Elgan: Man vs. not-so-wild

How to survive in and escape any city with nothing but a cell phone

Survivalist TV shows like Man vs. Wild and Survivorman pit man against nature in harsh environments around the world. The hosts of these programs demonstrate how to survive in the wilderness with nothing but a knife and a lot of know-how about finding food, shelter and a way out.

I enjoy these shows because the tips are interesting, and because it's fun watching people eat bugs, larvae and goat eyeballs.

Most of us will never get the chance to use wilderness survival skills. However, our chances of being stranded in an urban jungle with no wallet and no laptop are much higher. Laptop bags, luggage and wallets can get lost, stolen or destroyed while on the road. I know someone who had her carry-on luggage lost by the airline. Yeah, that's right: carry-on.

The reality is that stuff happens. And when it does, it's nice to be prepared. In this column, I'm going to tell you how to survive in any city with nothing but a cell phone.

Just like in the wilderness, when you're stuck in a city, your priorities are finding food, shelter and a way out -- in that order.

Your phone

To wilderness survivalists, a good knife is the necessary all-purpose survival tool. For urban survival, your cell phone serves the same purpose.

If you travel on business, make sure you buy a cell phone with long battery life, GPS, good Internet-surfing capability and removable media cards with plenty of storage capacity.

It's also nice to be able to charge your phone via standard USB cable, rather than via a proprietary connector. That enables you to charge your phone in cybercafés or hotel business centers if your laptop bag -- and your charger -- goes missing. You can almost always find someone who can loan you a standard USB cable.

It's also a good idea to download and install a secure-data application that password-protects important information, such as your credit card, frequent flier and other numbers, as well as PINs and passwords you may not remember. You should also back up all the documents you might need during your trip.

The single most valuable service you can use with a telephone is Google's GOOG-411 service. Put it on speed dial or memorize the phone number: 1-800-466-4411. The service is the fastest way to call any business, which saves both time and battery life.

If you lose your wallet, you can use your phone to call the places you've been and ask if they've found it. Never assume it's really gone until you've checked.

Once you're certain the wallet is gone for good, you'll want to cancel your credit cards by phone within 24 hours. Start with store cards, because they stick it to you more than credit card companies do when cards are lost. Call the bank to report any missing debit cards. That reduces your liability to $50. If you don't call within two days, you're liable for $500 (or more if you don't call within 60 days after receiving your bank statement).

Food and shelter

You can survive without water for about three days, and without food for up to a month. But in a city, you probably won't even have to skip a meal, as long as you can get your hands on money.

It's a great idea to fold and tape a $100 bill to the removable plastic cover of your phone's battery compartment. If you lose your wallet, cash is always nice.

Another way to get cash is to get it wired to you from your spouse or someone else back home via, say, Western Union. (Use GOOG-411 to find the closest office.) ID is generally required, but if you don't have one, you can simply give the money transfer number (which Western Union assigns the sender).

You can also survive without cash by checking into a nice hotel. The better the hotel, the more of your survival needs can be met without actual money.

Hotels always ask for your credit card and ID when you check in. But they don't really need it. Most hotels are willing to accept credit cards over the phone. They often tell you that it's against their policy. But explain your situation, and they'll probably do it. If they absolutely refuse, then find another hotel.

Once you've found an accommodating hotel, just have your spouse or someone else with a credit card call the front desk while you're standing there, and the hotel can process the transaction over the phone.

After you've checked in, your chances of survival increase exponentially. You can eat by ordering room service, and bill other services, such as car or taxi service, to your room. (Arrange all this through the front desk.) You can use the computers in the business center. Importantly, the hotel gives you an address to which your spouse or someone else can overnight credit cards, clothes or anything else you may need.

Long-term survival

You need to survive in the short term with food and shelter. But you also need long-term survival, which means you may need to get some work done. The most important thing for many people is the ability to send and receive e-mail. So make sure your phone can get work e-mail via an installed application or an online e-mail service.

One of the most battery-saving ways to send e-mail through a phone is with Jott, a free service that records your voice and transcribes it into text, which you can send to yourself or to your contacts. By setting up contacts in advance, sending e-mail becomes just like leaving voice mail.

You can also use Jott to update Google Calendar, just by talking. Incidentally, it's a great idea if possible to use Google Calendar or some other online calendaring site, or at least synchronize your regular calendar with one of them. That way, you'll always be able to access your business appointments no matter what.

You can also find computers in hotel business centers, airports and in random locations at cybercafés. If you had the foresight to keep backups on your phone, you'll be able to access to your data through the same standard USB cable you use to charge the phone.

You can also use services like SugarSync to gain access to literally all your files and data. But you'll have to subscribe and set it up in advance.

Getting out alive

Airport check-in and airport security need to see your identification before they let you fly, so how can you get out of the city without ID?

The little-known truth is that you can fly domestically without it. (In fact, there's an entire blog devoted to flying without ID.) Just make sure you arrive at the airport earlier than usual -- three hours before your flight is safe -- and explain your situation both to the check-in desk and to Transportation Security Administration (TSA) people.

They may resist and deny your request, but they'll almost certainly accommodate you eventually. TSA will probably subject you to additional screening. But remain polite and persistent, and you'll get your boarding pass and make it through security and on that airplane home.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, "The World Is My Office." You can contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, "The Raw Feed."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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