Hire a train porter in India

Traveling by train is a quintessential India experience, but finding and boarding your coach can be a challenge. The coaches aren’t always in numerical order, the trains can be quite long (1/3 miles  / .5 km), and if the train doesn’t originate in your departure city, you only have a few minutes to get on board.

Travel tip: Hire a porter. For about Rs. 50 (about $1) per bag, the porter will transport you and your baggage to your seat.

Known as “Coolies” and wearing their official red smocks and brass arm badges, they can be found outside train stations, often near the car park. If your taxi drops you off immediately in front of the station, you may need to walk away from the station a bit to find a Coolie.

Be prepared to show your ticket (with train, coach, and seat numbers) and after you’ve agreed on a price, get ready to follow at a quick pace. The porters are quick and efficient.

Keep in mind that you’re not paying for somebody to carry your bags, an uneasy idea for westerners; you’re paying to get to the right spot at the right time, which is challenging for all of the reasons mentioned above. It’s some of the best rupees you’ll spend.

Thank you to HTT reader, Kevin, for reminding us about this great and inexpensive way to protect your sanity while traveling by train in India.

Managing postal mail during a long trip

I left Seattle at the beginning of February and I’m not planning to return until the end June — about 5 months of travel.

One of the challenges of traveling for extended periods of time is managing mail (the kind the carrier in the blue uniform delivers six days a week). With all of the options for receiving bills by email and paying them online, postal mail isn’t nearly as important as it once was, but let’s be real, there’s still stuff that arrives that needs to be open, read, and dealt with, like car registration notices, property tax assessments, etc. Perhaps not fun, but still important.

I briefly considered my options: have a friend check my mailbox or ignore it and hope nothing important arrives, but neither of these were practical.

First, I rented out my condo and needed a solution that would allow the renter to receive his mail while not having to deal with mine. Second, while I sold the IT services company that I founded in 2002 late last year, I knew I’d continue to receive and need to deal with mail related to the LLC. And lastly, I wanted a solution that I could use on an ongoing basis during future trips.

A year or so ago, a company named Earth Class Mail set up shop next to the post office near my old office in Pioneer Square (Seattle’s old historic neighborhood). They were advertising a service that allows you to receive mail online. I had no need for it at the time, but filed it away in the back of my brain.

As I was preparing for my latest trip, I thought I’d take a look at Earth Class Mail, and ultimately decided to give them a try. Here’s how their service works:

  • I set up an account and selected a new mailing address. There were a few options to choose from including PO Boxes and so-called “premium” street addresses. I chose the Seattle-based PO Box, which cost me a little extra — $2.95/month.
  • I forwarded all of my mailing using the standard USPS change of address process and then began updating my address with all of the companies I do business with.
  • As mail is arrives, Earth Class Mail scans and uploads an image of the envelope to their online portal.
  • From the portal I can request the envelope be opened and the contents scanned, shredded or recycled, or forwarded to another address. It takes them about a day to open, scan, and upload a letter, which is then available online as a PDF.

The setup process itself was rather straightforward, but did involve returning a notarized USPS authorization form requiring a bit of legwork.

The base monthly cost is $19.95, and then there are a few extras you have to factor in: actual mail scanning ($1.50/item) and their optional shredding service ($4.95/month, or you can have your mail recycled, but I don’t think it’s wise to recycle letters that contain personal or financial information). Here’s a breakdown of what I paid in the past 30-days:

Description Cost
Monthly Subscription $19.95
Address Fee (for Seattle PO Box) $2.95
Content Scans $12.00
Unlimited Shredding Option $4.95
Total $39.85

This may seem like a lot — another monthly expensive — but it’s given me the freedom to travel for months on end (which is a huge cost savings compared to living in the US) while continuing to manage all of my personal and business affairs.

I’ve been using the service for just over 2 months and have been quite happy. Every few days I log in to the online portal to review any new mail that has arrived, decide what I want scanned/shredded/recycled, and then download the mail that was scanned since my last log in.

How have you managed postal mail during long trips?

