Staying connected while on the road, Part I: Contacting home

Staying connected while on the road, Part II: Traveling with groups
Exploring Plitvice Lakes National Park

Staying Connected While on the Road

Lately we’ve received several requests to talk about connectivity while traveling. It’s definitely an important topic, but it’s also a broad one. “Connectivity” can mean a lot of different things to different people. Do you want to call home to tell your parents or significant other that you’re safe? Do you need to complete work assignments from the road? Or are you traveling with a group that you want to be able to contact if you split up?

Each of these scenarios requires a slightly different strategy, but none of them should be intimidating. We live in a vastly interconnected world, and, for the most part, it isn’t difficult to keep in touch, no matter where you are.

That’s why we’d decided to introduce a series on connectivity. In these posts, we’ll talk about different strategies for staying connected, including the benefits and pitfalls of each, as well as our own personal experiences.

Part I: Contacting Home

It’s always a good idea to make sure that you have a primary contact person from home. Whether that’s your significant other, best friend, or your mom — someone should always know your itinerary and be a point-person for you. This is the first person you contact to let know that you arrived safely, and your emergency contact should the need arise.

Of course, there may be additional people that you want to stay in contact with. Luckily, long gone are the days where you have to worry about expensive international phone calls. With a little preparation, you can stay in touch for next to nothing.

Global cell plans

t-mobile

Many providers in the U.S. offer global calling plans for a monthly charge. Verizon Wireless, for example, charges $25/month for its global data plan and promises coverage in over 200 countries. Of course, there are limitations. That $25/month only gets you 100MB of data, which means that every additional 100MB costs an additional $25. That can add up fast, especially if you have apps running in the background. If you choose this option, keep your phone in airplane mode unless you are specifically using the data, and make sure that none of your apps are set to sync automatically.

If data isn’t your thing, most cellular companies also offer voice and text options. Using Verizon as our example again, their global voice plan starts at $4.99/month, and their international texting costs anywhere between $0.05 and $0.50 per message. However, and this is a big however, some international charges may still apply if you choose to buy international texting without the data.

The biggest downside to this option is that cell phone companies are notorious for sliding in hidden fees. On our last trip, Tara opted for the $25/month Global Data Plan through Verizon and was still hit with a bill for almost $100 because of how easy it is to go over the 100MB of data without realizing it. That said, the Verizon representative Tara spoke with assured her that if the plan hadn’t been in place the charges would have been astronomical.

If you don’t opt for a global data plan, make sure your data is turned off at all times. You absolutely do not want to be hit with international charges you weren’t anticipating.

Local SIM cards

GOSIMCard_canadaAnother option is a local SIM card or network chips. For those of you who are unaware, your card already has a SIM card. It is, in a nutshell, your phone’s identity. It contains your phone number, the services your phone receives, and any special features your phone may have. It doesn’t store your data, so don’t worry, if you go this route your contacts and pictures are safe.

If you choose to purchase a local SIM card or network chip it will assign your phone a local number. This is great for traveling with a group, but the real benefit is in the global calling feature. The network your SIM card uses allows you to call home for rates that are much lower than typical international rates. Certain companies, like Rebtel, offer rates as low as $0.59 a minute internationally, and you can load local minutes onto the phone.

To use a local SIM card you may have to do a bit of work up front. First of all, your phone sends out its signal on one of two types of networks, either CDMA or GSM. If you live in Europe, you’re on GSM. If you live in Asia, you’re on CDMA. If you live in the United States it’s a bit more confusing (of course!). Americans who rely on Sprint and Verizon use a CDMA network. Those with AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM.

Why does this matter? Because if you’re from the US and have Verizon, that means you have a CDMA network chip. Let’s say you go on a trip to Spain. Everyone in Spain has a GSM chip. If you buy a local SIM card, your phone won’t know how to speak its language. This is a problem that, luckily, has a quick and easy fix in most cases, but it can be a pain in the butt if you don’t know about it ahead of time.

So, how do you get your phone to speak both GSM and CDMA? You have to unlock it. There’s a great tutorial by HowStuffWorks on how to do this, so I suggest you head over there if you’re unsure. The technique is different depending on what type of phone you have, but it isn’t particularly complicated. Make sure you take care of it before your trip, though.

Once your phone is unlocked you don’t have to do anything until you arrive overseas. There, find a local phone shop and purchase your SIM card. Most airports will have them readily available, as will pharmacies and corner shops. You’ll find that they’re much more frequently used overseas than in the US, so people won’t think look at you strangely if you ask about them.

WiFi

I’ve found that this is my method of choice when it comes to connecting with home. WiFi is far more readily available these days than it was even five or ten years ago, and I have a natural tendency to keep in touch with my family via the internet. Plus, if I’m updating via social networks and e-mails, I don’t have to worry about figuring out what time it is where I’m calling. No more accidental phone calls at 4am!

If you plan on taking this route, make sure you know what the situation is in your accommodations. These days, most hostels and hotels will at the very least provide a common area with internet access, and in many cases it is available in individual rooms as well. Some places even provide computers, so you don’t have to worry about lugging your own around (although it can lead to some interesting situations with foreign keyboards!).

Many restaurants and pubs offer WiFi, so scope out the area around your home base and find out where you can snag a connection. If you have a smartphone you can easily connect (remember to keep the data network turned off!) and update your friends and family.

If you just can’t get by with e-mail and Facebook alone, there are plenty of apps and programs that facilitate face-to-face (or voice-to-voice) conversations, even without cell service. We tend to cycle between Skype and Google Hangouts, but there are plenty of other options out there. Do a quick Google search to find out what’s available for you.

Snail Mail

lettr-logoDefinitely not the most efficient means of connectivity, snail mail still has its place in the travel world. It’s always incredibly refreshing to rifle through the mailbox and come up with something that isn’t a bill or junk mail, and a letter from abroad is a great way to tell your friends and family that you were thinking of them.

We recommend using Lettr, which allows you to send postcards from anywhere in the world with your own custom images, but a regular old letter can be a great treat as well. One of the fun things about sending snail mail home is that the recipient has the opportunity to collect stamps from all over the world.

If you’re planning on sending letters and postcards home, either use on online service (like Lettr), or make sure you take the time to scope out the nearest post office. Sending mail internationally does cost a bit more, so ask around and figure out how much postage you need to put on your letters.

Final Thoughts

How you stay connected while traveling depends largely on individual preference. Personally, in this day and age I feel as though a WiFi connection is more than enough. I may not be able to call home on a whim, but I’ve also never really needed to. Of course, staying in contact with people you’re traveling with is a different story, and I’ll be addressing that in the next post.

Still need more info? Check out these 9 travel hacks for using your phone abroad.

How do you prefer to stay in touch with home while traveling?

 

Staying connected while on the road, Part II: Traveling with groups
Exploring Plitvice Lakes National Park
  • I agree that WIFI is more than sufficient (and actually a few days without is not so bad either) although I also like to call home every now and then

    • Yeah, calling is definitely nice sometimes! I didn’t mention it here (maybe I should add it!) but a WiFi connection does let you call home with certain apps. I use Google Voice or just the call feature on Skype (rather than the video chat). It’s the same as a phone call, and much cheaper!