How to Stay in Touch While Traveling [Review]

Staying in touch on the road is important to many travelers. And staying in touch on the road cheaply is just as important.

While e-mail and social sites like Facebook and MySpace allow us to stay connected easier than ever before, sometimes you just need to hear someone’s voice or see someone’s face. For that you need a phone and/or a webcam.

There are three major options a traveler can choose from: Skype, calling cards, and cell phones.

But which is the best? Which is the easiest? And, more importantly, the cheapest? Let’s examine all three.

Skype

Skype is an Internet based phone service that lets you call users around the world for free. It was invented in 2003 by two Swedish guys and, in 2005, was bought by eBay.

Skype Logo

It allowed users to create a profile and talk to other users using VOIP (essentially it was an Internet phone). Additionally, if you had a webcam you could see the person you were talking to. It was hailed as a new way to communicate – a way that would make old phones obsolete. The only problem was that you needed a computer and a reasonably fast internet connection. Over time, they expanded the service to allow calls to land phones or mobiles for a small fee (.02 – .20 cents a minute).

While you still need a computer for a majority of its services, Skype now offers a variety of other services, including:

  • Voicemail
  • Your own Skype phone number (This service is called SkypeIn)
  • Use Skype on a wireless phone
  • Conference calling (a great business feature)
  • Text messaging
  • File transfers

The problem with Skype is that not too many people know about. In my travels, I encountered a number of people who had it but, compared to the amount of people who had a cellphone, or even a chat service like MSN, the amount was minuscule.

There were a few travelers who used the site to call home like I did. I’d say about 95% of the people I knew back in the US had not even heard of the service. While I think Skype is a decent option for travelers, especially as a simple way to communicate with people back home, I would not rely on it as my main form of communication on the road.

Calling Cards

When I first traveled overseas, I used calling cards almost exclusively. I figured they were more convenient than scouting out a cell phone, especially since I was in each country for an only few weeks at a time. I only needed to occasionally call my parents, but still wanted to remain unconnected from the world at large. Having a cellphone just didn’t seem like I was getting off the grid. It was bad enough I was at an Internet cafe all the time! Wasn’t the point of travel to get away from the trappings of modern life?

Calling cards offer a few benefits:

  • Pay-as-you-go: you can buy as needed
  • No need to buy a new number all the time
  • They don’t make you a prime target for theft like cell phones do
  • It’s not a big deal if you lose them since they aren’t a hassle to replace

The problem can be once you leave the country they are for they are useless. I ended up with two extra calling cards for Italy when I left.

Cell Phones

While on extended stay in Thailand, I bought a cheap phone, a SIM card, and I was off. When I ran out of money, I’d reload. I eventually moved on to Australia and took my phone with me. I met up with a number of Aussie friends and it would just work out easier if I had a phone to contact them.

Bottom line: when you live somewhere, you just need a cell phone.

Girl on Cell Phone, New York City
Text Break, New York City © moriza

Well, it turns out, most backpackers now are carrying cell phones since SIM cards are affordable and make arranging meetings with other travelers quite convenient.

The benefits of a cellphone:

  • Can change numbers easily
  • Always have access to your friends and family
  • Phones can work all over the world
  • Numbers in can work in a variety of countries (sometimes)
  • Can sometimes be a cheaper option

For Americans, there is the technical hurdle of having a different cell network and limited access to “unlocked” phones (i.e. meaning you can easily swap SIM cards). This makes it harder to take your phone overseas and you’ll have to buy a new phone when you go abroad.

For others, it’s much easier. Non-American model phones can have their SIM card removed; phones in Europe can connect to any country; and, in Asia, SIMs and phones are so cheap, its not a problem if you lose them. (In Thailand, a phone is about 20 dollars and the SIM card 10 dollars)

Weighing the benefits of each, calling cards are definitely the least desirable. With the advent of cheap cellphones and Internet phones, they are just not the best or most economical choice. I don’t think you have to pick between a phone or Skype though. The wise traveler uses both.

Cellphones are best for keeping in touch with travelers while Skype is great for video chatting with your friends and family back home. As vagabonds, many of us would love to break free from the trappings of modern life. We want to go out and explore the world but, having all grown up in the age of instant communication, it’s hard to just cut the cord.

I wanted to be separate from the world I left back home but, sometimes, it’s nice to be able to hear a familiar voice on a bad day or to actually see your family. We can still be unplugged while being plugged in. Convince your friends and family to get Skype and you’ll never have to pay for a call home again.

Get a cell phone for emergencies and to help better organize meet-ups. You don’t want to be standing by the side of the road all day wondering if your buddy from Germany ever received your e-mail.

What are your tips for staying in touch while on the road? Share them in the comments below!

7 Responses

  1. Amanda Kendle

    Hey Matt, I agree that these days a cell phone and a local SIM card is the way to go for any extended trip – I teach ESL in Australia and all my students who come here for longer than a month all do this. But I was surprised that you said Skype’s not very well known? I use it to keep in touch with people I met all over Europe and Asia, and of course at home in Oz too – maybe it’s just not so well known in the US? I don’t know, but I know that I love it, especially using the web-cam with it.

    Reply
  2. Mike Maxson

    Unlocked phones are readily available on the Internet. You can also take a phone that is locked and for a small fee have it unlocked in most major European cities at cell (mobile) phone kiosks. I use T-Mobile, with a Nokia N95 that I bought online and have never had a problem.

    Reply

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