3 hotel alternatives that are better and cheaper

Hotel Alternatives

If you’ve done any traveling in the developing world, you’ve probably come to appreciate how far your dollars/euros/pounds will take you. On my recent trip to India I spent $10-20/night for decent accommodations and not much more for food and activities. Back in the west, even relatively affordable cities like Berlin can feel quite expensive, especially for those on an extended journey. This is partly due to the poor performance of the dollar against the euro, but let’s face it, things just cost more — a lot more — in the west.

But it’s not just about the cost — if you value having access to a kitchen or a place to safely park your rented bike, if you appreciate non-sterile living spaces, or if you’d prefer to spend your time in an actual neighborhood rather than the tourist or commercial district of a city, then check out these alternatives that can not only save you a ton of money but actually be better than staying in a hotel:

  • Friends or friends-of-friends. This may seem obvious, but I recently came to Berlin thinking I didn’t know anybody in this city. After a quick post to Facebook asking friends to connect me with the people they knew, I not only ended up with free accommodation for my first week, but also an invitation to Berghain, one of Berlin’s hottest dance clubs. Both were awesome introductions to the city. Chances are you know somebody that has a connection in your destination city.
  • Private rentals. Sites like Airbnb, Homeaway, and VBRO make it possible for people to rent out individual rooms or entire flats/houses to travelers. After staying with friends my first week in Berlin, I moved to a private room in Mitte off Torstraße and then again to another private room in Kreuzberg. Both were really great rooms in hip Berlin neighborhoods costing me less than $40/night.
  • Free couchesCouchsurfing is another great alternative that connects travelers with locals who have a couch or a spare bed/bedroom available at no cost. This is another excellent way to save money while meeting interesting locals who’ll often share their insider perspective with you.

What other accommodations have you found that are both better and less expensive than traditional hotels?

Filing income taxes while traveling abroad

In honor of the personal income tax filing deadline today in the US, I wanted to share how to managed to submit my tax returns while traveling.

I’m currently on a five month trip. I left in February and am planning to return to Seattle at the end of June – completely missing the tax season. (If only this were a check box on the 1040 that said “Sorry, I can’t be bothered to submit this form because I’m away traveling!”)

Now, I should say, that I’ve had a CPA for the past eight years which greatly reduces the amount of time and effort involved with preparing my business and personal tax returns, but it has always been my job to gather and submit all of the supporting tax documents and information, sign and submit the returns to the IRS, and pay any taxes that were due. None of these tasks is overly complicated and all are easily accomplished from home, but taking care of taxes while traveling added a few complications.

How I did it

The first thing I did was sign up for the IRS’s EFTPS service. This is an online tool that allows you to submit estimated quarterly and yearly tax payments. The enrollment process is decently straight-forward, but does involve the IRS does sending an enrollment PIN by US mail, which means you have to sign up for the service a few weeks before your departure – or – make sure you have access to your mail while you’re away.

I then gathered and scanned all of the tax-related paperwork and information I had in-hand before my departure, and stored these as PDFs using Dropbox. As more documents arrived by mail, my mailing service, Earth Class Mail, scanned and uploaded them as PDFs so I could access these from any internet café. Once I had all of the documents and paperwork together, I submitted them to my CPA using their ShareFile account. (I could have also shared these using Dropbox, but the firm had standardized on ShareFile.)

When the returns were finally prepared, the CPA emailed them to me as PDFs so I could review and approve. And once we agreed they were good to go, he emailed me the authorization forms required to submit these on my behalf electronically to the IRS. So far, so good.

The last thing I needed to do was print, sign, and return the authorization forms. Printing and signing was relatively easy – most internet cafes in India had printers available and charged a nominal 5 to 10 rupees per page – but returning the document turned out to be a bit of a challenge.

Since the documents contained my name, social security number, and signature, I didn’t want to scan and email them, as I would have back home. I was worried the internet café could have retained a copy of the scanned page. As an old-school and slightly more secure alternative, I tried faxing, but the connection repeatedly failed and the fax never went through.

