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Calling Home: Cheap tips for staying in touch while traveling

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Cellphone use in Bavaria. Photo by Jason MacArthur.
Cellphone use in Bavaria. Photo by Jason MacArthur.

When I travel, I look for affordable ways to stay in touch with my friends and update my family back home. Thanks to the Internet, it’s much easier to stay in touch now than it was in the past, and the cost of doing so has plummeted.

For those who are looking to save a dime but stay in touch, here are a few suggestions and tips to consider.

Staying in touch: The basics

It’s no secret that one of the easiest way to touch base is via email. But if you don’t want to pay excessive roaming fees for your Blackberry or iPhone, and prefer not to lug your personal laptop around when you travel, what do you do?

First of all, scrap plans to use hotel-owned Internet terminals or pay-per-minute internet access cards (unless they’re free of course). Instead, head to an Internet cafe. These cafes have spread like crazy around the Continent and make it quick and cheap to access email accounts, check in on social networking sites (like Facebook and MySpace), and update Twitter.

Other Web Options

However, sometimes “quickie” web cafe visits are not enough, especially on longer trips. Sending e-mails and messages to your family and friends is wonderful, but you’ll probably also want to actually speak with them. A great solution is the Internet phone service Skype. Skype lets you call other Skype users around the world for free.

All you need to make a Skype call is an Internet connection and a headset. You then “dial” another Sype user, like you would on an instant messenger, and once the connection is made you can speak for as long as you like–for nothing. For a small fee you can also place a call to a land-line or mobile phone.

Using Mobile Phones Abroad

The obvious downside to Skype is that you’re reliant upon an Internet connection to make the call. One way to solve that problem is by using a mobile phone.

Mobile phones, of course, not only let you keep in touch with those back home but also help you connect with people you meet on the road. They also allow you to call hostels and hotels from the road, check on museum hours, and in emergencies, call for help. Yet, cell phones are never the cheapest option.

For Americans, one complicating factor is that most mobile phones run on a network that isn’t accessible in Europe and, furthermore, most American phones can’t be “unlocked,” allowing you to swap out SIM cards. Thus, you can’t simply buy a new SIM card for your phone abroad. You’ll have to either rent or buy a new phone when you arrive, or, if your phone does work in Europe, pay additional fees for foreign coverage (either an incremental monthly fee or an expensive per-minute fee).

Fortunately for non-Americans, it’s much easier. Most foreign phones can have their SIM cards replaced with cards purchased at convenience stores (and sometimes right on the street!). The cards come with their own phone number and rechargeable minutes.

One Other Consideration

Thanks to technology, it’s easier and more affordable then ever to stay connected while traveling. At the same time, you should at least consider staying “unconnected” while traveling through Europe. After all, will your mobile phone be a helpful tool or just a distraction?

What do you think?

Do you stay connected when traveling? Do you take your mobile phone? Rent a phone abroad? Chat in Internet cafes? Tell us below!

About the author

Pete Meyers

About the author: An Ohio native, Pete Meyers was bred on family road trips and the Beach Boys. When not working at EuroCheapo HQ in NYC, Pete likes to be found eating bouillabaisse anywhere in the south of France.

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10 thoughts on “Calling Home: Cheap tips for staying in touch while traveling”

  1. For my trips I use international sim card, Travelsim. And I find it a good idea, specially when it’s hard to find free wi-fi hotspot. It has good rates and coverage in Europe and worked fine for me for last 2 years. I’m using it in my unlocked phone and I like it.

    Reply
  2. When I was a “newbie” on my first trip to Paris (What a disaster), I did not have my computer, but thanks to another traveler who did have one, I found out that a good source for finding a cheap used phone was the actual internet cafes (or at least they could direct you). The guy with the laptop showed me ParisTravelMap.com which had the local internet cafes listed (and other useful info),and had a nice “cheap” used phone (8 euros) in less than a half hour and was directed to the best deal for a sim card, (20 euros, probably a little warm but who knows). The trip was not actually a total disaster, just arriving and getting everything organized was… Paris is fantastic!

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  3. I use Skype all the time as long as I have a computer with me my mobile phone is closed I have it on me and its only to be used for emergency. I always have some credit on Skype to send SMs messages and some time s even to make short calls they have a good price. My family have skype on their computer and they call me on it, leave me a messages anything and with the built in cameras now they even see me. If I don’t have my computer with me I try to buy calling cards and use a pay phone of that country if you go to kiosks and ask them in some countries they give you the best rate card ( international, asian, europe…etc.) and even if not its a few exchanges on the phone and your done. I always leave info regarding roughly where I am and if there is a contact phone number of the hotel or something. other wise its email or even some Internet cafes have skype built in I would send an sms and my family would open up their skype and talk to me or at least when they open up their skype they find my messages. My friend even bought a phone from the UK that connects to open wifi even if your subscribed and you can make on it skype calls.

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  4. There’s also an application for the iPhone by Skype, that allows you to make SkypeOut calls over WiFi. This makes it much easy to carry around and keep in touch with people, but I haven’t tried the voice quality yet. I’d assume it would be great.

    I just downloaded Fring and it looks like you can make iPhone to PC calls, but not to land line numbers.

    cheers

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  5. Great tips Matt!

    I, like you also look for ways to stay in touch back home the cheapest possible way without exerting too much effort. I bring my mobile phone with me but I don’t activate my roaming because even an unanswered call will get you charge. What I do is, I bring my netbook with me so I can fire up my email whenever there’s a free wifi connection around. I can also chat through YM or do a video conference. For calls I use voip from Onesuite (Onesuite.com) which cost me only 2.5 cents to call back home.

    I also have Fring application (fring.com) on my windows mobile phone and can chat (Yahoo, Skype, MSN) and call using voip (Onesuite) too without the need for my laptop. Fring is one brilliant application for mobile phones I must say.

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  7. i went to europe for business and had to stay connected with my work THE whole time, in paris, milan and berlin. i rented an aircard from travelcell and had one flat rate to have unlimited internet access everywhere i went. it was so easy and i deffinately reccomend them. check them out at travelcell.com

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  8. I bought an unlocked cell phone in Edinburgh for $20, added a SIM card for $40, and was all set for $60. The phone was plastic and had no bells and whistles, nor did it have a camera, but it worked fine the 3 weeks I used it. I had my choice of 5 SIM cards with international calling back to the US and chose one that had minutes at only 10 cents/minute to the US. It lasted me for all of the last minute hotel and missed ferry calls, plus a few back home. I had a flat tire out in the middle of Nowhere, Scotland, and it was a lifesaver.

    There were 5 cell phone stores on Princes Street in Edinburgh and I was directed to the Carphones.com shop. Now I have my phone to loan to friends traveling abroad or when I go back in a year or two!

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  9. Thanks for the informative post, Matt.

    When I travel for business (like January’s hotel hunting trip to Paris and Riga) I take my Blackberry, as it allows me to check emails throughout the day and send text messages back home. Before I leave for my trip, however, I call my US provider, T-Mobile, and tell them to subscribe me to “world-wide Blackberry roaming” for the duration of my trip. The service is not terribly expensive (less than $1 per day) and covers unlimited emailing from your phone. If you don’t call ahead and simply try to use your Blackberry without the feature activated, you will probably wind up with a nasty surprise when you get your bill, as most carriers charge you for bandwidth downloaded.

    One other point: Many hotels (and some hostels) now offer free Wifi. Sometimes this is only in the reception area, but often this extends up into the room. If you’re traveling on business, taking a laptop along makes a lot of sense–and yes, you could Skype to your heart’s content.

    Thanks,
    Tom

    Reply

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