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Tech Notes from a Cross-Border Trip to Canada

A few weeks ago, we took our first significant trip since the start of the pandemic, visiting our son Tristan in Vancouver. The trip went well, and we escaped infection thanks to masking in airports and airplanes (as is required in Canada) and during indoor public activities we couldn’t avoid. Four COVID-19 vaccine doses for both of us likely helped as well.

More interesting for TidBITS were some of the changes in travel-related technologies since our last trip. We stumbled across our first use of App Clips in the wild, enjoyed using CarPlay in a rental car, butted heads with Apple Maps over illegal U-turns, and stayed online easily thanks to our T-Mobile plan’s cross-border coverage.

App Clip Seen in the Wild

Two years ago, Apple introduced App Clips, which give you an app experience without having to install a full app. In “iOS 14 and iPadOS 14 Echo Android and Newton” (22 June 2020), Josh wrote:

App Clips let you use just a bit of an app without installing the whole thing. You might launch that App Clip from a Web page in Safari, an iMessage, a place in Maps, or even an NFC tag or QR code. For instance, you could rent one of those godforsaken scooters without installing the full app. Each App Clip is less than 10 MB in size and is automatically removed when you no longer need it.

That was the last time I even thought about App Clips; I’d never run into one or heard from anyone who did. However, when we stopped for gas at an Exxon Mobil station on our drive to Toronto, we saw a sticker advertising an App Clip as a way to pay. It was easy enough to run through the steps, though I didn’t appreciate its efforts to push me into signing up for an account. And it was completely unnecessary because the pump would have taken a straight Apple Pay payment from the same credit card. So, while the overall App Clip experience was fine, it wasn’t an improvement over just paying normally. Have you run into an App Clip in the wild that was actually useful?

ExxonMobil App Clip experience

CarPlay in Rental Cars Is Brilliant

When we arrived in Vancouver, we rented a car from Budget. You never know exactly what car you’re going to get, so we were pleasantly surprised with the Hyundai Kona we received. The best part was its support of CarPlay, which let me use my iPhone for navigation with the car’s built-in screen. Given that rental cars tend to be relatively new models, I imagine CarPlay availability in rental cars is increasingly common, and I know I’ll be explicitly asking for it in rental cars from now on.

Pairing my iPhone 13 Pro to the car using CarPlay was easy, thanks to the on-screen hint—I don’t know if I would even have thought to try otherwise. While it was connecting, I adjusted the mirrors and seats, after which I was able to give Maps our destination and set off.

CarPlay pairing in Hyundai Kona

It was a great experience, and one that was far better than trying to prop the iPhone on the dashboard somewhere to be able to see the screen while driving. The next time you rent a car, see if it supports CarPlay.

Apple Maps Has Improved but Still Pushes Illegal U-Turns

Apple Maps has been improving, to the point where its current state was recently featured in an xkcd comic. I used it for much of our trip, and it worked well. I particularly appreciated its contextual directions, such as “Go through the next stoplight and at the following light, turn left.” (The wording is probably slightly different; I forgot to write it down on the spot.) That would be followed by a “Turn left on Hastings Street” after passing the first stoplight. In contrast, Google Maps, which is equally available in CarPlay, relied on distances and street names, with instructions like, “In 600 meters, turn left on Hastings Street.” Knowing that I need to turn left sometime soon isn’t nearly as helpful as knowing that it’s at the second light. In both cases, the screen would show me that the turn was two lights away, but the Apple Maps display was easier to read as well.

In fact, I wouldn’t even have tried Google Maps via CarPlay but for one infuriating and dangerous lapse in Apple Maps. Whenever I left its prescribed route, it instructed me to make a U-turn to get back on track. Unfortunately, as the British Columbia Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure says, “There are very few situations where U-turns are legal for the traveling public.” That includes intersections with traffic lights, where Maps told me to break the law repeatedly.

Apple Maps U-turn directions

Frankly, this is embarrassing and unnecessary. The entire point of a mapping app is that it gives you appropriate directions in your current location, which should include the local rules of the road. I realize that laws surrounding U-turns vary by locale, but I see no reason Apple couldn’t build geofences around certain areas to avoid giving illegal instructions in those spots. If that’s too hard, a switch in Setting > Maps > Directions > Driving for Avoid U-Turns would let users manually shut down such illegal behavior.

When I switched to Google Maps, it didn’t direct me to take any illegal U-turns, but it wasn’t a fair test since I wasn’t able to make the same driving mistakes in the same spots. (Hey, I was on vacation!) I thought I remembered seeing an Avoid U-Turns setting in some physical GPS units (we reviewed a bunch years ago in our Find Yourself with GPS series), and while I couldn’t find much support for that, Travis Butler’s review of the Garmin iQue confirmed it was an option in at least one unit (see “Increasing Your Cartographic iQue,” 9 January 2006). So maybe avoiding U-turns is more difficult than it seems, but I think it’s an important feature to add.

Another useful feature that Apple could add is a screen summarizing key local rules of the road whenever you launch Maps in a new location. Right-on-red rules are the most obvious because those vary widely. We ran into several local oddities (to us) in Vancouver, such as flashing green lights that indicate that the light is pedestrian-activated and cars in the cross streets only have stop signs. That causes confusion because flashing green lights in Ontario have historically indicated a protected left turn. The one that really threw us was the meaning of yellow traffic lights. In British Columbia, it’s illegal to enter an intersection when a traffic light is yellow unless it’s unsafe to stop. That’s also true of some US states, but here in New York, yellow merely means that the light is about to turn red—as long as you enter the intersection before it turns red, you won’t get a ticket. Several cars turning left from the other direction were unhappy with me when I blithely (but safely) drove through a yellow light, blocking them from turning when they thought they should be able to go.

T-Mobile Works Well for Cross-Border Travel

Finally, this is our first trip to Canada since switching to T-Mobile from AT&T last August. We made the change right before Tristan moved to Vancouver so his iPhone would work instantly without additional fees, thanks to T-Mobile’s built-in support for Canada and Mexico. We figured that, pandemic permitting, we’d also be visiting Canada a bit more, and with AT&T, we always had to do something special to be able to continue to use our iPhones (see “How to Avoid Data Overage Charges When Traveling to Canada,” 31 July 2015). Our last visit in 2020 involved a $10-per-day International Day Pass. AT&T may have better roaming plans available now, but if not, paying an extra $140 for cellular connectivity on our week-long trip would have been annoying.

T-Mobile worked perfectly. When we crossed the border on the way to Toronto, I received a text message telling me that my connectivity would continue to work, and while sitting in the Vancouver airport on the way home, I got another message telling me that I’d used up 80% of my 5 GB of high-speed data. If I had used up the rest, I would have been throttled down to 2G speeds. Nevertheless, knowing that I used 4 GB for a week of normal travel is good to know—for a longer trip, I might try to be a little more careful. If you plan to go back and forth to Canada or Mexico from the US frequently, check out T-Mobile.

T-Mobile international messages

All in all, it was a successful trip, from both the vacation and the technology perspectives. Here’s hoping that travel becomes sufficiently less stressful that I can play with more travel-related tech soon!

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Comments About Tech Notes from a Cross-Border Trip to Canada

Notable Replies

  1. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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).

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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).

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

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

  15. 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

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

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

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