TripAdvisor.com – For frequent travelers

December 4, 2011

In my past job I traveled frequently throughout the US, and finding a good hotel was hit-or-miss. Even when I stuck to chain hotel brands, sometimes I would get a good hotel and other times it would be really bad. As such, I’ve relied on the web site tripadvisor.com to help me sort through different hotel options to increase my chances of finding a good, safe, relaxing hotel to stay during my out-of-town travels.

TripAdvisor.com is a web site that basically has reviews posted by users who have logged into their site. Reviews can be quite extensive, or just a sentence or two. Also, users can upload photos along with their reviews to give some evidence backing up their review claims. I’ve found this site very useful, as there are hundreds of postings for most hotels. In fact, I also am a contributor to this site posting my reviews of various hotels I’ve stayed at over the last few years.

But like anything, you need to take what you read with a grain of salt. You have some people who post great reviews for a particular hotel, and a few that post really negative reviews. The difference can be so great at times, it makes you wonder, “are these reviews all for the same hotel”? For example, my family stayed at the Disney Grand Californian Hotel last year during summer break and we found it to be a great hotel. As such, I wrote a lengthy review expressing my opinions of our stay at that hotel. But if you read some of the hundreds of reviews, you will come across some that are really negative. Of course, you’ll find some people are pretty nit-picky and complain about the smallest thing and will give a negative review, but I did read some recent reviews that just seemed incredible to believe. For example, one person reviewing the GCH complained they had to wait 10 minutes in line to get checked into their room (what, you can’t wait 10 minutes?). Another person complained the valet didn’t bring up their luggage to their room after being asked three times, and another person complained their room was run down with damaged furniture, dented trash cans, and missing TV remote. I find all of this unbelievable, as I stayed at this hotel last year and found the rooms wonderfully decorated and very comfortable. So either Disney has some really bad and really good hotel rooms and we just got lucky, or some people are just big time complainers.

TripAdvisor.com is also good for finding reviews of restaurants and amusement parks in certain cities. Posters will give great tips in their reviews, so it’s definitely worth checking out for your next trip. And best of all, it’s all free!


Netflix – Streaming video from the Internet

April 30, 2011

I’m just amazed at the quality of videos which you can stream from the Internet to your home PC monitor. For a lot of the YouTube Videos you can stream in “HD” mode and have very high resolution videos playing on your large computer monitor. This also works for online TV Shows from the different network web sites.

We currently are signed up on Netflix, which is a video streaming service that allows you to select and watch videos on your home PC. It’s a great service, as you can watch TV Shows and Movies from thousands of titles, with the cost being $7.99 US per month.

In addition to watching videos on a Internet connected computer monitor, you can also  stream videos to other portable devices. For example, I routinely watch videos from Netflix on my iPod Touch and iPhone 4 which is really convenient when I’m traveling on the road or while lying on the couch at night. In the past I did have a few issues with the video stream stalling for 1 or 2 minutes at times before continuing, and some large pixelation, but over the last week the video streaming has improved quite a bit. I’m not sure if the issue was with the Netflix’s servers, my Comcast internet connection, or the speed of my home WiFi router, but in any case the video playback performance has been very good lately.

My son’s Nintendo Gaming system has Netflix capability built-in, so we can stream videos from the Internet (his Wii is WiFi enabled) to our TV set very easily. We often use this option so he can watch children movies/shows on our TV when there’s nothing he likes on the cable channels. This option has worked flawlessly– just like watching a normal cable channel show. So with this setup, our main home TV can be used to watch any video available in the Netflix library.

Currently, I’ve been watching old episodes of the TV Series, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. The SyFy channel was playing a few of the episodes over the last few weeks on cable and then abruptly stopped. So to continue, I found them on Netflix and have been watching them every night. It’s really cool that I can watch whatever episode I want, whenever I want, and with no commercials!

So, this is definitely a good services if you like watching movies and TV shows and have a relatively fast Internet connection. So if you’re in a hotel, stuck at an airport, or just lying on the couch you can pull out your mobile device and begin watching whatever show suits your fancy!


Watching live TV on my iPhone 4

April 17, 2011

At home, I’ve got an EyeTV HD device connected to a Comcast digital cable box for recording TV shows on my iMac desktop computer. The system is entirely automated, where scheduled shows are recorded, commercial removed, and finally converted to iPhone format and placed in iTunes for syncing. This allows me to watch my favorite shows at my leisure, usually at night on the couch or in bed. A few weeks ago I was on a business trip and I forgot to schedule my EyeTV to record an episode of Stargate: Universe, and it was not playing on any local station in my hotel room. What was I suppose to do?

Luckily, I have an app on my iPhone that allows me to control the EyeTV HD software on my iMac at home and also watch live TV through it via the Internet. So, I decided to give it a try, even though the hotel’s WiFi connect speed was incredible slow and virtually unusable. So instead of trying to use WiFi, I decided to just use my cellular connection via Verizon to stream the Live TV from my iMac at home to my iPhone.

Surprisingly, the video stream worked great! I was able to watch my show with no pausing or dropping of the TV streaming image. On a few occasions the image got a bit grainy (heavy pixels), but for the most part it looked just like watching an mp4 video file on my iPhone.

If I do switch to an Android phone in the near future, this will be one thing that I’ll miss. I don’t use this feature a lot, but when I do it works great.


iPhone 4 WiFi personal hotspot

April 17, 2011

A lot of the cell phone carriers are selling MiFi devices which are often labeled as “personal hotspots”. These small devices act as a portable Wireless Router which you can carry in your pocket and make Internet connections with your laptop, iPad, etc. via WiFi. Usually they are priced at $100-$200 US and then have a $60-$100 monthly charge for data usage. These MiFi devices are a great choice if you need to connect multiple devices to the Internet while on the go (I can see a traveling business person using one of these for his or her smartphone, laptop, iPod Touch, and iPad).

