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So long Payphones! Staying in touch while travelling

[ 0 ] June 23, 2012 |

Today’s post is a guest post from Tracy Burns, who has been travelling and living abroad for the past 2.5 years with her husband and two young children. You can read about her travels at Our Travel Lifestyle.


Arriving at my first hostel after a ten-year travel hiatus it was a huge shock to see everyone sitting around with laptops, smartphones, netbooks or tablets using WIFI.  I had come to accept these technology advances as a part of my home life but somehow I’d just never pictured walking into a hostel to see tables lined with MacBook Pros displaying Facebook as everyone uses an online International calling service to talk to family and friends back home.

You read a lot of blog posts written about what travel was like in the good old days. When all you had was a tatty 5-year out of date guide book whose information on bus timetables and hostels was more out of date than last months tabloids gossip magazines. When you didn’t already know all the great restaurants to eat at before arriving into a town thanks to having read every review on TripAdvisor.

Park inside Galle Fort

In some ways they’re right. We are loosing that element of adventurousness, that thrill  that comes with leaping completely into the unknown with no safety net of a 3G phone to Google anytime you get lost, can’t find a place to stay or can’t really work out where to go next.

But at the same time, I’m completely grateful for how the Internet has revolutionized keeping in touch while you travel. These days we complain if we go 48 hours without finding a WIFI hotspot (OK so my husband complains if he goes 12 hours!) but that’s nothing compared to what keeping in touch was like before we all travelled with laptops, smartphones and digital cameras.

Ten or 15 years ago, staying in touch while travelling was much harder, and a lot more frustrating.

Sure, we’re not talking 1800s frustrating where a letter home from Australia could take half a year to arrive, but sometimes it is easy to forget what travel was like just ten years ago.

Ten years ago I was just finishing my first long-term adventure. Two weeks in Bali, six months in South Korea teaching English, a quick visit to Europe and two months temping in Edinburgh. Keeping in touch with family back then felt like a never-ending challenge. Some weeks it felt like I spent more time tracking down Internet cafes, pay phones and post offices than sightseeing.

Postcards used to be the done thing. The problem was they usually arrived at their destination after you were already home, or at least moved onto four other countries by then.  That’s assuming you could actually a) find a post office and b) remembered to go to the post office with postcards in hand. I opened up our old South East Asia on a Shoestring guidebook from our 2001 trip the other day and three postcards to my family that were never sent fell out. Woops!

Email was just starting to become more common but staying in touch while travelling via the Internet wasn’t simple. Friends of course had student email accounts and most of them had dial-up Internet at home but no one in my family had email accounts, let alone Internet at home.

Keeping in touch via email meant creating an email account for my mother, teaching her how to use it, which took several explanations then dot point lists followed by several more explanations. I think we resorted to diagrams. She then had to go to an Internet café once a week to print out several copies of our correspondence to hand out amongst the family.

And for me to actually send the email in the first place was a major mission. We had purchased the latest technology at the time; a great little device that looked like a Blackberry but allowed you to compose your email and then send and receive emails using fax noises over any telephone line when you held the device against the receiver.

A great invention if you didn’t mind looking a bit like a lunatic holding some device against a payphone while it made bizarre noises.

That’s assuming you could find a payphone that was a) working and b) you could actually figure out how to use. That could take up to a week and by then the email had to be rewritten four times because it was out of date.

Today I have an iPhone and a laptop. Half the time I usually have a local 3G sim-card in my iPhone so provided I’m in coverage I’m constantly connected. If not, the hostel I’m staying in usually has WIFI. Between Facebook and emails I’d talk with friends and family at least once a day. Apart from my grandparents, everyone in the family has email addresses and Facebook accounts.

Heck, my Mum even follows us on twitter using her iPhone. Which I have to admit is slightly scary!

Mountain Heaven Ella

Phoning home used to be this mission. I can remember being in South Korea ten years ago where each phone company had it’s own pre-paid calling cards and their own pay phones. Calling cards from one Phone Company didn’t work at the other company’s pay phone. It took me a good week before I realized that and found the right phone/calling card combination. Of course that was an improvement from Bali where it took a week to find a pay phone that actually worked!

Payphones have become a thing of the past with free calls thanks to companies like Skype and Rebtel. You don’t even need to have a smartphone – Rebtel allows you to call using their low rates with just a regular mobile phone.  In 2.5 years of travel we’ve used a payphone once. We usually just buy a local 3G sim card in each country, giving us calls and Internet.  We’ve use the Internet to call family back home, with video whenever we have fast enough Internet.

Whatever you think of being connected while travelling, I think it’s hard to argue that the ability to send a quick email with a photo attached to Nanna that will keep you in her good books for the next month is a bad thing.  What do you think?

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Category: Living Abroad

About onurwaytravel: Colin has been travelling the world with his young family for the past 2 and half years. He runs a couple of websites all revolve around travel, family travel and digital nomadism. His websites include,, and now View author profile.

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