How to Keep in Touch While Traveling Abroad

Tech Talker explains the best ways to leverage technology to keep in touch with friends and family across the globe.

Eric Escobar
5-minute read
Episode #96

In the past few months a lot of people in my life have ventured abroad, either to teach, live, or just visit. Keeping in touch with friends and family in different time zones is tough - let alone when you're trying to navigate foreign internet connections and phone plans!

That's why in this week's Tech Talker episode I'll be covering the best ways to keep in touch with friends and family abroad..

First let's cover the various ways we can use to keep in touch. There's email, instant messaging, social media, text messaging, phone calls, and video chats. All of these methods require some sort of connection to either the internet or a cell network (if you're using a phone). Depending on where you are in the world you may not have access to high speed internet or even mobile access.

How to Keep in Touch While Traveling Abroad

In places where you may not have a constant reliable internet connection, I recommend using a device such as a smartphone that you can load data onto ahead of time. One thing that I love about smartphones (particularly the iPhone or Google's Nexus) is that they have a built in GPS that works without data. This means you can preload a map and still utilize the GPS feature on your phone without a data connection. I explained how this works in my episode on how your smartphone communicates. This is great if you just need a map and your location when you don't have any data service.

This method is ideal for people who can wait to access WiFi at internet cafes, hotels, stores, and other data-enabled places during their travels. If this is the case for you, you'll want to maximize your internet time when you have it. Personally, if I know I'm strapped for time, I will type out emails on my device in advance when I'm offline so that when I get a connection, all I have to do is click "Send." This is a great time saver and an optimal way to use a limited connection.

If you want to connect your device with the mobile network in the country where you are traveling, I recommend making sure your phone has the right radio frequency. You can check this by taking your phone into your local service store or calling your local phone company. To simplify it, phones boil down to one of two categories, GSM or CDMA. GSM or Global System for Mobile communications is used more widely throughout the world and is primarily what AT&T uses in the United States. These devices have switchable SIM cards which is handy when you need to change your card to be compatible with another country. The other, CDMA, or Code Division Multiple Access, works in far fewer countries.

Fortunately, if you have a newer phone it most likely has both GSM and CDMA built into it, which makes your device ultra-versatile in pretty much any country you're going to visit.

Bring Your Own Smartphone

So let's say you're traveling and you need to be in constant communication with someone (perhaps you're meeting friends, or need up-to-date information). One thing I will recommend is that you most definitely bring your phone with you. Two summers ago my parents went to Italy and thought they could save money by renting a phone while they were away. They couldn't get the phone to work 90% of the time and it turned out to be a costly, inefficient mess.

My advice is that if you already have a smartphone, bring it with you and buy a data plan at your destination. Instead of buying an international plan from your home phone storeI, go through a company based in whatever country you're visiting. You can generally get better rates this way. I alway call the hotel where I am going to stay at and seek their recommendation for the best plan for my needs. This is optimal because they are usually locals and know the area and the service providers best.

See also: The Dangers of Unsecured Wifi Hotspots

No matter which route you choose, you'll most likely be watching your data usage like a hawk. Who wants to come home to a giant phone bill? That's why I  recommend checking out wefi.com before you go. This a website dedicated to locating open internet hotspots around you. Using free WiFi when you're abroad is great because it doesn't use data from your plan. Just keep in mind that public internet is not generally the safest. So if you do go this route, be sure to change passwords frequently and don't access any sensitive accounts from these connections (such as your bank).

Which Apps to Use for Calls and Texts?

You're probably thinking. "Okay, Tech Talker, I have a data plan but how the heck do I call my friends or family, or send texts, like I'm used to while they or I are traveling abroad?"

Great question! For this I have a slew of apps to use that route phone calls and messages through WiFi, so that you don't need a data plan that includes minutes or texts.

If you have an iPhone you're pretty well off with the built-in apps. Facetime will allow you to call another iDevice for a video or audio chat, and it will let you iMessage other iDevices as well. It's pretty awesome, but only when everyone you want to talk to also has an iDevice. If you're trying to communicate to a non-Apple device, use Viber or Skype for calling and WhatsApp for texting.

I personally like Viber because you can call a real phone number for free. This means you don't have to have two smartphones to use it! This way you can call your grandparent's landline, and not have to try and jimmy-rig a data connection for them.

With that, here are my 4 Quick and Dirty tips for keeping in touch with friends and family across the globe:

  1. If you don't need data constantly, consider preloading maps and scouting out WiFi hotspots before you go.
  2. Check that your device's radio is compatible with the network in the countries you intend to visit.
  3. Bring your own phone and buy a data plan at your destination so you can make phone calls and send text messages without overages.
  4. If you connect to a public WiFi hotspot, be careful not to log into sensitive or personal accounts (like your bank) and change your passwords often.

Well, that’s it for today! Be sure to check out all my earlier episodes at techtalker.quickanddirtytips.com. And if you have further questions about this podcast or want to make a suggestion for a future episode, post them on Facebook.com/QDTtechtalker.

Until next time, I’m the Tech Talker, keeping technology simple!

Passport on keyboard image courtesy of Shutterstock.


About the Author

Eric Escobar

Tech Talker demystifies technology and cutting edge devices so that even the most tech illiterate can understand what's going on with their computer or gadget — and what to do when something goes wrong.

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