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Should I Travel With a Cell Phone?

The benefits of traveling with a mobile phone

Benefits of Traveling with a Cellphone
0 Comments 03 September 2010

Cyclone? What cyclone?

I was in Darjeeling, India, stranded in a tour office with eight other backpackers amidst the most rain I’d ever seen. We were supposed to leave for a week-long Himalayan trek but there was no electricity and we had no idea what was going on. Our trip organizer wanted to set out anyways, saying that the rain was nothing and would pass. My cell phone still had a charge, however, and I was able to call a friend back home and find out that a cyclone had hit Darjeeling and the rest of the state of West Bengal collapsing roads and killing hundreds. Needless to say, we did not set out that day and were all reminded that not all guides have your best interest in mind.

Wait, where’s my bag??!!

I was in Sikkim, India boarding a jeep that was heading to a train station six hours away. An hour later a friend who had stayed behind realized that her backpack was missing. The driver had inadvertently loaded it on the jeep with us leaving her stranded with absolutely nothing. Luckily, she had my local cell number written down and we were able to arrange a hand off to a jeep going in the opposite direction. Disaster was averted.

You’re in Sydney?? I’m in Sydney!

I got a ride from Byron Bay to Sydney, Australia. After I was dropped off I found an internet cafe and set my Facebook status to: “In Sydney, Australia!! Call if you’re around!” followed by my Aussie cell phone number. A few hours later I was out with new friends and felt my phone buzz twice within minutes. I got a text message from Chris, a Kiwi I met at a house party in New Zealand three months earlier and a call from Mirjam, a Dutch backpacker from the Himalayan trek seven months earlier! Each just happened to be in Sydney and both wanted to meet up. It’s a small world after all.

SIM CardsI could fill up several pages with stories of how my small, black and white, $20 Nokia cell phone saved the day time and again. I show off the collection of SIM cards in my wallet from Israel, The Netherlands, India, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand and Cambodia all the time.

Traveling with a basic quad or tri-band GSM phone loaded with a local SIM card is easy, cheap, and highly recommended.

A cell phone? No thanks!

The question of whether or not to travel with a cell phone comes up frequently with travelers looking to get off the grid and terrified of being called a “flashpacker”. I started out with a phone in order to keep my mom happy (see below) but soon realized that a travel phone is not the same thing as the phone I left back home. Catch up calls to friends back home are nearly always done in internet cafes via Skype. My travel phone practically never rings and I only use it with a purpose. When I do use it, though, it’s invaluable. Sure, I update my Facebook profile with my latest local number, but, aside from a call a week from my parents, no one from home ever calls it.

Bro. Found heaven. Has waterfalls.

Instead, fellow travelers will call me in order to meet up, or to tell me about incredible discoveries like when my friend Nate called from Shirar, an off-the-map Indian village devoid of foreigners and abounding with waterfalls and fruit orchards that he stumbled on while hitch hiking. He called my cell and, after a tuk-tuk ride, a local bus trip and a one-hour hike, I was in a hidden paradise. The only reason I even leave my cell on while traveling is because I don’t own a watch, but total radio darkness is always just a matter of pushing power.

Like all connected travel, traveling with a cell phone is about balance. In the Connected Traveling article on choosing the best cell phone, we outline the tradeoffs between a smartphone like the iPhone vs a basic Nokia, but in the end, the question is a personal one. 3G coverage is spreading around the globe but I still made the conscious decision not to travel with an iPhone for fear of being too tempted by the appeal of constant internet access (not to mention the cost of replacing it). If you’re afraid that texts from your friends back home will diminish your experience, don’t give the number out, or keep it off until you need it. Keep in mind, however, that some countries don’t come with voice mail as a standard option for pre paid SIM Cards.

Even if you never use it, give out its number, or turn it on, traveling with a cell phone and a local SIM card is an emergency device. Nobody would criticize a camper for bringing flares, right?

Will Someone Think of the Parents???

Whether you admit it or not, your family back home will, in varying degrees, play a role in your eventual decision to come home. Odds are they have more sway than you realize so keeping them happy can keep you happy, and adventuring for longer. The price to you of an occasional phone call from back home to make sure you’re still alive is far outweighed by the peace of mind it will give them.

Between hitch hiking and sleeping under bridges in New Zealand, heading to all night raves deep in the hills of northern India, or catching swine flu in Thailand, the least I could do to offset the stress I caused back home was to call my parents once in awhile.

It’s cheap to buy the phone. It’s cheap to buy the SIM card. It’s cheap to make local calls (unless you’re in New Zealand), and unlike in USA, it’s free to accept incoming calls and texts. Add to that the benefits and added safety of having a line when you need it and the real question is, why wouldn’t you travel with a cell phone?

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