How to Stay Connected When Traveling Abroad
For some travelers, the idea of visiting a foreign country means unwinding —and disconnecting. But if you can’t bear the idea of cutting the cord and spending a week or two without e-mail, Twitter, texting, and calls back home, you can easily —and affordably — stay connected.
All it takes is a little advance planning. For example, if you’re traveling with a laptop, find out if your hotel offers Wi-Fi — and if there’s an extra charge for it. Depending on the rates, it might make more sense to scout out nearby Internet cafes, which are ubiquitous in many foreign countries and often your cheapest option for getting online.
On the other hand, it’s nice to be in control of where you get online and how much you pay for it, in which case you can rent a mobile hotspot — a small, portable Internet access point you can use with up to five devices (laptop, smartphone, tablet, etc.).
XCom Global, for example, offers unlimited Internet access in 195 countries — courtesy of a pocket-size MiFi device — for a flat rate of $14.95 per day. That’s less than you’ll pay in some hotels, and it gives you the freedom to work anywhere you go, not just in your room or the lobby.
That takes care of Internet access. But what about phone calls and text messages? You have a few options, but one thing you definitely don’t want to do is pay your carrier’s international roaming rates.
Instead, look to Internet-based solutions, which rely on data rather than cell towers. Voice-over-IP (VoIP) apps like Skype and Truphone let you make free calls to other Skype and Truphone users and dirt-cheap calls to landlines and mobile phones — even overseas. If your phone is already connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot (even a mobile one like the aforementioned MiFi), you’re all set to bypass those pricey roaming charges.
Carriers also charge a small fortune for text messages, and again Wi-Fi can come to the rescue. Skip your regular messaging app and use something like Google Voice or TextPlus instead. They’re free, and they leverage your phone’s data connection, just like VoIP apps.
Of course, keeping your phone connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot isn’t always practical — or possible. If it’s a GSM phone, consider buying a pay-as-you-go SIM card (which you can do at home or once you arrive). These cards afford much cheaper calling, texting, and Internet access — but usually require an unlocked phone. A bit of Google searching should reveal options for unlocking your model, which might be worth the effort if you want to keep in touch while visiting foreign lands.
It’ll also take a little effort if you want to access services like Hulu, Pandora, and Netflix, which work only in the U.S. For that you’ll need to connect your laptop to a VPN, a virtual private network that hooks you into a U.S.-based server — effectively tricking these services into thinking you’re on American shores. (Hey, all’s fair in love and Netflix, right?)
Finally, any trip abroad should include some extra security measures to keep your devices and data safe. For starters, steer clear of unsecured Wi-Fi hotspots whenever possible, as they make it easy for hackers to intercept your Internet traffic. (There’s another point in favor of using a VPN, which effectively makes your connection invisible to foreign un-dignitaries.)
If you don’t routinely password-protect your laptop, tablet, smartphone, and the like, now is the time to start. Be sure to back up all critical data before leaving home, just in case a device gets lost or stolen. Oh, and stick with bottled water. That has nothing to do with connected travel. It’s just good advice.