Some of the newer smartphones have the ability to act as personal hotspots, with some charging a small fee and others not charging anything. From what I’ve read, the Android phones provide this service free of charge but the iPhone requires an additional monthly charge (depends on the carrier, but usually runs $20-$30 per month).

If you’ve jailbroken your iPhone, you can use a small utility called MyWi which allows you to connect your WiFi devices to your iPhone (wirelessly) as if it was a personal hotspot. Using this method, you shouldn’t be charged the extra monthly fee as described above (but, you will be charged data usage according to your current plan).

As a test, I decided to download the trial version of MyWi from the Cydia App Store (available for jailbroken iPhones) and see how well it worked. After downloading and installing this simple app, I was able to configure it and use it within just a few minutes. First, I fired up my Windows 7 laptop and checked for WiFi Routers in my area, and sure enough my iPhone appeared in the list. I connected to it and did the speedtest.net speed test to see how fast the connection was (via my Verizon cellular connection). On average, my laptop saw 3.60 mbps download speed and 3.60 mbps upload speed (not too bad!). I then tested my iPod Touch connected to my iPhone via WiFi and got similar speed results. So, it seemed that the MyFi app is a good solution if you want to convert your iPhone into a personal hotspot without paying the extra monthly cost. Of course, you can only use this method if you jailbreak your phone and your average iPhone user may not want to go that route.

Note, that MyWi isn’t free (it current costs $19.95 via the Cydia App Store), but for a small one-time charge you’ll get a personal hotspot without any extra monthly recurring charges.


Why are hotel internet connections so slow?

December 9, 2010

In traveling around the Western US region for the last few years, I’ve noticed that every hotel I stay at has slow Internet connections. Some in fact have such slow connections it’s just not work using. I’d rather use my Verizon USB Wireless Adapter over the hotel’s connections at times. Why is this? Hotels must know that business travelers (as well as vacationeers) use the Internet routinely for looking at web pages, checking emails, and doing work. I’m really not sure why a hotel can’t tie in a fast line (or, maybe multiple lines) to accommodate their guests.

If I was traveling more frequently, I would probably look into getting a dedicated MiFi device (cellular, portable WiFi) to use with my Netbook, Laptop, and iPod Touch. It probably would be faster than the hotel’s WiFi connection and I could use it practically anywhere. In the meantime, I’ll just have to do my heavy Internet action in coffeeshops and at the airport gates.


Alaska Airlines inflight WiFi Service

December 9, 2010

I was on a business trip recently from Phoenix to Seattle and the Alaska Airlines flight that I was on offered inflight WiFi service through a company called GoGo. It was free from November to December 9th, so I decided to give it a try and see how well it worked with my Netbook and iPod Touch.

Surprisingly, it was a very fast connection (compared to the slow internet connection at the hotel I stayed at the night before) and I could easily view web pages and check email. I even used Logmein.com to access my iMac which was pretty cool. My iPod Touch found the WiFi service and I was able to use my Internet-based apps very easily. I was eager to test out the Netflix video streaming on my iPod but didn’t have time as my flight was getting close to final approach and landing.

So, having the service was great but using the WiFi on my netbook really drained the battery much faster than I had wanted. I ended up not getting as much work done as I had planned since my battery went dead so soon. I guess the next logical step would be to have 12V or AC outlets for the passengers to hook up their laptops for charging (or extra battery packs).

According to Alaska’s web site, they will be charging for this service between $5 – $13 US depending on the length of the flight. At that rate I probably won’t be using their WiFi service, and it’s a shame that they just don’t offer it for free for their passengers (considering all the other fees they like to tack on for travelers).


On the road and staying connected

September 22, 2010

I’m currently on a business trip to Phoenix, and with the great tools available on the Internet I’m able to stay connected and operate efficiently. For example, I’ve got my Palm Pixi WebOS smartphone which has an app called Flight Predictor that helps me monitor any delays on return flight to Seattle this evening. I also can check my emails from different accounts and read up on news, weather reports, and Engadget tidbits (my favorite) all from my Palm phone.

I also have been using the LogMeIn Ignition application on my laptop which allows me to connect to my iMac at my home via the Internet. It seems to work very well, all though the screen updates are a little bit slow due to the slow hotel Internet connection. But, it is certainly usable for running applications and checking emails on my home iMac system remotely.

I also use the DropBox service which allows me to sync files between the cloud and all my computer systems. So certain important files on my home systems are automatically synced and made available on my Netbook system.

Whenever I have some downtime between meetings, I can duck into a local Starbucks and use my laptop or netbook to check my email or do a bit of work using their free WiFi connection. As a backup, I can always use my Verizon USB Wireless Adapter to connect my laptop/netbook to the Internet if WiFi is not available.

Of course, with all these electronic gadgets I need to bring along various charging adapters and cables to stay up and running. It can be challenging to find power outlets while on the go, so I keep my phone and laptop charging whenever I get a chance.

I definitely rely on my Palm Pixi smartphone as my main traveling tool. I use it to find places to eat, nearby Starbucks, gas stations, etc. which is very handy. The Sprint Navigation app is also a valuable asset, as I don’t need to bring along my dedicated GPS navigation device. After using these connected tools for a while, it sure would be hard to not have them!