Though the purpose of traveling may often be to disconnect for a while, there may be times when you want (or need) to keep in touch with the folks back home (just as long as your boss thinks you’re backpacking through Amish country where they’ve never been touched by a WiFi signal).
In this edition of our Travel Insider, we’ll discuss how to keep from blowing your budget on roaming charges, take advantage of free WiFi to stay connected, and what to do if you’re stranded without your mobile device.
Roam on the Range
We’ve all heard horror stories of woeful travelers who thought they could get away with a quick call to mom and dad, a few emoji-filled texts to their beau, or a simple Instagram update (just to let all of your followers know what an amazing time you’re having on your trip) only to come home to a cell phone bill equivalent to an extra month out on the road.
While it’s often said that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission, your service provider may not be in the forgiving mood, so it’s probably wise to do a little advance planning to mitigate those potentially stroke-inducing roaming charges.
Check with your service provider to familiarize yourself with their policy on local (non-international) roaming charges and whether you’re likely to get hit with any fees for using your phone or tablet outside your provider’s coverage area. This typically isn’t an issue with any of the large carriers, and smaller carriers may offer “roaming packages” where you pay upfront to insure you get a certain amount of minutes, texts, and/or data at a fixed rate.
If you’re traveling internationally, you’ll most certainly want to invest in your carrier’s international roaming plan, and you can usually pick and choose which services you’d like to add and how much of each you think you’ll need (100 minutes of talk time, 50 texts, 250mb of data, etc.). As most of us are traveling on a fixed budget, you’ll probably want to purchase the cheapest package available and plan to use your phone only when absolutely necessary (and no, keeping your Twitter updated is not necessary, Rihanna).
Whether you invest in a roaming plan or decide to throw caution to the wind (you free spirit, you), always plan to take advantage of complimentary WiFi when on the road.
From your hotel or hostel of choice, to the local coffee shop (or Starbucks, if you must) around the corner, free WiFi is almost as abundant as shared-shower foot fungus (flip flops 4LYFE), and it can save you some serious coin, as it’s typically never more than a cup of coffee away, and many cities around the world even offer free connectivity in public spaces. While the bandwidth might not be suitable for binge-watching “Breaking Bad” (no spoilers, please!), it’s more than enough to keep in touch with friends and family, check your email, and, perhaps (most importantly), research all of the awesome activities in your area, plan the next leg of your trip, or cyberstalk that Australian hottie in bunk #3 (thank the baby Jesus for incognito mode…).
Backpacking has always been about cutting corners and doing more with less, and nothing has changed in the digital age, so always be on the lookout for freebies!
Don’t Panic! Or, How to Begin Your New Life as an International Vagabond
So you’ve been a good little Boy Scout and planned ahead, got that sweet wireless roaming plan, and have been poaching Starbucks WiFi like a champ, when suddenly, you find yourself at an ATM across from the Leaning Tower of Pisa with your friend who just had to withdraw a few bucks before getting back on the tour bus, and you realize that no one else in your group is in eyesight, you have no idea how to get back to the bus, you both left your phones and passports on said bus, and while you know the group is heading to a campsite just outside Florence, you can’t remember the name of the site, much less the address, and you imagine that Florence is a pretty big place with a lot of campgrounds, and, oh yeah, it’s at least an hour away by bus or train, and you know the tour guide’s policy is never to wait for anyone, so you’re positive the your group is long gone by now.
Not that I’m speaking from personal experience or anything, but what now?
Well, after accepting that you are totally screwed, you stop for some tasty gelato, which gives you hope that today is not the day you start your new life as a homeless vagrant on the streets of Pisa and to look at this as just part of the adventure!
But seriously, if you find yourself stranded without your smartphone, tablet, or laptop, and you are in desperate need of contacting someone or acquiring information (such as the address of your campground and the local train schedule), don’t panic! There are a few options to get you back on track (train... track... see what I did there? Eh, forget it.).
First, look for a tourist information center. Most cities, even small ones, will have dedicated resources for visitors looking for information about the local area, as well as a phone and a computer or two that travelers can use - sometimes for free, always pretty cheap. Even if you’ll normally have to pay to make a call or connect to the internet, it never hurts to see if the guides on staff will take pity on a stranded backpacker and waive any service fees. And if you can’t find an information center, your next stop should be at the local library.
What? The library? I thought those went extinct with parachute pants and the American Dream!
While it’s true that parachute pants are now merely a twinkle in MC Hammer’s eye, and we can argue that the American Dream as we’ve been sold it died sometime around the Vietnam War, you might be surprised to discover that a large majority of libraries are firmly planted in the 21st century and offer internet access, and, get this, you typically don’t need a library card to use their resources.
You’ll usually get a guest pass that’ll offer you 15 minutes or so of internet access - more than enough time to send out a distress call or lookup the address of your campground in Florence (or whatever). The librarian may also be feeling generous and allow you to make a free, local call, and they tend to be good resources on other helpful services in the area.
Last but not least, you can always seek refuge at an internet cafe. While no longer as common in the US, they’re still pretty popular in most other countries, meaning you can usually count on a local to point you in the direction of one. Though guaranteed to cost you some money for computer access, it’s still better than the alternative, unless Italian street hustler was your dream job as a kid, in which case, you could probably benefit from some intensive psychotherapy and/or a Lifetime movie.
The most important thing to remember is not to freak out and use those street smarts you’ve surely developed from life on the road.