06 July 2016

Topping Up and Ticking Off in Scotland

Fairy Glen, Isle of Skye (also in the new movie The BFG)
My wife and I just got back from a lovely trip to Scotland.  In future pieces I will probably write more about that but right now I want to concentrate on something that has nothing to do with crime fiction, unless you stretch that to communication issues and petty theft.  Bear with me.  I will include some lovely pictures of our trip to ease the way, okay?

Terri and I are not big cell phone users but we knew we wanted to be able to call home, especially to check our messages.  We went to our Verizon dealer who assured us our phone was unlocked and we could buy the necessary sim card in Scotland.  He recommended a company called EE.

Glasgow Dunce Cap
So when we landed in Glasgow we found an EE store and told a salesman named Scott exactly what we needed.  But he couldn't figure out how to open our phone.  I don't mean he couldn't unlock the electronic system; I mean he couldn't figure out how to physically open it and get at the sim card.

So we talked about buying a cheap phone.  All we need is to be able to call the U.S., we explained.  Don't care about local calls; don't care about texting.

The Kelpies, near Falkirk
No problem, he said.  For ten pounds he sold us a cheapie phone.  A five pound "topping up" fee gave us 250 minutes of US phone calls.  Excellent!

That night I called and checked messages.  Took almost ten minutes.

Next day I tried again and was told we had no money left on the phone.  Problem.

We were heading off to Edinburgh, so we found an EE shop on Princes Street, the main shopping drag in the capital city, where mobile phone shops seemed as thick as plague fleas on a medieval rat.

Edinburgh Castle, seen from Princes Street
The saleswoman told us that  Scott in Glasgow had sold us the wrong plan and there was nothing she could do for us except sell us a different one.  So you won't fix your company's mistake? No. You won't give back our money?  There's nothing we can do.  No, I said, there is obviously something you can do.  Your company just chooses not to.

So we went next door to a Three Mobile Phone store (like I said, thick as fleas).  We told the whole sad story to the man there.  "Why didn't the man in Glasgow check Google to see how to open your phone?"  Good question.  It hadn't occurred to Scott, or to us.

Plockton Harbor
Three Man did so and quickly learned how to remove the sim card from our phone.  He put in his sim and found that it was useless.  In spite of what Verizon had promised us, our phone was apparently locked.  We discussed what Three could do for us but their plans were not a match for our needs.  So we thanked them and marched on.

Soon we came to a second EE store (we eventually passed three on Princes Street).  The salesman there contradicted the saleswoman at his neighboring shop.  There was nothing wrong with the plan; the topping up had somehow failed to register.  He spent ten minutes in the back, calling someone for help twice.  Eventually he came back and told us the topping up was now properly set up and he had added £15 pounds in time for our trouble.  It would take an hour to register and then everything would be fine.  I shook his hand and we went back to the hotel, happy.

Stirling Castle
But the phone still didn't work.

For the next few days we traveled through Orkney, the Isle of Skye, and Stirling.  All wonderful places, but not crammed with EE shops.  On the last day we returned to Glasgow and made our way back to the scene of the crime and, believe it or not, the original salesman, Scott.  He confirmed what the last man in Edinburgh had told us: the topping up had not registered.

So what could he do for us now?  Nothing.  He won't give us our money back?  No; we had received a working phone; it was fine for texting and making local calls.

Satan's willing handmaids
I replied that it didn't matter whether  the phone could text, make local calls, or swim across the river Clyde whistling "Will Ye No Come Back Again?"  He knew when he sold it to us that the only thing we wanted it for was overseas calls, and for that it was as useful as a paperweight.

But EE apparently doesn't stand behind its products, promises, staff, or services.  We were out fifteen pounds.  So my goal in writing this is to do them much more than fifteen pounds worth of damage.  If you are in Britain and need a phone, try Three or one of the other companies.

Enough of that nonsense.  Let's move on to bigger topics.  We were in Scotland during the Brexit vote and you may want to hear my observations about that important event.  Happy to oblige.

I predict that Brexit will drive EE into bankruptcy and the CEO will be reduced to living under the Forth Bridge on cheap blended whisky and spoiled haggis.  But if you want a somewhat more informative opinion, try this one by Luke Bailey and Tom Phillips.  It's hilarious and you will learn something.  "By this point, actual British political news was basically indistinguishable from a random word generator..."


  1. You have more patience than me, Rob. My wife would probably have to bail me of gaol (ye olde spelling) if I had to deal with that Scott dude.

  2. When our son travels to UK for business he acquires an unlocked phone from here and buys the SiM card overseas. Alternately buy a cheap phone overseas.

  3. I have to say that I think the temptation to bring a claymore to the shop would have been overwhelming... And I will remember your advice for future travel.

    Meanwhile, that was, absolutely THE BEST article written on Brexit. Priceless, if nothing else, for the metaphor: ""Hey, you've left a turd in the fridge." "Reluctantly I have concluded I am not the man to remove the turd from the fridge."

  4. [Jotting notes before we take off for Scotland in early August.]

  5. THANK YOU for sharing the Luke Bailey and Tom Phillips blog post. I have shared it now myself, as widely as possible given my social media ineptitude. But some of the people I've shared it with are whizzes so I have hopes it will be seen by many more people. It's fantastic!

    And I LOVE your pictures of Scotland! Did you suffer terrible problems getting back into the US or are they getting that straightened out a bit better now?

  6. Rob, as someone who has lived and worked overseas and also needed to communicate with the States, the problem is worse than you imagine. The good ol’ USA is the only country in the world that has no cell phone standard and naturally, Verizon is one of the worst for proprietary incompatibility. We used to have three main types of proprietary mobile methods; I think we’re down to two now. The desirable keyword is GSM.

    Some USA phones offer ‘dual SIMs’, but most foreigners purchase a cheapie phone here on arrival and Americans do as you did and purchase a cheapie phone overseas.

    But… if you know you’re going to have internet access, you can use a number of VoIP (voice over internet protocol) options to call anywhere in the world… free. There’s also SKYPE and other messengers and of course Apple offers it’s own options. Some of these programs (apps) can be used not only on phones but also tablets. They can be tested before you leave the US.

    Nother option: When I went to South Africa, I took along a gadget called a MagicJack which allows you to call anywhere in North America on what appears to be a land-line. But the neat thing is that it can call North America from anywhere.

    I love the idea of the CEO drinking cheap booze whilst living under a bridge. BTW, America isn’t aware that we are considered the gold standard for customer service. Yay us1

    PS. Rob, I’m sure you’re politely sniggering at this point because you know my Florida ISP (Brighthouse) barely qualifies as third-word internet.

    PS. I was hoping you’d get to see the Kelpies.


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