Tech Notes from a Cross-Border Trip to Canada

Originally published at: Tech Notes from a Cross-Border Trip to Canada - TidBITS

Adam Engst recently took a trip from upstate New York to Vancouver, British Columbia. As always, technology made the trip significantly easier than in the past, though he found that some bits (CarPlay in rental cars and North American T-Mobile connectivity) were vastly more helpful than others (an App Clip for buying gas and Apple Maps encouraging illegal U-turns).

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The T-Mobile tip is good! We switched the family over from AT&T after I’d been a customer since 2007 back in 2019. T-Mobile didn’t offer a lot of incentives at that moment because we already owned all the phones we wanted to use. But the monthly savings were significant and we were able to escape the AT&T pooled-bandwidth limits.

We haven’t been to Canada since then, but my father and stepmother went to Greece for three months to visit family in 2021 and we had gotten them on our plan before they left. In previous years, they had had to get SIMs, couldn’t text with people at home, retrieve voicemail, etc. This time, they coped with the 2G speed, but were almost always within reach of Wi-Fi and good Internet service, so it didn’t matter—they never needed a lot of bandwidth on the go.

Between the cheaper service being on our plan and using T-Mobile’s international roaming, they saved hundreds of dollars across 2021!

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Like you, I’ve found CarPlay really useful in rentals. Rather than swearing about the lack of any holding bracket for renters’ phones whatsoever, I just get my iPhone onto the car’s display and toss my phone into the console. It turns out depending on make, the level of required effort to get the iPhone connected through CarPlay (and not to any other shenanigans) really varies. Especially in cars where it takes more than two taps in obvious places, you wonder if rental car companies shouldn’t just leave a sticker on how to connect an iPhone or Android to the car. There’s all kinds of nonsense messaging I find from them in their cars upon pick-up, but this would actually serve a purpose for the customer.

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I’ve had good luck traveling with two items (which I also use on my own cars):

  • Roadster sticky pad dash mount. This particular item is not currently available at Amazon, but there are many similar products that are (including a 2-pack of this one!)

    You can drop it on any flat dashboard and it will stick well enough to hold your phone.

  • Kenu Airframe+ vent mount. Again, there are many similar products from a variety of manufacturers.

    I prefer this in the summer, where the dash can get very hot. The AC blowing on my phone via the vent keeps it cold, which is nice because navigation can make it get warm otherwise. It’s not recommended for use in the winter, when the vent will be blowing hot air (for obvious reasons).

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In using CarPlay in a rental car, I think you need to be careful about uploading all of your contacts. I have only used it once, but I think it asked me if I wanted to do that. Maybe others who have used it more can confirm that.

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Interesting about T-Mobile. My current ATT plan (which was recently discontinued but replaced with a similar plan) includes unlimited talk, text, and data coverage in Mexico and Canada, although data speed may be throttled if network is experiencing high volume data traffic. They also recently added 19 countries in Latin America as well (which I had not realized until now).

Not sure how the price compares to t-mobile, but every time I’ve switched to a better plan at ATT, oddly enough my per phone costs have dropped.

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I second Kamiobi’s comment about security issues. After recently reading an article about a security expert checking a rental car and finding content from 25 previous renters’ phones, I looked at my most recent car rental and found 2 previous phones. If you have a legal obligation or employer requirement to keep any information on your phone confidential, you should never connect it to a rental car (or public wi-fi).

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I believe the thing to watch out for with rental cars is not CarPlay, but the standard Bluetooth connection to the car’s system. That’s what will ask for your contacts and upload them to the car, whereas as I understand it, CarPlay doesn’t need to do this because all the processing takes place on the iPhone anyway.

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I bought an e-Sim the last trip to the US from Airalo. We were doing a campus tour, Washington to Massachusetts and I figured we didn’t need to be hunting for data and our Irish mobile roaming carrier had a terrible deal for the US so I purchased the e-Sim in advance but didn’t activate until we landed.