After a bit of creative problem solving, I used my iPhone to snap a picture of the signed authorization forms, which I then emailed to the CPA. The result wasn’t the prettiest, but it was a functional solution and allowed them to submit my returns. After the returns were submitted, I signed in to EFTPS and submitted my tax payment (which was decidedly no fun).

Resources for filing your taxes while traveling

  • EFTPS – IRS service that allows you to make tax payments online using direct withdrawal from your checking or savings account. Sign up a few weeks before your departure.
  • Dropbox – service that allows you to sync your files online and across computers/devices, including iPhones/iPads.
  • Earth Class Mail – online mail management service that receives, opens, and scans your mail to PDF.
  • IRS FreeFile & e-file – two options for filing your personal tax returns online. Everyone can e-file individual tax returns for free.

Bring along a pint-sized power strip

Philips 3-outlet Travel Power Strip

How many times have you been desperate to recharge your dying gadget only to find the one electrical outlet that does exists is already taken?

Travel Tip: Bring along a mini power strip like the one pictured here:

Philips 3-outlet Travel Power Strip

According to HTT reader, Scott K, he puts the one he bought to good use and simply asks “Do you mind if I plug this in so we both can share the outlet?” to which everyone responds, “I have to get one of those…”

Thanks for the tip Scott!

Receiving calls abroad is cheap and easy

Technology like email and Facebook make staying in touch with friends, family, and business colleagues a breeze and services like Skype make international calling easier and cheaper. Gone are the days of calling cards, special access numbers, and expensive calling rates.

But most people only use Skype to make (free) computer-to-computer calls, which requires both parties be online and connected at the same time. Finding a computer with good connectivity and Skype installed can be challenging in many countries and coordinating a time to talk may not always be easy or convenient. Plus, sometimes you need to receive a call when you’re out and about or your contacts at home need to call you on their own schedule.

There is where Skype comes it. It offers two separate calling features that when used together make it easy and cheap for folks to reach you by phone while you’re traveling.

The first is online number which is an actual phone number your contacts can call you on. They’re currently available from Skype in 24 countries, including the US and most of western Europe. When the number is dialed, the call automatically rings on you on Skype. Call forwarding is the second feature which forwards your Skype calls to an actual phone.

When used together, calls are routed over Skype’s calling network to a local phone in your destination. This means your friends, family, and colleagues don’t have to fuss with the trouble and expense of making an international call (which, at least for many Americans, is still a daunting task), nor do they have to set up or learn how to use Skype. Combine this with the fact that Skype’s international call rates are excellent and most non-US mobile carriers allow you to receive calls free of charge (they make their money when you place calls), means you’ll save a ton of money along the way.

To illustrate how this worked on my recent trip to India:

  • My friend Grace, who lives in Seattle, calls me at (206) 905-92XX, a local Seattle number, so the call is free to her. Skype charged me $18 to set up and use the online number for 3 months, but doesn’t charge me per minute to receive calls placed using the number.
  • The call goes to Skype and they attempt to reach me online. If I’m connected to Skype in an internet cafe, on my netbook, or on my iPhone, then I can take the call there. There’s no per-minute charge for me to receive the call this way.
  • If I’m not online, the call is automatically forwarded to my Indian mobile number +91 73890095XX, where I can answer. Skype charges 9.2¢/minute to forward the call to an Indian mobile but Airtel, my carrier in India, doesn’t charge my anything to receive the call.

Connecting the dots this way makes it super easy for folks back home to get a hold of me, and I can update the number calls are forwarded to as I move between countries, which makes it even more seamless.

Here’s a quick re-cap of how to set up Skype so that your contacts at home can call you:

Free trip planning info from Lonely Planet

One of the challenges of planning a multi-month, multi-country trip is figuring out how much time spend in each region/country and what the best time of year is to visit.

