Monks on the blower at the Labrang monastery in China.
Monks on the blower at the Labrang monastery in China. Jim Eagles of NZ Herald

The challenges of keeping in touch

THE first time I travelled to Europe, long, long ago, about the only way to keep in touch with home was by surface mail, which took around a month. I did phone New Zealand from Britain one Christmas but it cost the price of a small car, I had to book the call several weeks ahead and there was an echo on the line which made conversation difficult.

Today, of course, communication is incredibly easy: pick up any old phone, dial +64 ... and mostly you can chat with folks at home as though you were just in the next room; or walk into an internet cafe, hand over a few bucks, and you can email or Skype your family (yes, I know you can also use Twitter or Facebook, but I prefer direct personal communication). But with all of those there can be a few fish hooks.

For instance, friends who recently travelled across the United States by motorcaravan, planning to send progress reports by group email, discovered that internet cafes are just about a thing of the past. These days, they found, WiFi is everywhere so to keep in regular contact with the folks back home they really needed a laptop or netbook.

Now I also have a Blackberry so, while I still can't send texts, what with that and my netbook I can keep in touch by email from almost everywhere.WiFi saved my bacon during some recent trips. I usually keep in touch by text but for some reason my mobile decided it would make and receive phone calls, and receive texts, but not send them, and Vodafone has been unable to find a solution. But luckily even hotels in Uzbekistan and B&Bs in Oxfordshire mostly have WiFi so my Eee PC netbook kept me in touch.

But mobile phones can have their issues too. In some countries the system seems to work differently: a colleague returned from a trip to Spain to find a bill for about $200 waiting him because the phone company imposed a charge every time his mobile pinged a cellphone tower. And, as has been widely publicised, the international roaming charges we face are horrendous: another colleague copped a bill for $600 for two weeks in France, basically for three phone calls home and a few texts.

But there are alternatives. Yet another colleague visiting Australia spent A$39 to pick up a pay-as-you go SIM card on a special offer, and after a week of texts, phone calls home, uploading photos and checking web pages, still had plenty left.

"If I'd been using my New Zealand SIM card," he said, "$40 would probably have allowed me to upload a couple of photos."

On my recent trip to Britain and Greece I took my own mobile but we put a TravelSim in my wife's phone.

Once we'd mastered the slightly different procedure needed to make calls, it saved heaps. Texts cost only 40c or about half what we usually pay. And a phone call back home was $2.70 for five minutes, which is about a fifth of the usual Telecom or Vodafone rate. After five weeks we still had lots left from our initial loading of $50.

In other words, global communications may be a lot easier these days, but you still need to check out the various options ... or you might end up incommunicado ... or broke.

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