When we did land at Dulles I got an alert from my carrier while still on the runway that I had already used 80% of my ‘free’ roaming allowance from them. Which prompted me shutting down data and activating my e-SIM before turning it back on again.

It was pretty straightforward, install the app, follow the instructions. I bought 10Gb of data with a 30 day validity for 26 bucks, which did our US tour of campuses just fine from maps to data for various colleges, downloading their apps and so on.

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Two comments from the EU perspective of a US immigrant now in France, by way of Germany and the UK:

Apple still need to do a TON of work on localization of content, especially over here and in Canada. I specifically mention Canada, as I was living five miles from the BC border, in Washington, before leaving for here 5 years ago. I found that Google Maps was much more helpful and Apple Maps. And it’s mostly the same here in France, too… altho’ BOTH could do a better job of providing info on local public transportation. Which brings me to my next point:

T-Mob is GREAT in that part of the Pacific Northwest… I moved down to Washington from Alaska, using T-mob there, all through Canada along the AlCan and then in Washington. As I was making frequent trips to the Vancouver airport, I was constantly “roaming” between and I found the service to be superior to what I had previously had in New England, the Midwest, and Texas.

One amusing point: I was living in Lynden, WA… about 12 miles from Bellingham. There is a stretch of road in between that runs up close to the foothills of the Cascades (High Noon Road!) and the phone was constantly “jumping” over to Rogers Communication across the border, then switching back T-Mob when we got down to lower altitudes.

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I now use CarPlay as the default in my Kia e Niro - it works seamlessly and far better than the Kia system. I do recognise Adam’s comment about being instructed to do illegal U turns and the need for localisation. I drove into central London recently, I live in Warwickshire some 100 miles away, so it’s always a tense time in the heavy London traffic, and ended up with a £75 fine for driving down a road banned to traffic during the day. Yes my fault completely for not noticing the signs in the first place but also believing implicitly in everything Maps tells me. And it told me to go down that road. I’ll try Google maps next time and see if that’s any better - never going to drive down that road though.

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I always carry a USB-A to Lightning cable with me and plug in to use CarPlay in car club/rental cars. The wireless CarPlay connection can be fiddly depending on the car, and between that and GPS it can drain the phone’s battery. The advantage of plugging in is that aside from being simple, your phone charges at the same time. It is great how widespread CarPlay is these days.

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Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that in this article (I put it in the TCN piece I did). It’s easy to think that CarPlay is doing the navigation, but it’s the iPhone, and GPS navigation drains iPhone batteries quickly. You’ve got a USB jack right there, so it’s always worth dedicating a Lightning cable to make sure you can charge in the car.

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This is a critical point. CarPlay, for all it offers, is really just a way for on-phone apps to display content on the car’s display. Every app you launch from it is either an app built-in to the car or an app on your Phone. Either way, CarPlay doesn’t really offer you anything new - it’s just a convenient presentation for capabilities you already have without it.

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Uh, yes, that’s the entire history of Apple.

We visited Salisbury UK on way to Stonehenge and the public parking space we used had a sign with an App Clip to pay. Worked well - I could pay through my phone via the app clip and Apple Pay without having to download the app and register and etc.

You can see an example of the sign and app clip qr thing here:
http://kb.mipermit.com/en/kblist?s=ways-to-pay-for-your-parking

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Parking is a good example and reminds me that at Stanley Park in Vancouver (their lovely waterfront park), their parking machines supported something like five different services, including the ParkMobile service that’s used by Cornell and Ithaca here. I thought that was a good approach—better than Simon Fraser University’s parking garage, which required a specific one.

Interesting note - I’ve discovered that if I take a screenshot on my phone while it’s connected to CarPlay, I actually get two screenshots; one of the phone and one of the CarPlay screen. I don’t know if it’s technically correct, but in my mind the phone is treating CarPlay as a second display for the phone.

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It’s the same if you AirPlay, the two screens are captured.

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