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WhatsApp with that? Keeping in touch in the digital age of travel

Jul 18, 2019 |

Tips and Resources

| by Lindsay Taulbee

The world is increasingly connected, and keeping in touch with friends and family back home—and with your fellow travelers in the field—is getting easier and easier. In many countries around the world, Wifi is becoming standard in hotels, restaurants, and other public places, and cell service coverage allows travelers to stay in touch more than ever – but which options work the best for you and your group?

Chat with free web-based apps

Group chats make it easy to communicate with your entire group at once. Let’s say you’re enjoying some down time at your lodge and everyone’s gone their separate ways. If someone spots a cool animal, they can easily alert the whole group to come check it out! From a more practical standpoint, you can use a group chat to communicate housekeeping details, such as “Remember to meet in the lobby at 7” or “Gary misplaced his reading glasses, has anyone seen them?”

There are a whole host of free chat apps supported on iOS, Android, and Windows devices, with some of the most popular being WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Skype, WeChat, and Viber. Benefits include individual and group chat features, voice and video calls, and encryption for added security, and most apps are easy to use. They do require an internet connection, using either mobile data or Wifi, which limits when you can use them.

Before your trip, encourage your group participants or friends back home to download the app of your choice and keep in touch without any hassle. Messaging apps are also a great way to communicate with your in-country guide before the trip, or for the group to share photos after you return home. For student groups, it’s an easy way to keep parents back home in the loop.

Use your cell phone overseas

If you don’t want to be tied down to Wifi, two options can help you and your participants use your cell phone abroad while avoiding exorbitant roaming fees: an international calling and data plan or a prepaid SIM card. These solutions allow you to use your cell phone in-country anywhere there is local coverage, much as you would at home.

(Research your destination beforehand to find out how extensive the coverage is. In Costa Rica, for example, cell phone coverage is good to excellent in most areas. In other countries, like Cuba, or in remote areas like Patagonia or the Galápagos Islands, coverage can be spotty or non-existent, so it’s best to check in advance.)

Most major US carriers offer international plans with allowances for phone calls, texting, and data. These are usually billed at a daily or monthly rate on top of your existing service. Be aware that Internet speeds may be slower than you’re accustomed to, but it could be well worth it if you don’t want to rely solely on Wifi. It’s best to activate this service before traveling, so contact your service provider for more information about available plans.

Another option, if you have an unlocked phone, is to temporarily swap out your existing SIM card and use one from a local provider in the country you’re visiting. You can purchase a SIM card online in advance or in your host country, usually in the airport upon arrival, and prepay for calls, text, and data.

Note you’ll be assigned a local phone number, which means you won’t receive texts or calls from anyone using your US number, but depending on how frequently you plan to use your phone, this might be a more cost-effective solution.

Either of these options is great for communicating with loved ones back home, or if you want the freedom to use the Internet while you’re out and about. Unfortunately, it may be less practical for communicating with your participants in the field, unless everyone opts to do the same.

One final tip: Visit https://willmyphonework.net and enter your phone model and the country you are visiting; it will tell you which local service networks are compatible with your phone.

Don’t rely entirely on tech

Of course, technology is not always 100% reliable, so it’s wise to communicate any really important information the old-fashioned way.

Before traveling, make sure to leave a copy of your itinerary, including flight departure and arrival information, with an emergency contact back home. Write down the phone numbers for your travel provider and all the hotels where you’ll be staying in case you can’t be reached on your personal device for some reason.

In the field, reinforce any crucial details to your participants in person. Every time the group splits up, make sure each traveler understands exactly where and when to meet back up again, along with any clothing or gear they’ll need or other special instructions. Though it’s unlikely, if there are any last-minute, unexpected changes in the schedule, call each person’s hotel room, or go door-to-door, to ensure no one is left in the dark.

By using technology wisely, you can employ it to your advantage, ensuring smoother communication and ultimately getting the most out of your travel experience.

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