Staying in touch with home when travelling

Phone box australian outback 2

You can’t beat a good one-on-one with friends and family. In fact, one of the main downsides of travel is being far away from and out of touch with all those loved ones (well, mostly).

When I’m travelling, I find the sound of a voice is the best way to connect with friends and loved ones. There are other options of course, from the ancient art of the letter, through to the wondrous time sink that is facebook, but I find that quality time really needs to stimulate aurally.

If you’re reading this in the future, where teleportation has been invented, you can skip this post and use the teleportation option. For the rest of us, here are the various options you have for calling home when you are on the road. If you’ve got any more to share, or general opinions on staying in touch, do feel free to hit up the comments at the end!

Over the Internet

If you can persuade your friends and family to standardise on one bit of software, then you can save a fortune by using it to call them over the internet.

Personally, I’m a big fan of Skype, which these days has clients for computers and smartphones, so you don’t even need to lug a laptop with you. I’ve found it to be the option that most of my friends and family are likely to already have installed, which means less hassle in terms of asking people to install yet more software. It’s also future enabled, with video calls an option. Great for those just out of the shower moments.

It does have its limitations, though. Most folk at home have it on their computers, and these aren’t necessarily on all the time. To guarantee a conversation, it’s usually best to pre-arrange a time. Not ideal for spontaneity.

Also, it can be bandwidth intensive, especially if you throw video into the mix. Not ideal if you are in a country where the internet is a carefully doled out resource. Still… free is a tough price to beat, so if you can get around the issues, this is a great option.

Best for: Long, pre-arranged chats in an internet rich environment
Worst for: Your grandma not quite understanding what this newfangled doohickey is.

Phone Box 2

Using your mobile

There was a time, not so long ago, when using a mobile abroad was expensive. There was a time, not much before that, when just using a mobile was expensive, and required you to carry what looked like a generator with you everywhere you went. The pace of technology evolution is brilliant. Bring on the teleporters.

These days, mobile network operators are growing wise to the fact that there is competition out there, in the form of free internet calls and other such consumer friendly nonsense.

As such, calling home on your mobile is probably not as astronomically expensive as it once might have been. That said, it is most likely going to be cheaper to put a SIM card into your phone from the country you are travelling in, rather than using your home operator abroad.

You will need an unlocked phone (you can pick incredibly basic phones up for almost nothing these days), and you will need to buy a SIM card that offers a good deal for wherever you want to call. If the country you are travelling in has good operators and wide coverage, this is a great option.

Best for: You can be reached wherever you happen to be, and vice versa
Worst for: Ever tried to get signal in the Australian outback?

Satellite phone

Mobile phones and landlines are so like.. terrestrial, man. If you want to get your communication on, in a truly earth spanning space powered way, then a satellite phone is the way forward. Almost as good as a teleporter in fact.

As the name implies, these chaps use a network of orbiting satellites to relay your voice. So no worrying about pesky mountains or remoteness causing you problems in making a call. These work everywhere.

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More recent models are also far more portable than their forebears, with the latest models being not much different to recent smartphones. Yay technology!

There is of course a price to pay for this incredible go-anywhere call-anyone flexibility, and it’s a price you pay with money. The handsets themselves aren’t exactly cheap, and neither is the cost of making a call. Still, putting objects into space is a costly exercise, and that money has to come from somewhere.

If you know you are heading out into the middle of nowhere, and most of the above options aren’t going to do it for you, then satellite technology may be the way forward if staying in touch is a priority.

Best for: Feeling James Bond like in your ability to contact anyone from anywhere.
Worst for: Needing to rob a bank every time you want to use it.

Calling cards

When I was travelling in Australia and New Zealand, internet access wasn’t quite as easily obtainable as I would have hoped for in a first world country. And don’t get me started on mobile network coverage. With satellite being out of my price range, international calling cards were my personal saviour.

A number of providers offered these cards, and they were available from a whole variety of different retailers, from corner stores to hostels. Depending on which country you are calling, there will be different cards offering better or worse rates.

You need to do a bit of research and compare the options before settling on a card, and check the fine print for things like “connection fees” before parting with your cash. Additionally, some tack on a fee if you’re calling from a payphone, so you need to factor that in.

For convenience and cheapness, calling cards are a decent option. We even found a solar powered payphone once in the middle of the Australian outback, hundreds of kilometres from anywhere, which made for a memorable call home.

Best for: Being able to call home at reasonable rates on a real phone
Worst for: Not reading the fine print and realising that advertised “1c a minute” rate comes with a $2 connection fee. Also, payphones are becoming an endangered breed.

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