Tech on Travel on a Ship in Iceland

Before we leave on a vacation, we pack way more tech than normal people, but probably about average for NosillaCastaways. Of course, we both brought our iPhones, and I brought my iPad Pro. But we both need laptops on our vacations. Yes, need not want.

Laptops

Steve and I both bought M1 14” MacBooks Pro recently, but it’s really not a good idea to travel with a brand new laptop. Remember when we went to Peru and someone swiped Steve’s backpack with his laptop in it? We were both really happy we’d decided to bring our spare, older laptops on that trip.

Steve’s previous laptop is a 2016 13” MacBook Pro, so he loaded it up with all of his recent software for the trip. My 2016 MacBook Pro is a 15” and the reason I moved down to the 14” is because the 15” was TOO DARNED HEAVY TO CARRY AROUND! The 15″ is 15% heavier and every ounce matters to me. As much as I was worried about losing my new laptop, I just couldn’t carry that monster so I took the risk and brought my new precious.

Puffin on the cliff with fish it its mouth
Puffin!

You might be asking why we need laptops on the trip. I decided to bring my big-girl camera on this trip, which meant I needed an SD card slot on a real computer, not an iPad. I can just hear everyone (like Jill and Steven) hollering at their devices saying, “SEE? You NEED that SD card slot!” I could have happily lived with my adapter (which I brought with me anyway) but I figured I might as well use the built-in slot.

Steve brought his big-boy camcorder on the trip, mostly because it has a huge zoom on it, so he needed his SD card slot too. Having a big zoom is why I brought my big-girl camera too, and we were both really happy we brought them. On the trip, we were on the edge of a cliff with Puffins and were able to get some amazing photos and videos of them. They look like cartoon birds!

Even if I didn’t use my big-girl camera, I need my laptop for something else. On every one of our major vacations, I write a travelogue email about our adventures. Believe it or not, over 100 people are voluntarily on the recipient list. They seem to like my silly banter and near total lack of facts in my descriptions.

I tried once to write the letter all on my iPad, but embedding images was way harder, and it was just swimming upstream to not use the proper tool for the job.

iPad

On long flights, Steve and I like to watch the same movie at the same time. He uses his laptop and I use my 12.9″ iPad and we click the play button at the same time. I know, we’re so adorable you can hardly stand it. Before we leave, we download movies Steve has ripped to our PLEX server so we have a good catalog of choices. We did that before leaving on our trip, but ended up watching one of the provided in flight movies so I didn’t use my iPad after all.

On the trip, we had hardly a moment of downtime, and the only time we did have was filled with writing my travelogue. We didn’t end up watching any video podcasts or streaming TV, and on the ship we certainly didn’t have the bandwidth to do it either.

On this vacation, I don’t think I used my iPad until our plane flight back when I started writing this article in Ulysses.

There was another big reason that the iPad didn’t get to play on this trip.

Ship Internet & VPN

Our trip was a circumnavigation of Iceland on a small cruise ship called Le Bellot. I think at max capacity it holds 200 people. They had free WiFi and considering we were in the North Atlantic up into the Arctic Ocean, the service wasn’t all that bad. It wasn’t great, but you could send texts and I could even send my 2MB travelogue email if I had about 10 minutes to wait.

But there was one really annoying part about how it worked. The first time you signed in on a device, you selected Le Bellot as the SSID, but then you had to open a web page (wifi.ponant.com) and enter your room number and a password. They tried to give us just one login per person, but I made them give us each two logins. My phone and laptop took priority so the iPad didn’t make the cut. I could have logged out of a device and in with the iPad but that was too much work.

The bigger problem was trying to use a VPN with the ship’s Internet. You see, each time we woke up a device, we had to reconnect to the WiFi AND go to wifi.ponant.com to reconnect there as well. With our PIA VPN (PIA referral link.), as soon as we connected to the WiFi, PIA would engage, but we weren’t really connected yet, so we couldn’t get to the verification web page. That meant we had to open PIA, tell it to stop trying to connect, go to the web page, wait for it to acknowledge us, and then back to PIA.

We were constantly dancing back and forth to get it to work.

Another minor problem was created by this weird WiFi network setup. I read books on my Kindle, and when I see words I don’t know, I tap and hold on the word to get a definition. Unfortunately, the dictionary is a web service. There’s no way I could have navigated the interstitial web page to verify the login to the WiFi to get a word definition, so I had to just make up my own definitions.

Photos

As you can imagine I took hundreds of photos per day with my iPhone, along with a few short videos, and I had to wait for all of those photos to go up to iCloud and back down to my Mac. That might have worked, but I was also putting RAW + JPG images from my big-girl camera onto my Mac and into Photos, and those images had to go up to iCloud and back into my phone. As you can imagine, this was a traffic jam of epic proportions with such slow Internet.

