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Talking to Home

When you’re on vacation, or traveling around a different continent, one of your top priorities will often be to establish some means of talking to the folks back home – whether they’re friends and families, or work colleagues running an important project of which you’re a part. Communications for travelers are now much more accessible than they were even a decade ago, largely due to the expansion of mobile communications and the Internet.

A really useful thing to be able to take overseas with you is a cell phone. If your cell isn’t enabled for foreign use, take it to your dealer and ask them to fix it up for you – this should be a simple operation that can happen right there and then. These days when you switch most phones on in a foreign country they will automatically enable ‘roaming’ mode and search for the nearest network that has a reciprocal billing agreement with your home network. However, remember that calls are likely to be much more expensive than they are back home.

If you’re going to be away for several weeks or months, it could be worthwhile to get hold of a local phone – or at least a local SIM card that allows you to sign up for a ‘pay as you go’ service that you can top up at supermarkets and post offices. This should be straightforward if you’re traveling to Europe, where phone networks have generally achieved a higher level of integration than is the case in the States. If you’re going to travel across continental Europe then probably the best network to sign up for is Vodafone – they have excellent digital coverage in every European country.

The other thing you’ll notice in Europe is that the use of SMS (‘text’) messages is far more widespread a part of popular culture than it currently is in many parts of the US. If you’re going to be spending time with the locals in the UK, France or Italy, it could be a good idea to make sure that you’re a proficient ‘texter’ before you go!

Internet access can vary, depending on where you are. However, an increasing number of hotels and resorts, even at budget levels, are offering Internet and email access as standard, with many going so far as to include dataports in rooms to permit high-speed access to laptop owners who can’t bear to drag themselves away from work for too long a period at a time. If you’re taking your laptop overseas make sure you have the right adapter. Power points vary from two pin 110 volt supplies (most of Europe), through 100 volt two pin supplies (many parts of Asia) through to three pin 240 volt supplies in the UK (because the Brits just have to be different). If you’re traveling to a country that doesn’t have a sophisticated western electrical grid, make sure you take a circuit breaker with you: flickers in supply can really wreck your computer’s circuitry. This can also happen in remote spots in western countries where the main power supply is from hydroelectric or wind sources: sudden increases in wind or water speed can cause power ‘spikes’ that last a millisecond or two before the system corrects itself. That’s long enough to shut down your laptop for good. A good tip is to only run your laptop from battery power and to charge the battery while the computer is switched off, minimizing the risk of damage.

If you’re wireless enabled, most major cities – and even quite a few minor ones in out of the way places – have wireless hotspots, usually in cafés and bars. Bear in mind that these can also become hotspots for laptop thieves, so it’s a good idea to be mindful of the security of yours.

If you’re unable or unwilling to take your computer with you – you are going on vacation, after all – you can now find Internet cafés in the most unlikely places. Most public libraries in the western world now offer free or very cheap Internet access, and café prices can be as low as a couple of dollars for an hour. It’s not generally a good idea to use your business mailbox for this sort of communication – sign up for a disposable Hotmail or Yahoo account, which are very secure and allow a high level of password encryption. Needless to say, it’s a bad idea to type your credit card details into any public computer anywhere – if you want to shift money around overseas you’re far better off using a service like Western Union or MoneyGram. If you absolutely have to type personal details or credit card numbers into a strange computer, make sure you can at least flush the browser cache afterwards.

The world’s getting smaller, and with a little preparation and planning there’s not reason why you shouldn’t be able to talk to anyone, anywhere, anytime!

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