If you are taking a 2-week holiday then you might actually be doing it to purposely be out of touch with your clients and business partners. And if you do want to stay in touch then email and an international roaming plan for your mobile will do the trick. But for the group of us who are working on the road as a lifestyle, the communication thing can be a bit tricky.
Email will always be a free and easy way of communicating with many people, but there are times when you need a voice call in real time to move forward. These days there are many ways to make and receive a call, and some of them are free or incredibly cheap. If you’ll be working on a laptop most of the time then you’ll have quite a few choices. Also, while timezone differences can also be a problem, they can also be a big help in other ways.
1. Do you even need a phone?
Sometime in the 1990s, pretty much everyone got a mobile phone, and since then millions of people have ditched their landlines so it seemed like the mobile was part of a new 1-to-1 phone-to-person ratio. But when you are traveling, especially many time zones away from the people you’d speak to, it’s very possible that a phone (or at least phone service) won’t be worth the small benefit you’ll receive.
Those of us who spend most of our days (and some of our nights) on our laptops can actually get by far better by using Skype or some other VOIP and instant messenger solution instead. I brought my US iPhone 3G with me to Asia 16 months ago and I use it all the time, except as a phone. I could have jailbroken and unlocked it and then bought SIM cards, but it’s really amazing how rarely I’d need to make a phone call of any kind that isn’t better and/or cheaper on Skype.
Before you buy an international roaming plan or a special phone that can accept SIM cards, consider the possibility that you might not need such a phone at all.
2. Bringing a world phone or buying burners as you go
If you do want to bring and use a mobile phone you’ll obviously need a GSM (as opposed to CDMA) phone, and buying SIM cards with minutes and data plans will always be easy and fairly cheap. In most of the world, and especially Asia, mobile phones are everywhere. Even among many low-wage workers they are often compulsory, so cheap pre-paid SIMs are usually sold at small markets or main-street phone shops.
Data plans can be a bit expensive though, and many countries are still using some kind of 2G system, so you probably won’t be able to afford to stream music or video even if you can afford it. A SIM card that costs around US$10 will have a lot of air time and data available in Asia, and an unlimited data plan usually starts around US$30 per month. Still, service can often be spotty so don’t count on using it for essential business tasks.
The other good alternative for longer trips is to buy a “burner” phone locally once you arrive. In most places you can get a basic feature-phone handset for around US$30 to US$40, which includes a SIM card and some air time. These cheap phones can give you poor quality, however, so spending more for a local Android phone might be worthwhile. Getting it topped up is always fast and easy, so those who like to make local phone calls could do well with them. However, many countries charge the caller a high fee to call mobile phones, so even someone calling you on Skype could end up paying US$0.25 a minute or more. It varies by country.
3. Using Skype and Google Voice
Skype definitely isn’t the only VOIP program out there, but it’s the one everyone seems to have settled upon, so it’s a must for laptop workers who need to communicate with anyone anywhere. At this point Skype is so popular that even new business contacts will just trade Skype login names instead of phone numbers, making video calls possible for those who prefer them, and instant-message text chats as well.
If you need to make outbound calls to people who aren’t on Skype you can buy SkypeOut credits starting at US$10. With these credits you can call most modern countries for around US$0.03 per minute, although calling mobile numbers can be much more. Those who want an inbound number can buy a SkypeIn plan, which is quite cheap by the month and even cheaper by the year.
People who don’t receive a lot of calls but who still want a number they can be reached at should sign up for Google Voice if they haven’t already. They give you a free US-based phone number with free voicemail. If you are in the US yourself you can have it forwarded to your own phone, but if you are traveling you’ll just get an email instantly after any message is left, which includes both a (often crude) transcript and an audio file. So if you are at your laptop you can usually call someone back within a couple minutes of them ringing your Google Voice number themselves.
4. Timezones can be challenging and beneficial
Long-term travelers who are working on the road tend to spend a lot of time in Asia, which has most of the cheapest places on the planet. Thailand, for example, is 7 hours ahead of London and 12 hours ahead of New York. This usually means your days are upside down from partners or clients in Europe or North America, and this can lead to challenges.
You’ll probably only have an hour or two in the morning and an hour or two before you go to sleep when people from back home are available for a chat. Some people seem to only be available in one or the other of those time blocks, so you’ll need to reshape your schedule around them. In other words, having conference calls or planning sessions (on Skype) at 11pm is something you’ll have to get used to.
On the other hand, travelers in Asia will be in similar time zones of India and the Philippines, so if you are outsourcing some work to low-cost companies or people in those areas you’ll benefit by being able to go back and forth with questions and revisions during the day, rather than only once per day after they have gone home. So for some people the time zone shift can actually help even more than it hurts.
5. Communication blackouts can help productivity
As discussed when I wrote about the advantages to building your startup in Asia, being inaccessible for a big chunk of the day can actually be a very good thing. More specifically, if your Twitter feed and instant messenger are blowing up in the early mornings and the late evenings, it means that things can be very quiet during the middle of the day.
Some people can be laser-focused on their projects when they need to be, but others of us have a Homer Simpson-like attention span, so being constantly distracted is unavoidable. Honestly, having a huge chunk of time in the middle of the day when you are NOT communicating is usually a blessing.