Staying Connected At Home and On the Road

A longtime reader asked a couple of weeks ago about how our family communicates across the miles, with our son and family in Japan, and two of our three girls in different time zones on the mainland.

I hadn’t really thought about it much because other than remembering how many hours difference there are when you want to talk with someone, communication these days seems so effortless. We use a variety of ways to keep in touch, and they almost never involve phone calls. The best part though is that the ways we communicate with each other while we’re at home work just as well when we travel, even overseas. Gone are the days of prohibitive long distance fees while out of the country or even calling across the United States.

First, I have to give a big shout-out to our phone service provider, T-Mobile, and the very affordable phone plan we have with them. Everyone in the family has WiFi enabled phones with unlimited calls and texting (I have unlimited data – it came with the plan – and everyone else has 2 or 3 GB, which works for them), and it’s incredibly easy to stay in touch wherever we are in the U.S. – all we have to do is connect and we’re good to go. Plus, our plan provides free data and texting all over the world with no roaming charges, with just a few exceptions. Phone calls overseas run about 20c per minute, but since we rarely use the phone feature these days it’s an expense we can almost always avoid.

Our favorite platform for staying in touch at home and abroad is Facebook Messenger. We like it because besides messaging we can also do video and group video chats. I chat with Meiling three to four times a week, with WenYu and our son a little less frequently, and our daughter-in-law uses Messenger to send photos, videos, and other grandchildren updates. It’s also proven to be a good way to stay in touch and share information with friends (who are on Facebook). As long as we’re someplace we can connect to WiFi, Messenger is free and convenient. For safety reasons we always keep the location and notification features turned off, whenever we use our phone and for all platforms.

No matter what your favorite way is to communicate while you’re at home, here are some tips from Consumer Reports on how save with your smartphone when traveling abroad:

  • Check out your carrier’s world plans: Sprint, like T-Mobile, also grants its users free data and texting in most locations overseas. Data speeds are typically only 2G, so if you want faster service you’ll need to pay for it. AT&T and Verizon have similar plans.
  • Get a local SIM card when you arrive: You’ll have to let people know you have a different phone number while you’re in country, but having a local number will mean big savings if and when you need to make local reservations or travel plans. Be sure before you do this though that your phone will work with overseas networks. International SIM cards are available in both Europe and Asia, but cost more than a card that is country specific. Also, be sure your phone is unlocked by your carrier before you go – don’t wait until the last minute to do this either.
  • Buy a budget smartphone: You can do this when you arrive at your destination, or from Amazon before you go – they have a good selection of low-cost Android phones.
  • Turn off data and go WiFi only: This is what we did on our last visit to Japan – we linked up to the WiFi in our hotel room or at our son’s condo when we needed to be online, but we could have gone online as well for free at Starbucks and other locations around town. Many Airbnb rentals and hotels also offer pocket WiFi, either for free or a small charge. WiFi availability is something you should absolutely check up on before you go though – don’t wait until you’re at your destination only to find it doesn’t exist, or you can’t connect.

One final tip for communicating whenever and wherever you travel: be sure to back up your data before you go to either an external drive or cloud-based service. And, don’t forget your power adapters and charger!

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8 thoughts on “Staying Connected At Home and On the Road

  1. Greg says:

    Hi Laura,

    Great comments and thoughts! When we visited Japan last year, in retrospect, I would have signed up for one of the cheap WiFi plans offered for about US$6/wk. We had no problem at our hotels, Starbucks, etc., but it was often while off going places that it would have been helpful. I had a lot of cases where the google maps pages would start losing all the English names (although the directions in text or email would remain). Haven’t had that same problem in other countries. Also lost the connection for calling people while we were out, unless we ducked close to a Starbucks or McDonalds.

