Pre Work: Travel Bag – DONE!

29 June, 2011

Tate has spent days planning her birthday party, which is in a couple of weeks.  She’s having a Carnival themed party.  Carnival games and cotton candy (her Dad bought her a cotton candy machine!), every day is filled with projects.  Painting signs for the games, numbering rubber ducks, and yesterday we started sewing.  Little aprons for the carnival helpers and a small red-and-white awning for the snack bar — to give it that carnival feeling.  So I took advantage of having the sewing machine out and started my bag for the our trip.

I have made this bag before. It is a diaper bag pattern (free!).  The first one I made for the the farmer’s market. I wanted separate compartments for my purchases – so I didn’t need all those little plastic bags and to keep things from sitting on top of each other.  It was perfect for the farmer’s market.   (picture of that one coming later!)

When we were talking about a carry-bag for our trip to Costa Rica, we agreed that the farmer’s market bag would work great.   I guess we could have just taken that bag, but of course we decided to make a new one.  I found some wonderful world map material and was inspired.

I didn’t get much use of the sewing machine during the day while Tate and her friend were working, but by the evening…it just took me a couple hours to finish it off.  I think it looks great!




Pre Work: Staying Connected

26 June, 2011

I finally feel satisfied with our plan for cell phone coverage while we are in Costa Rica.  This has been quite the research journey.  I don’t want to take a laptop, so I need more than just voice service, I need to be able to use data service on my cell phone.

After days of research, I have decided to purchase local pre-paid SIM cards for everyone at the San Jose Airport when we arrive – this seems to be the best option in terms of price and coverage.

The journey went something like this:

  1. Using our existing cell phone with International Roaming – with our current carriers. The plan was to confirm everyone’s international roaming plan and expected coverage in Costa Rica.  Each of us has a different carrier (don’t ask). Tate has T-Mobile, Drew has AT&T and I have a Verizon phone.    The Costa Rica coverage for each carrier was pretty similar – roaming works the same for all carriers. Grupo I.C.E.  owns all the cell coverage in Costa Rica, so whatever deal each carrier makes with ICE and plus their choice of fee on top of that…well that’s your per minute rate  – anywhere from $2.19- $2.89 per minute.  That’s for calls in and out of the country.   Crazy..I could not image paying $20-$50 per phone call back home and then $10-$20 every time I needed to call to confirm a tour or reservation or get directions.  I would end up with a $600-$1,000 phone bill when I got home!

