A Family RTW Travel Adventure (2008-2009)
Random header image... Refresh for more!

Reach Out and Touch Someone

A year or so ago I participated in a conference call with several different organizations working together on a project. An everyday occurrence for me and millions of other “consultants.” But there was something memorable about this call.

The host of the call was on vacation. In China. On a Yangtze River cruise near the Three Gorges Dam. Other participants called in from four different U.S. states, all on mobile phones.

Forget the difficulty coordinating time zones – think about the technology involved in that call. Yet nowadays, we take it for granted.

A similar experience: Last summer, I had to reach a client on a fairly urgent matter. I dialed his regular U.S.-based cell phone number and was connected immediately. Again, nothing unusual about that – except he was walking through the medieval quarter in Tallinn, Estonia, when he answered.

With these recent experiences as context, I was determined to find the best “phone solution” for our trip. My goal was simple. I wanted us to be able to make inexpensive local calls in each country we visited and make it easy for friends and family to reach us wherever we were traveling.

After months of research and some modest real-world testing, here’s what I learned.

There seems to be a consensus among experienced RTW travelers on the best way to approach international telecom: Get an unlocked quad band phone (usable anywhere in the world) and, as you are traveling, buy pre-paid SIM cards in each country where you travel.

This approach makes local calling very affordable, but it has a downside. Each time you change SIM cards, you change phone numbers. In order for friends and family to be able to call you, you have to give them your new phone number as you change SIM cards from country to country.

This, obviously, could make it difficult for someone to reach you in case of emergency. So, how to get around this challenge?

One alternative is something called a “world SIM card” that enables your phone to work in dozens of countries. The companies selling these SIM cards offer highly discounted international calling plans. The benefit, of course, is that you have one phone number that follows you around the world. However, local calls are more expensive.

There are a number of world SIM card providers, but the one I’m most intrigued by is MAXroam, an Irish startup.

When you purchase a MAXroam SIM card, you get your choice of a free phone number in either Ireland, the U.S., the U.K., France, Sweden, Poland or Italy. You can also purchase local phone numbers from about 40 other countries for a small fee and have it ring to your phone.

I also discovered another interesting service called Truphone that lets you make low cost international calls over the Internet. Truphone is a software supplement that adds a capability to your phone; it is not a substitute for a SIM card.

According to the Truphone web site:

Truphone is a free piece of software that lets you make free and low cost mobile calls via the Internet. We don’t do roaming charges, so as long as you have a compatible phone and are connected to Wi-Fi, prices are simple and low from anywhere on the planet.

Currently Truphone only works on Nokia N-series or E-series phones. But if you own a compatible phone and install the software, the service provides one more option for making and receiving low-cost international calls.

We have months before we have to make any final decisions, but I am considering a “two phone” solution that would allow us to make cheap local calls on one phone while maintaining a single U.S.-based phone number on the other:

  • With Phone A, I’d swap SIM cards country-to-country, enabling us to make inexpensive local calls, though our phone number would change.
  • With Phone B, I’d install a MAXroam SIM card (or a similar product) with a U.S. number, establishing a single phone number friends and family could call to reach us anywhere we travel.

If we end up with a compatible Nokia phone, we would definitely consider installing the TruPhone software to provide another low-cost calling option.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Skype. Skype is a great service that enables Voice-Over-Internet calling from any computer with a reasonable broadband connection.

Calls are free to other people on the Skype network; calls to landlines and cell phones are relatively inexpensive. Then there’s that whole video chat thing. I’m sure Skype will be in the mix for us as well.

The thing about telecom, though, is that it is constantly changing. It’s probably best not to obsess about the perfect solution; better to focus on finding one that works for you.

If you want to learn more about these issues and choices from a real world perspective, check out Lee LeFever’s posts on telecom and technology at his RTW travel blog, The World Is Not Flat. They serve as an excellent primer, and I recommend them to any person making an RTW trip.

I’d also recommend checking out Rick James’ communications tips on his RTW planning web page. Speaking of Rick, I have one last “small world” story to share.

Rick has been very helpful to me, providing a lot of very sound, practical advice for planning our trip. Most of our communications has been by email, but we had been trying to connect by phone. Time differences, my work schedule and his family’s travels made it a challenge.

One morning, a few weeks ago, I had just walked in my office when my phone rang. When I answered, it was Rick. From Africa. On safari. In the Serengeti.

Now that’s a small world.


1 cyiannou { 03.12.08 at 12:47 pm }

You should look into using Google’s Grand Central and Gizmo. Grand Central gives you a free local US phone number that can be forwarded free to any other US number (several at at time) as well as to Gizmo (a service similar to Skype). You can then have Gizmo forward to your ever changing cell number. Do a search on Grand Central and Gizmo and you will find quite a few good write-ups on how this works. If you have not already considered this option you should definitely look into it.

2 Rick James { 03.13.08 at 5:41 am }

If you could get the same charger for both phones, that’d be much handier if you really have to bring two phones. We have found internet very readily available and are seldom two days away from receiving important messages from home though.

I too am a huge fan of Gizmo over skype. A few more options and versatility make them worth a look. We found cell phones with WIFI crazy expensive for the slight extra benefit, (for our purposes only of course! ).

I still shake my head in wonderment that there was cell service in the middle of the vast and very beautiful Serengeti. With all the other people’s blog’s you’re keeping up with, I’m surprised you have time to work! I know how that was too though. Our last five months before leaving, my wife and I were devouring every bit of info on the web that we could find.

I’m curious to know how the bag packing New York trial run went…

3 Craig { 03.13.08 at 8:49 am }

Thanks for the tip on Gizmo – I’m definitely going to check it out.


Creative Commons License