Travel Tip: Lonely Planet offers free, online access to the Getting Started chapter for each of their guidebooks. In addition to providing an overview of the country, its history, and culture, the Getting Started chapter also covers the three most important trip-planning topics: when to go, costs & money, and sample itineraries.  Use this information to determine the best time to visit each country and how much you should budget in terms of time and money. This will allow you to develop a good, overall sketch for your trip. Once you have this established, you can then dive deeper into your trip planning.

Don’t get hacked while traveling

In my former life running an IT consulting company, security was a big topic and making sure people were who they said they were (i.e. when they were logging in remotely to check their email) was a key part of securing our clients’ networks. You might think that usernames and passwords would be enough, but entering these on a login page doesn’t prove it’s actually you, it only proves that you know the username and password.

That’s where so-called two factor authentication comes in.  Without geeking out too much, the basic idea is that there are three things you can use to establish your identity: something you know (username/password/PIN), something you have (passport/credit card/security token), and something you are (finger print/face geometry). Two factor security just means using at least two of these to establish your identity.

This may sound complicated, but if you have an ATM card, you’re already using two factor authentication — something you know (PIN) and something you have (ATM card). One doesn’t work without the other and without both there’s no cash for you.

So, what does this all have to do with travel?

Well, it turns out there’s easy-to-install software and hardware that allow an unscrupulous third-party to eavesdrop on your surfing and capture your usernames and passwords as you type them. It’s practice is known as key logging and if you’re not careful, you’ll inadvertently “outsource” the management of your Facebook profile, or worse, your finances to somebody who may have a funny idea or two. (Perhaps you’ve had a friend or two stranded in London, that just needed some cash? I’ve experienced this first hand and so has a former client of mine.)

One of the ways two factor authentication protects you against eavesdropping is through the use of one-time passwords (OTP). Just like it sounds, a OTP is an additional code created by a device or system only you have access to and can only be used once. So, even if it’s captured through key logging, it can’t be used again after you click the login button.

If you’re wondering whether this is a theoretical threat, let me assure you that it’s not. First, you should know that I’m not an alarmist by nature. I don’t think fear mongering is ever the right answer and I find almost all security risks can be mitigated through practical/pragmatic solutions. Second, I’ve been in way too many internet cafes (in places like India) where the keyboards barely worked, the operating system was bootlegged, and the electricity would cut in and out. The idea of properly securing these systems to ensure a safe internet surfing experience would have surely been considered a luxury only a westerner could have dreamed up and demanded.

The good news is that financial institutions, like Bank of AmericaCitibank, and Paypal (and as a result eBay), have taken notice and are starting to provide more secure ways for accessing their sites. Other companies are stepping up too. Google has incorporated two factor authentication into its Gmail service and Facebook provides a number of opt-in security features, including login notifications and one-time passwords. There are also products that allow small businesses to secure their networks using two factor authentication.

If the thought of yet another security “enhancement” leaves you pining for the simplicity of yesteryears, keep in mind that ALL security measures have felt annoying when they were first introduced, but with ubiquity comes improvements in usability. Eventually we’ll carry one universal security access token or card that allows us to securely login in to all sensitive websites and systems.

In the meantime, get prepared.  Before your next trip, give some thought to what sites and services you’ll need to access online while you’re traveling. Investigate whether these companies provide any additional layers of security that can help ensure a safer internet experience (try googling the company’s name + “two factor authentication”). This might involve using your mobile phone to receive a special code by text message (SMS) that you can use to log in or using a specialized app on your iPhone to generate a one-time password.

Here’s a re-cap of the companies I’ve mentioned above that currently provide additional layers of security:

What other precautions do you take online to protect yourself?

Scan your important travel documents

Losing your wallet – or even worse, your passport – while traveling can be a major headache and having copies of the original documents or cards can make them a lot easier to replace.

Travel Tip: Before your trip, scan all of your important documents, including your passport, birth certificate, driver license, credit cards (front and back), health insurance card, medicine / eye glass prescriptions, any travel/medical evacuation policies, and, if you’re a diver, your certification card. Then store all these online, as PDFs, so you’re able to access them while you’re traveling. If you have a Gmail or Hotmail account, an easy way to do this is to simply email yourself the documents.

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