Tools for the trade: Staying in touch on the road

[This appeared today in Travel Weekly. See above for comment.]

Tools for the trade: Staying in touch on the road
Travel Weekly (09/14/2004)

By Casey Kittrell

Jenny Froelich sits beside the Futaleufu River, blissfully exhausted after another day of rafting some of Chile�s best white water. Her gear hangs from a nearby tree, drying in the late afternoon sun. The expedition�s guides busy themselves with preparing dinner for the group, while the river roars on.

With nothing pressing to do, Froelich is free to read, write in her journal or just absorb the natural splendor around her. Instead, she opens her backpack, digs out her Iridium Motorola satellite phone and calls her mom.

Froelich�s phone call is not unusual. Once the exclusive tools of war correspondents, remote-based oil and gas workers and long-distance sailors, satellite phones have entered the leisure travel market.

The Satellite Phone Store, based in Miami, has 150 satellite phones available for rent. The day I called, every one was rented.

Sam Crowther, operating manager of the store, estimates that leisure travelers constitute the majority of his rental customers. �They [satellite phones] are especially popular with the cruise and safari crowds,� he said.

Crowther�s phones rent for as little as $40 a week, with air time as low as $1.55 a minute. That�s a lot cheaper than a ship-to-shore call on an average cruise ship.

The increasing use of satellite phones also is part of a larger trend, one that is shaping the face of post-modern travel. Today�s travelers have so many affordable options for staying connected to home that it would constitute an act of rebellion not to stay in touch.

These days, anyone on any budget, and with almost any degree of tech savvy, can connect with home if they want to.

Here�s a brief rundown on some of the tools in use:

Satellite phones

More than 80% of the Earth�s surface currently is not served by a cell-phone network. Satellite phone and data services providers Globalstar, Iridium, Thuraya and Inmarsat have tried to pick up where cell phones leave off.

Iridium is the only network that claims to cover the entire world, but that doesn�t mean it�s necessarily the best choice. Many sailors prefer Inmarsat, and travelers in Africa and the Middle East say Thuraya provides the best service in that part of the world.

And it�s more than a matter of where you are; it�s also about what you need. Globalstar may have the most compact, best-looking handsets on the market (they look just like regular cell phones), which makes them attractive to leisure travelers who intend to use them primarily for making calls.

Businesspeople who want to send faxes and surf the Web, however, may prefer a sturdier, laptop-style unit because the bigger models often have higher data-transfer speeds. It pays to shop around because prices vary significantly. For most leisure trips, it�s better to rent than buy.

Cell phones

Cell phones are great when you�re in network, problematic when you�re not. Frequent international travelers should make use of the GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) network. Most new cell phones are configured for GSM, which expands coverage to some 140 countries around the world.

AT&T Wireless and Maritime Telecommunications Network recently announced plans to extend GSM cell-phone service to cruise ships traveling in the Caribbean. (The service is due to begin this fall.)

Some satellite-phone manufacturers, such as Globalstar and Thuraya, have developed a combination satellite/GSM cell phone, which functions as a cell phone when in network or as a satellite phone in more remote places. Depending on your calling plan, GSM calls can be significantly more expensive than regular roaming charges.

Internet services

It�s easy to set up a free, Web-based e-mail account through Microsoft�s Hotmail, Yahoo Mail and others.

For travelers who want to do more than send e-mails, there are the blogging sites offered by travel companies such as Lonely Planet, BootsnAll, MyTripJournal and Rough Guides. Most are free, at least for a short trip. (Lonely Planet, for example, offers a free 30-day trial, then charges $5 to $15 for each additional month.)

In addition to serving as electronic journals and photo albums, personal-trip Web sites usually come with a range of fun features, such as maps to plot your travels and automatic notification of friends and family whenever you post new material.


Popular among older travelers and the RV crowd, Pocketmail is an older piece of technology that enables users to send and receive e-mail through a keyboard that connects to any telephone handset.

The keyboard looks like a very small laptop, incorporates some of the same features as a Palm Pilot and costs about $100. The service itself costs about $10 to $17 a month. For details, visit

Given the appeal and increasing availability of connectivity, should travel agents and others be more involved with supplying such technology?

Setting up a blog or arranging a satellite phone rental are quick, easy, costless ways of adding value to a client�s trip, and they provide another justification for the fees most agents charge.

The capability of calling home from Chile is great, but is doing so — to chat with mom, for instance — a good idea? Maybe not.

�The surest way to miss out on the genuine experience of a foreign place — the psychic equivalent of trapping yourself back at home — is to obsessively check your e-mail as you travel from place to place,� travel writer Rolf Potts said in his book, Vagabonding.

As Potts suggests, overdoing it with such comforts can obscure the magic of new places, mainly because we�re just re-creating home in a new place.

That�s when you realize you just wasted a lot of money on a plane ticket.

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