When you’re traveling, some of the most frustrating roadblocks aren’t the ones you can see. They’re the invisible barriers erected by contracts, treaties or technological limitations.
Just ask Michael Stanat, a marketing director who frequently commutes between Tokyo and New York. When he fires up his favorite streaming services while overseas, he’s often thwarted by an error message denying him access to the service he paid for. The reason? His Internet address says he’s outside the USA.
On his travels in mainland China, for example, he found “a lot of content is not available for a variety of issues such as licensing restrictions or other factors such as Internet connectivity.”
You might run into one of these virtual barriers this summer, too. Whether you’re trying to watch a Netflix movie on a plane or tune in to Rhapsody on the beach, you could meet with unyielding digital static. And let’s face it, in an age of streaming entertainment, unseen walls can affect the quality of your trip.
But they don’t have to. You can overcome almost any of these electronic hurdles with a few simple strategies.
The most common block is one that happens after you cross the border. Your computer knows you’re abroad because of your Internet protocol address. That’s a problem, because streaming services typically negotiate the rights to entertainment by country. When I fired up Hulu to catch the latest episode of The Simpsons in Guadalajara, Mexico, I got an enormous digital “D’oh!”
“Many of these services, including Netflix, Hulu and MLB.TV, will block your access if you are abroad, even though you have paid for the service,” says Pal Bischoff, a privacy advocate for Comparitech.com. “If you are traveling abroad, losing access to subscription services for watching TV shows, movies or to follow your favorite sports team can be very frustrating.”
The workaround? A Virtual Private Network (VPN), which obscures your location. That’s what Katharina Stroehm, a social media manager who lives in Budapest, Hungary, uses. A VPN, she explains, serves more than one purpose. “It allows you to access the public Wi-Fi in cafes, restaurants and airports without the danger of getting hacked,” she says, “and it gets rid of geo-blocking when I’m trying to keep up with my favorite TV shows from back home.”
I have mixed feelings about this geographic sleight-of-hand. On the one hand, where I am is no one’s business. On the other hand, my streaming service doesn’t have legal permission to send me content, even if I’ve paid for it. Also, I don’t want to get hacked.
I’ve been testing a VPN called Buffered (buffered.com, $12.99/month) that integrated quickly with my system and allowed me to watch the latest episode of Silicon Valley while I was in Canada. But it’s still murky legal territory.
One of my favorite workarounds is SiriusXM (siriusxm.com, subscriptions start at $10.99/month). Not only is the SiriusXM system easy to use — it’s like a radio, so there’s no need to fiddle with an Internet signal or downloads — but for an extra $4 a month, you can also stream music digitally on your phone or any Internet-connected device. The satellite signal is available in northern Mexico and most of Canada. It’s hard to imagine a road trip of any length without the sounds of the Grateful Dead on Channel 23 coming along.
Of course, not all the roadblocks are meant to be overcome. For example, a streaming service such as Rhapsody ($4.99/month) will let you listen on only one device at a time. A family plan, for up to five users, costs $14.99 a month. It’s a hurdle that’s worth clearing, even if you have to pay for it. Rhapsody’s Premier plan lets you download an unlimited number of songs to your device, giving you a good fallback if you get geo-blocked when you cross a border.
Then again, you could just turn off the music and pick up a good book. That’s what Stefanie Parks, an English teacher and writer in Bangkok, does when she travels. If you don’t want to carry a paperback, she recommends an app called OverDrive (overdrive.com) that lets you use your library card to download up to 10 books at a time on your tablet. Best of all, it doesn’t cost anything, and there’s no blocking.
“It’s so amazing being able to read whatever books I want and not having to pay for them,” she says.
Now that’s something to add to your summer reading list.
Try these cheap thrills this summer
Download a podcast. Acast (acast.com), also called the “Spotify for podcasts,” is a new app popular in Europe and available here. It offers thousands of programs and exclusive content from The Financial Times and BuzzFeed. There’s no charge to download the app and subscribe to much of its content.
Stream videos on your phone. If you have a T-Mobile account, you can stream videos from Netflix, YouTube and HBO Now at no extra cost and without it eating into your data plan (t-mobile.com/offer/binge-on-streaming-video.html). Dial #BNG# (#264#) to enable the service.
Support your independent bookstore. That’s the idea behind Libro.FM (libro.fm), an online independent audiobook store that promises to put books and book lovers first. The content is encryption-free, so you can listen to your audiobooks on any device.