    Greg

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    • Laura says:

      If I had needed to call more, etc. when we were in Japan I would have used the pocket WiFi offered at our Airbnb or hotel for a nominal fee, but we thankfully got by with the WiFi at our hotel and at our son’s home. Japan made temporary SIM cards available not that long ago – I think a basic one is around $33 or so and last for a week? If I had to do it over again I think I would take my regular phone (because I love the camera!) and then a cheaper or old phone that I could plug the SIM card into, for maps, local calls, etc.

      It’s still a heck of a lot easier than it was a few years ago! Everyone in Japan is connected these days – when we would get on a train we were the only ones not whipping out our phone and texting, etc.

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  2. sbeckhamprofessionalblog says:

    Hello Laura, we love TMobile. We learned about an app that we used with great success on a recent trip to the U.K. & Scandinavia. Like you we used our Airbnb WiFi or if necessary used public WiFi but with our VPN activated (Virtual Private Network). The app was touted on the Rick Steves Travel Forum and is WhatsApp. It’s free and you can call, text or video call as long as the other phone has WhatsApp installed. We kept in touch with our younger son and my brother overcame his concern, (doesn’t use many apps) downloaded the app and we talked using the app. Of course with TMobile texting was no issue. If we were not on WiFi then data was used but we rarely used the app except on WiFi. Another great app I also learned about was the Mobile Passport app which is free and certainly lessens the time one waits in line to return to the USA. Not all airports have it yet but it’s being rolled out to airports all the time. Happy travels! Sonja

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    • Laura says:

      There are so many apps out there now that make it easy to stay connected – I appreciate learning about the ones you mentioned and will check them out before our big adventure next year. When YaYu went to China last month several families used different apps to communicate with their children, but we were satisfied with just texting (I’m a firm believer that when kids go on trips like this, part of what they’re learning is to become more independent, so I don’t insist on talking with my children every day. I know some parents do want to connect daily, and that’s OK).

      When we came back from Japan this last time, there were kiosks set up in U.S. Immigration – all we had to do was insert our passports, and then go over to the window and hand in our form. It was so quick and easy compared to standing in the long lines we did in the past.

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  3. JJ says:

    Thanks for answering my question! I didn’t know you could do video chats with Facebook messenger so I will try that out.

    When I was in Japan a couple of years ago, I rented a portable WiFi device and was very happy with it. Even when we went to Mt Fuji and stayed at a hotel there that had no WiFi, our portable device worked great.

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    • Laura says:

      Your question was a good one! It was also worth expanding into a full post on the blog – I learned a lot researching my answer. Thanks!

      Also good to hear about the pocket WiFi – we’ve never used it, but good to know that it works and it’s worth the expense (which was very reasonable nonetheless).

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  4. Laurel says:

    We have been researching this and need to nail down our decision before our fall trip to Italy. We visit Canada regularly and love the $2/day option of just using our existing plans. My daughter visited Iceland in May and also used her Verizon plan and data allowances, but I think the upcharge was $10/day. That’s a little steep, and I think she used the Wi-Fi a lot and I didn’t see much in the way of Instagram photos or FB posts unless she was in her hotel. So I’m guessing she didn’t pay for many $10 days.

    My other daughter did her PhD research in Africa and said Facebook was one of the most reliable apps that always worked for communicating. Well, when there was WiFi, that is.

    The options have changed drastically since the last time we travelled overseas. I shudder to think what we paid in the past and how “unconnected” we were. How did we survive without that screen in our faces all the time? 🙂

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    • Laura says:

      I too marvel at how rapidly things have changed – I remember thinking a few years ago “how did we ever manage without email” and these days I rarely use it except for business purposes! I am a big fan of technology for the simple reason that it’s one thing that always costs less (and gets better and easier) as you go along, rather than getting more expensive.

      Brett is due for a new phone, so we’re planning to get him an iPhone next year, and will keep his old Android as a back-up, and buy new SIM cards for it if and when we travel overseas. If he gets an iPhone we’ll all be able to use Facetime, something we can’t do now.

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