    To offset this cost, I started researching local pre-paid phone cards.  This seemed like a simple solution for in-country phone calls and possibly calls home.   According to my research, pay phones everywhere in Costa Rica and using a phone card is good option for keeping your communication costs down.
    Apparently it is important to know the rates for the locations you wish to call from and to and know the rates for the phone card you are purchasing.  I found a great web site that helped determine what the best card would be for us Availcom.
    I found that the Solaris phone card was a good option.  There is no activation fee with this card and calls are 30¢ per minute, much better than our international roaming rate.  But we’ll have to find a pay phone to use it – which won’t always be convenient and in an emergency may not even be helpful.   So I kept looking for cell phone options.
  2. Renting a Costa Rica cell phone.  The cell phone service is run by Grupo I.C.E.  – they have a monopoly on the cell services in Costa Rica.  You can’t get a cell phone number (meaning service) unless you are a resident.  So to resolve this issue for travelers, Costa Rica companies have turned to renting cell phones, with service to travelers.  This gives you a usable phone, with a Costa Rica phone number to use while you are there.  This seemed like a good option.
    The cost of this still seemed high.  There is a phone rental charge ($40 – $80), the expected per-minute charges (20¢-30¢ per minute for calls to the US) and a deposit for the phone ($150).   This is where I was a few weeks back.
    Because of the cost, I was only planning on renting one phone for the three of us and using it sparingly along with Skype and the pre-paid calling card for communication on our trip.
    With only one usable phone, the kids and I were concerned about staying in touch with each other while we were out and about.  What if someone got lost?  We talked about getting a set of walkie-talkies with a wide range – that would help.  There would be no minute charges – we could talk as much as we wanted, we just had to invest in a good set before we left.  These turned out to be about $70 per set of 2, and because we needed 3, we’d have to purchase 2 sets, about $140.  This along with the rented cell phone and a calling card…we’d be spending nearly $300 just for services, not including per-minute charges for calls.  This options would still cost us $400-$500 depending on how much we called and connected.  Better, but still not the best.
  3. Prepaid SIM Cards.  This is our current plan.  Prepaid SIM cards are now available in Costa Rica, at the ICE kiosk in the arrivals area at the airport and from ICE offices in Costa Rica.
    You need to have a compatible phone, a GSM phone that works on 1800Mhz band. I have confirmed that all of our phones meet the criteria.  Each of the kids have a version of the Droid and I have a Blackberry, so we’re good.   You can read more about how it works in this Tico Times article.
    You need to have an unlocked phone (to allow you to use a different carrier’s SIM card.  Most phones are “locked”).  This can be done a couple of ways; 1) call your carrier and ask for the unlock code – if they know you’re travelling out of the country, they may just had that over.  2) if it is not that easy, there are few companies that offer unlock codes for a fee.  We used Unlocktotalk.
    If you want to know more how this work and why you need to unlock your phone.  This How Stuff Works article explains it well.
    Each of our phones can operate on the 1800mhz band, we’ve unlocked our phones and are ready to purchase and install our new ICE SIM cards when we arrive at the San Jose airport in Costa Rica. We’ve been advised to bring along the following items for each phone to make it a bit easier.
    — the unlock code we used,
    — the customer service number for our carriers and
    — the instructions from our User Manual on GSM.
    I’ve added these items to our checklist for packing.The prepaid SIM cards come in ¢2500 (about $5), ¢5000 ($10), or ¢10,000 ($20) denominations. The local call rate is about ¢40 colones a minute, or around 8 cents a minute. The rate to the US is about ¢160/min (about 30 cents).  Much better than anything I have found yet.  With the charge to unlock everyone’s phone $15 x 3 = $45 and then a ¢10,000 ($20) SIM card for each x 3 = $60.  That will be $105.  Much, much less than the previous options!
    I will also purchase a ~$20 phone card for use @ payphones in case there’s a cell service issue, these along with a  Skype account for calls home @ internet cafés should keep us very well connected.

I feel pretty good about moving my costs of phone and data service from $600-$1,000 to under $150!


Pre Work: Blackberry Apps

24 June, 2011

I am not planning on taking a laptop on this trip.  Mostly because of the hassle to lug it around, but also to ensure a stress-free vacation.

No laptop means working will be a challenge.  With the type of job I have it is easy to get sucked in to working regardless of where you are or what you’re doing – an email or voice message that compels you to react – and you’re not only distracted but sometimes it causes unnecessary stress.  It is just too easy for people to reach out and sometimes it is hard to stand-by and be quiet while a shit storm is happening back at work.  No laptop means that I will be limited to email responses and quick phone calls – this is a good thing!

My Blackberry is enough to keep me productive and connected all the time.    In preparation of the trip I have researched what I need to make my Blackberry useful while in Costa Rica.  After days of research I have concluded that purchasing a pre-paid SIM card from ICE when we arrive at the airport in San Jose will be the most cost efficient and convenient way to stay connected while we’re in Costa Rica.  Although my data service may be limited in some areas, I can use WiFi at internet cafes and other connect locations.

Today I spent a little time looking for some Blackberry apps to help out while were gone.

I already have some useful apps for travel;

I also wanted a language translator, a checklist manager (for pre-work and reminders for things while on vacation – and maybe other things…), a WiFi locator,

  • For the translator, I found free version of  Navita Translator  (For U$5,99 you can use Navita Translator without our sponsors banners.)  Perfect.  I type in the English word or phrase and it translates it.   There is an audio option, but it very hard to hear and understand.
  • For my checklist manager I am trying out Checklists by Bulbera.  There’s a free trial and then $1.99 after 30-days.
  • I didn’t find a good WiFi locator.  There is one for the iPhone, but nothing of value for the Blackberry.
  • I also found a free currency converter. XE Currency.