My photos from my phone simply never made it to my Mac for the entire 11 days, nor did the photos from my Mac make it back to my iPhone until I arrived home where I have broadband access.

In order to write my travelogue, I needed to get my photos from my phone to my Mac, and the only way I could do that in any reasonable time was to use AirDrop. But you can’t AirDrop if you’re on a VPN because you’re on different networks. Oddly, you can AirDrop if you’re not on any WiFi network at all (but you do have WiFi enabled.) I could have forgotten the ship WiFi on both devices, done the AirDropping, and then reconnected, but that was too much work. In the end, we told PIA to trust the ship’s WiFi and hoped for the best.

We did a 3-day pre-tour of the main city of Reykjavik and stayed in the Hotel Borg (yes we made all the jokes). While staying at the hotel, PIA worked without any issues because it had “normal” WiFi. I did notice that it chose some city in the US for the server location, based on latency, but I changed it to Iceland instead. I didn’t do any elaborate timing tests but it seemed like a logical move at the time. I was able to pause PIA, do the AirDrop dance, and reconnect to PIA while at the hotel.

Backups

When we travel, we carry each other’s backup drives in our backpacks. That strategy saved the day in Peru when Steve’s backpack got stolen with his camcorder, GoPro, and laptop inside. Had I not been carrying his backup drive, he would have lost every single photo and video he took on the trip.

While in Iceland, I ran my backups of my Mac and put my drive in Steve’s backpack, but I realized that none of the photos I was taking on my phone were backed up since they never came down to my Mac.

I have been looking for a reason to buy iMazing for the Mac because it’s such a well-loved app, but I never had a problem to solve with it. I remembered that one of the things it could do was back up photos from your phone, so I tried to download it. Sadly, it was 200MB and after 40 minutes I was only half done downloading and ran out of time.

While the photos from my iPhone hadn’t gotten to my Mac, and the photos on my Mac hadn’t gotten to my iPhone, I wondered whether at least the photos would be on iCloud.com. I never figured out why, but iCloud.com would not let me log in on my Mac. It kept saying my password was wrong but I was copying it directly from 1Password. Finally, it occurred to me to try to log into iCloud.com on my phone and it allowed me to authenticate with Face ID. The good news was that with the exception of the last 20 or so photos, all of the rest were safely backed up to iCloud so I could finally relax.

Google Fi

Iceland has really good cellular service, and we were able to take advantage of it when we were out and about in the little fishing villages. I’ve talked about it several times before, but we use a service called Google Fi for our international travel needs. I think there are a lot of options available now that might be cheaper for your needs, but I like how Google Fi works.

I pay for one voice and data SIM and they gave me 4 extra data-only cards. The cost is $20 per month plus $10/GB. The $10/GB is linear, so if you only use 500MB it’s $5. If you consume a lot of data,, they stop charging you after 6GB, so the most you pay is $60 for the data plus $20 monthly fee, for a total of $80. That sounds like a lot, but remember this is shared amongst all of the users. Steve had one in his iPhone, and I had one in my iPhone and one in my iPad.

Steve and I played with reckless abandon on our Macs tethered to the voice and data card and used our phones with their data cards like crazy doing maps and all the other fun Internet goodies. We used 10.57GB on the trip and the total was $80.

For data hogs like us, it’s great to know you can play as much as you want and not worry about the bill. The last bit that makes Google Fi work for us is that when you’re done with travel, you can simply pause the service. After 3 months they automatically turn it on again, but you can simply pause again and not be charged until you actually start using it.

Other Random Issues

Our housekeeper cleaned for us while we were gone, and I normally play her via Zelle through my bank. But my bank’s app detected our odd location and insisted that it send me a text message to verify it was really me. Well, I had my international Google Fi card, not my real phone number, so I couldn’t receive the text, which meant she had to get paid when I got back. I suppose I could have put my regular SIM card back in and paid a fortune for a text message, but that only just occurs to me now.

I texted my housekeeper on her Android phone to tell her there would be a delay in payment and I noticed something interesting. When she replied to me, there was an odd bit of text glop after her response:

Sure no problem 😊
~tjHUsQAYqMDKWAg

I thought it was just a barfing of the system somewhere, but when I texted our driver to tell him we’d made the connecting flight, his Android device also had that same kind of glop at the end. None of my text messages to iPhones had this glop. After I switched back to my AT&T SIM and texted him again, there was no glop. No clue what it was but I thought it was interesting.

MMS Problems with Green Bubble People

We hung out with a woman named Lynda for a lot of the trip who figured out I liked to talk tech. It became a standing joke that she only got one tech question per day, but she could earn extra questions if she behaved herself.

