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Women on the Road

Keeping in Touch During Your Travels
The technophobe's guide to communicating from abroad

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Keeping in touch has never been so easy. Gone are the days of hunting for an international phone or standing in line for two hours at a post office waiting for a line to free itself.

A caveat before you read any further: if you're used to international travel, own a smartphone or three, travel with your laptop orn connect with folks back home easily, you don't need to read this. Just look at the pictures.

If you're a travel newbie, you may seriously be wondering how to keep in touch - especially if you're a little older and haven't been keeping up with the online world. This is for you.

Not that long ago, keeping in touch with loved ones required planning and even cunning. There were no cellphones, not all payphones could be used internationally, snail mail took ages...

Calling home from Istanbul phone boothsThese days it's easy to call home from a phone booth - you can use an international phone calling card from your phone company and many phones take credit cards

I still remember the excitement of checking for mail at the General Post Office poste restante every time I reached a new city. Or leaving messages at the American Express office (for many of us in the 70s that was THE substitute post office). Or searching for the perfect postcards to send or the best places to develop 35mm films to mail the best ones home.

Today, these habits may seem quaint. Reaching out to absent friends and family is downright easy - nearly instant, in fact, so quick that some people even forget.

There's too much to choose from. If you're not careful you'll spend your entire trip 'connected' back home rather than 'connecting' right here, locally.

Oh the times they are a-changin'

Today's modern communication tools haven't even been around for two decades.

In the mid-1990s, when I was traveling around the world, few people had email. My own address was hosted by the latest thing in cutting edge technology: Compuserve. I was, or something like that.

I used an early model laptop which drew plenty of stares across Africa back then; I even caused a commotion at the main post office in Harare when a gang of young men invaded, having heard about my small early-generation portable PC.

I used email to file my newspaper stories with a clunky old modem I wrapped around the phone receiver. But when it came to connecting with family back home, I had to email a techie friend - thanks David! - who would print out my missive, photocopy it, and post it (with a stamp) to everyone on his mailing list.

Pretty soon Internet cafés popped up along the backpacker trail and the electronic age no longer belonged to a few pioneers. It was time for massive communications.

You can keep in touch when you travel by finding the nearest StarbucksThese days, wifi has displaced Internet cafés and all you need to do to connect instantly is grab your smartphone and head to the nearest Starbucks

Why should you stay in touch?

Because people worry, that's why.

And because you might need them to know how to find you. As a woman traveling solo, you want someone to know where you are.

Make a date to call on a certain day each week, at a certain time. If you think you'll be stuck in the jungle with no signal, say so before you go. No one has to follow you every hour of the day, but should something happen, it would be nice if someone out there could retrace your steps to help find you.

So how do you stay connected when you travel? Take your pick

1. You can take your smartphone with you
Using it to call can be expensive, but if it's wifi-enabled - and it should be or I wouldn't bother taking it - you can use local wifi to connect, just as you would with a laptop. You can also buy local SIM cards if you plan to make local calls. Just make sure you have an unlocked cellphone or you won't be able to use a local SIM. 

2. Speaking of laptops...
You no longer need an Internet café because you can take your own hardware. Good travel laptops are now sturdy and light and you can be in immediate contact by using audio or video on Skype.

3. Yes, Skype
This to me is one of the easiest ways to stay in touch. If you have wifi it's free and you can see and/or hear your counterpart anywhere in the world as long as they're on Skype too (there are many other providers like Skype but it's the one I happen to know and use). You can use Skype on your laptop, your tablet or your smartphone. Skype also has a variety of paying plans that allow you to call a regular mobile or land line phone number.

4. Email
No comment. If you don't know what that is then I shouldn't be opening this can of worms. 

5. Social media. You know, Facebook and Twitter?
If you don't have accounts, this might be a good time to start one. Only one, mind you, because that's all you need to keep in touch. There are plenty of others but these two are for me the easiest. Once you have access to wifi, you can post tidbits as you travel - photos, quick comments, opinions, all of it in real-time, which tells your family where you are and what you're doing. On Facebook you can tell longer stories, but Twitter is faster. 

6. You can create your own travel blog
This is a bit like the newsletter I used to email when I was traveling in Africa and Asia full-time in the 1990s. These days I would blog (and I do, by the way, right here) and keep my friends and family regaled with my intrepid adventures. Or bore them to death.

7. Go hi-tech
If all this is so mundane you've drifted off to sleep, you might need something heftier. Perhaps one of the new-generation satellite phones will do the trick (especially if you're rich). I've just invested in a mifi, which is a portable wifi (and much needed when you write for publication from the corners of the earth); it requires a prepaid local SIM card in each country. And one thing I would certainly take with me if I were going to the Amazon or a similarly huge or remote area would be a PLB, a personal locator beacon, which automatically locates you if you're lost (and want to be found).

8. The sky's the limit
If you really want to have fun and go multi-media why not use Google Maps for sightseeing and posting your itinerary, photos, videos - and plenty of additional information you might want to share as you travel.

Hotel phone in a resort - often expensive but you can call home if you don't have any other way to get in touchHowever attractively presented, a hotel phone is bound to be expensive - at times as expensive as roaming

Travel communications, the old-fashioned way

Not everyone loves new technology.

If that's you, write a letter or send a postcard. It'll be sweet. I would love it!

Sometimes, old-fashioned works best.

If you're not the blogging kind, one way to record your travels is to keep a travel journal. I've kept several dozen journals over the years - unfortunately, they don't cover the early trips of my youth, long forgotten. If I'd realized how much pleasure I would get from opening their gritty and often water-damaged pages I would have kept every last line.

You can have fun with journals and turn them into scrapbooks, with bits of leaves, cloth, feathers, menus, articles, business cards picked up along the way - anything that jogs your memory about a time or place or adventure. 

Handwritten travel journalsThere's nothing like longhand for me - all my travel notes and journals have been scribbled

A few final words...

  • Whatever you're taking with you, actually test it before you go. You need to know exactly how to use it. So do the people at the receiving end. And you don't want to be thumbing through your user manual when something goes wrong and you're miles from a computer store. 
  • Check the adapters and plugs. Your square US plug won't fit into a round European hole. And vice versa. You can easily get universal adapters like this one - they're light and should bail you out if your plugs don't fit.
  • If you have a phone, turn off the roaming feature, or you may accidentally use it and and run up some rather unhealthy bills. 
  • Before deciding to take your phone with you, make sure it is compatible with your destination. The quad band works just about everywhere but is expensive. Next in line is the tri-band, which is what I have. It works most places and where it doesn't - like Panama - I buy a cheap $10 throwaway. Not very ecological though...
  • Remember to keep your hardware as dust-free and dry as you can: use pouches like these waterproof ones) and any other kinds of protection to preserve your equipment.

It may be tempting to cut ties and wander off into the blue yonder, but contact is often part of that journey - either to keep those ties back home warm, or just for safety's sake.

Families worry, no matter what your age. They think you've been hit by a train or caught in a coup the moment they turn on the news. Staying in touch makes it easier - for them. And for you, should something happen.

How do you keep in touch with home when you're away? Are there any ways I haven't mentioned?