ceremonies.

3. Stay Connected

Celebrity iLounge Internet CafeNearly every Celebrity ship offers WiFi connectivity throughout, and all offer WiFi in public areas. Internet access is also available 24 hours a day in the iLounge – Celebrity’s new approach to the Internet lounge, featuring state-of-the-art workstations with MacBook Pros and iMacs. Most meeting rooms also have wireless capability and include advanced multimedia equipment.

4. Premium Ships, Short Itineraries

Celebrity is the only premium cruise line offering 4 and 5-night cruises. Celebrity Constellation will soon be completely revitalized with upgraded staterooms, new dining venues, and expanded meeting space. Celebrity Constellation will sail 4 and 5-nights to Western Caribbean from December 2013 through April 2014. There’s also a rare 3-night cruise departing Ft. Lauderdale on Jan. 13, 2014; with calls at CocoCay (cruise line private island) and Nassau, Bahamas.

5. Award-winning Dining, Meals Included

Celebrity Eclipse Dining RoomSay goodbye to boring buffets and banquet meals! Celebrity Solstice-class ships boast 10 unique dining venues, including several complimentary options. Your attendees will choose from menus crafted by a James Beard nominated chef that change each evening and enjoy more than 20 delicious options in the Main Restaurant that are SPE-certified and healthy. World-class restaurants, crafted by some of the world’s top designers, will also delight your group with unforgettable dining experiences.

6. Amazing Onboard Experience and Entertainment

CEL_SL_SkyLoungeCelebrity’s world-class architects and designers have elevated cruise ship style to make sure your group has plenty of inspired places to meet and relax, with beauty in every detail. When your business sessions are over, attendees can rejuvenate in an award-winning spa, work out in the state-of-the-art fitness center, take a high-energy Zumba class, or unwind at the Lawn Club – a sophisticated area with real grass on the top deck.

The ships offer entertainment choices for everyone – from live music and dancing in the lounges; to full-scale production shows and aerial performances in gorgeous, high-tech theaters. And best of all, there are no cover fees or ticket charges for this phenomenal onboard entertainment.

7. Celebrity Caters to Adults

Thermal Chairs, Celebrity Solstice SpaShips geared for families might not be the best choice for your kid-free meeting or incentive program. While there are kids’ programs onboard, Celebrity’s ships cater to sophisticated adults who appreciate thoughtful details and beautiful surroundings. Your attendees and incentive winners will feel appreciated, and right at home.

8. Superlative Service

Celebrity’s attention to detail and intuitive personal service cares for your program attendees and gives them the VIP attention they deserve.

9. World-class Accommodations

Celebrity Solstice Veranda StateroomYour group will enjoy a luxurious hotel experience with restorative staterooms and suites that showcase modern, forward-thinking design and include plush linens and down comforters, Frette bathrobes, flat-screen TV’s, veranda views in most staterooms, and 24-hour room service – always complimentary.

10. Multiple Destinations

Why just wake up to the same scenery everyday? When you take your group to sea on a Celebrity ship, they’ll visit a variety of alluring destinations. Each day brings opportunities to share new adventures and experiences! And of course, your attendees will love the convenience of only having to unpack and pack once.

Make your meeting or event memorable!

celebrity-reflection_aerialThe 2013 Berlitz Guide to Cruising rates Celebrity as having 8 of the top 11 large ships in the world Your attendees worked hard to get here, so spoil them with Celebrity’s stunning venue spaces, award-winning cuisine, world-class entertainment and impeccable service. With so many premium inclusions, you (and your boss) will be amazed at the value, too.

Royal Caribbean WiFi, Internet, Prices and tips

Staying connected at sea is something more and more cruisers want to know how they can get internet access while at sea.  Royal Caribbean WiFi has received renewed emphasis recently with better technology offering superior coverage and faster speeds.  Here’s what you need to know to surf, chat and share your cruise vacation via social media.

How can I get connected on my Royal Caribbean cruise?

All Royal Caribbean ships offer shared computers and wifi internet access.  Older ships have select locations in public areas where guests can log in, but newer ships and ships that have been refurbished in the last few years have gotten “stem to stern” WiFi coverage that allows internet access from anywhere, including staterooms.

At the very least, you can turn your internet device on and log onto the WiFi signal in common areas such as the Promenade, Library or lounges.  If your Royal Caribbean ship is Oasis or Quantum class, it will have internet access everywhere.  Other older ships have slowly been getting upgrades to allow access everywhere.

How is wifi access controlled?

Your access to the internet on-board your Royal Caribbean ship is tied to your stateroom and account you create.

When you first login to Royal Caribbean’s wifi, you will see an option to create an account and there you can sign up for a plan or pay for the internet by the minute.  In either case, the charge for internet usage will be applied to your stateroom account.

What devices can access the internet?

Photo by Nick Jones

Any internet device that can access a 802.11b wireless connection can connect to the internet.  This include most smart phones, laptops and tablets.

Royal Caribbean does provide workstations that are shared and available on a first-come, first served basis but we’ve found them to be slow in terms of performance.

Is the internet speeds slow or fast?

Compared to land connections these days, Royal Caribbean’s wifi is slow but it’s still better than no connection at all.  Speeds will vary based on the ship’s location, weather conditions and how many other people are trying to log on.

Generally speaking we’ve found the internet speeds to be best late at night and in the early morning hours when the least people are on-line.  Actual speeds and performance vary and normally it’s moderately slow but can get bogged down depending on the conditions noted earlier.

Royal Caribbean is about to improve the wifi speed dramatically when it partners with a new internet provider that will launch new satellites that promise speeds just as good as on land.

Please remember that the internet speed in general is outside of Royal Caribbean’s control and because it’s satellite based, sometimes there’s just nothing they can do.  We do recommend if you do waste a lot of time trying to connect to graciously speak to someone in Guest Services because they will often refund some of your time so you can try again later.

What about using Skype or Face-time on my Royal Caribbean cruise?

In the past Royal Caribbean blocked Skype and other VOIP applications because they were bandwidth hogs and the speeds were just too slow to use.  These days, we’ve seen them unblocked on some cruises and blocked on other cruises.

When Royal Caribbean implements their speed upgrades, expect those type of services to be available again.

How much does internet access cost?

Royal Caribbean’s internet prices vary from ship to ship but the base rate for internet access is 65 cents per minute.

Royal Caribbean offers a number of internet packages that lower the per-minute cost.  On some newer ships and refurbished ships they also offer unlimited internet access plans for the duration of your cruise.

In general, you should opt for an internet package rather than paying per minute to get the best deal.  Crown and Anchor Society members get discounts on internet packages that you can apply to your plan at Guest Services onboard.

Alternatives to Royal Caribbean WiFi

If the price of Royal Caribbean’s internet is too much, you may be better off financially (and speed wise) by connecting when you are in port.

There’s lots of restaurants, bars and other establishments that offer WiFi access for free or a small fee. Many will offer you access if you buy something and the cost is negligible compared to what Royal Caribbean charges.

A great tip is to ask crew members on your cruise where they go for internet access because they visit these ports regularly and know where to find the best deals.