Early in the trip, she showed me that she was getting an error when she tried to send images to a group text that included a green bubble person. We checked to make sure that failover to MMS was enabled in settings, but it still wasn’t working.

The next day I tried to send an image to a green bubble person and I got the same error. I went searching for how to fix it with Google Fi in the search criteria, and I found a full setup guide with an amazing amount of glop you have to add under Cellular Data Network in Settings/Cellular (Google Fi Settings for MMS). All of these odd changes you have to make are in sections entitled “APN”.

APN stands for Access Point Name, and it’s a gateway between a GSM, GPRS, 3G, or 4G mobile network and another computer network, frequently the public Internet. A mobile device making a data connection must be configured with an APN to present to the carrier. (source: https://www.dialogic.com/glossary/access-point-name-apn)

Anywho, after putting in cryptic things like h2g2-t and `http://m.fi.goog/mms/wapenc` in the MMSC filed, and setting the MMS Max message size field to the highly suspicious value of 23456789, I could send MMS messages to my green bubble friends. It felt like a magic incantation but it worked.

Now it was time to figure it out for Lynda, who was using T-Mobile. This is where it got even weirder. The instructions I found are step-by-step, and would probably work, but T-Mobile had an animation to go with the instructions that used a flip phone! www.t-mobile.com/…

I sent it to Lynda and offered to sit with her and translate the instructions to work on her modern phone, and I loved her response. She said, “Yesterday I sent to my blue bubble son and asked him to forward. I think that will work good enough for now. It’s not worth using up the rest of my questions on this one thing!!”

Lynda is awesome.

AirTags

Before we left, we made sure that both of our checked bags, both of our backpacks, and our carry-on luggage all had AirTags in them. When we left the hotel or the ship, we appreciated the notifications that our bags had been left behind, along with our laptops and my iPad. But more importantly, it was highly useful to be able to track our luggage at the various airports.

The main value was to know for certain upon arrival in a new city that our luggage had made the flight. A few times, my luggage showed as still being on the runway when it was already coming down the conveyor belt, so minute-by-minute updates didn’t really happen. But again, the real value was knowing it was nearby. I would be very hesitant to travel without AirTags in my luggage from now on.

Dave Hamilton on the Mac Geek Gab told a story about his daughter’s experience with an AirTag in her luggage that cemented this sentiment. His daughter went through customs in Canada before flying to the US (some cities let you do that), but her bag had not yet arrived from her flight. She convinced the border patrol people to let her board the plane to go home without her luggage, because she was able to prove using Find My Devices that her luggage had not made the flight. When she arrived at her destination, she didn’t bother to wait to see if her luggage came down the chute, she simply went to lost luggage, showed them the location of her luggage and they immediately arranged for the return of her luggage.

Coding

Bart did a great episode of Programming By Stealth where he walked us through how to set up our code to be fully disconnected from the internet so we could play while on vacation. I did all of the setup he suggested, and on our flight out from Seattle to Iceland, I tested it on the plane to Reykjavik, Iceland, and it worked! But then I got sleepy. And then on the voyage, we very rarely had any downtime at all, and I spent all of that time writing my travelogue. It was cool to know that I could do it but my coding will have to wait for another type of break.

HVAC and Leak Detection

The final tech story I have to tell you is about our new HVAC system. We had a heat pump installed in our house at the end of last summer. The air handler is in the attic, and it has a little pipe that drains any excess condensation through a hole to the outside of our house. In the attic there’s a little metal tray under the pipe’s connection. No fluid should ever show up here, but early after installation, there was a leak at that connection.

Steve put a leak sensor from Ring into that little pan under the air handler. While we were in Iceland, we got an alert that the air handler leak detector had sensed liquid. It was cool that the detector worked, and it was cool that we were able to get this message because we had such good connectivity, but what could we do about it? Our cat sitter is a very young woman who we couldn’t picture trying to talk through climbing up a ladder into our attic to see if it was a false alarm, especially communicating only through text.

The solution was to use yet another connected device. Our HVAC system itself is a smart system. I had set the temperature limits in the house to what I felt would be comfortable for our cats in case of a big heat wave, but I was able to see that it was pretty comfortable in the house and simply turn off our HVAC system.

When we arrived home, Steve ran a test of the system and it didn’t start a new leak, but it does look like there was water at one time in the pan. We’re pretty sure it was a false alarm, but it was good to know we would be notified if something went wrong and we’d be able to deal with it remotely.

Bottom Line

I hope you enjoyed and learned something in my coverage of all the tech we used in an interesting trip up to the top of the world.

1 thought on “Tech on Travel on a Ship in Iceland

  1. David Bender - August 6, 2022

    How are you using Fi, with a Fi SIM in your iPhone and then using your GoogleVoice number? I have an older Pixel to which I just tether other devices.

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