I purchased and downloaded a Costa Rica Travel Guide and Field Guide on AmazonKindle to have on my Blackberry – preventing me from lugging books with us.

I am not sure that I have the right translator or checklist application, but  I will try these out for a while and see how they work out.

More pre work completed!


Planning: Vacation time!

23 June, 2011

Today I put in to take off the time for our Costa Rica trip.  No problem.  I only took 2 days off when we went to New York in the spring, I’m not taking any time off when we are in Iowa for the family reunion.  I plan to work both Thursday and Friday while we are there.  The reunion doesn’t start until Friday night – that should work.

With flights purchased, lodging booked – committing to the time off work seemed like a logical next step.   One more thing checked off the list!


Prep Work: Costa Rica First Aid

20 June, 2011

Over tFirst Aid Kit he weekend I assembled our first aid kit (Botiquin de Primeros Auxilios) for Costa Rica.   Deciding what to take wasn’t much of a challenge, Costa Rica’s 34,000 species of insects meant that in addition to the extra strength insect repellent I already have in our Costa Rica bag, I added Cortaid and AfterBite, the Itch Eraser to the first aid kit.  An abundance of bandages and mole skin for blisters are necessary for the walking and hiking in the rainforest and up the Arenal Volcano.

Our kit also include standard first aid items such as;
Assorted bandages
Gauze pads
Alcohol wipes
Cotton Balls
Cotton Swabs
Safety pins
Bandage tape

Normally I wouldn’t carry over the counter medications other than Advil or Motrin for headaches and minor aches and pains — but I am not sure how readily available things like Pepto and Benadryl will be in Costa Rica, so I included a few tablets of some medications I thought we might need;  Pepto, aspirin, Motrin, Benadryl and anti-diarrhea  medication.  I also included Tate’s favorite  cough drops in case we need it.

I managed to fit all of this into a pouch 3″ x 5″.  Feeling prepared!


Pre Work: Local Currency

17 June, 2011

We know we are going to have to deal with currency conversion and exchange while in Costa Rica.

The currency in Costa Rica is the colón (named after Christopher Columbus, known as Cristóbal Colón in Spanish).  The current exchange rate is  509.29 CRC = $1.00 USD (today, 5/20/2011).   Doing the conversion in your head should be fairly simple.  A 1,000 colón, is approximately $2 USD.  10,000 colón ~ $20 USD.  Simple just divide by 500.   Bills come in 500, 1000, 5000 and 10,000 notes, while coins come in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 25, 50 and 100.

Even though my research recommends that we simply use ATMs (cajeros automáticos) to get our colónes  when we are in Costa Rica, I decided to get a few colónes before we leave.  Mostly to help us get familiar with the denominations and the conversion rate.   Earlier this week I ordered $100 USD or 46,000 CRC (poor conversion rate – as I expected ) – yes, I had to order it – but it arrived the next day.  Here’s what we got

46,000 CRC

Now we’ll have some local currency when we arrive and won’t need to find bank or ATM immediately.

Another item checked off the list


Research: The 1st of 3 Costa Rica Movies

9 June, 2011

Okay so it is really a presentation, but it runs all by it self — so I call it a movie! As I was researching Costa Rica for our trip I decided to put together a PowerPoint presentation to share with the kids on some of the stuff I was learning. This is the first of 3 I plan to create.

This one has mostly Costa Rica history and culture information. It was fun to play with PowerPoint for non-work purposes.  Take a look and let me know what you think.

Aside from the standard travel sites I found some of the most interesting and honest information @ The Real Costa Rica website.

The next movies will be Travel Preparation, things like what to pack, communication, getting around, driving rules, and safety tips.  And the final movie will be all the places we plan to visit and the things on our list to do and see while we’re there.