Sunday, April 13, 2008

Telecommunications for Frequent Traveler

How does an international traveler handle telecommunications on the cheap?

First, I use Skype. Skype's basic service is free and allows you to call anyone else using Skype on their computer. However, I pay Skype $5 per month for their combined SkypeIn and SkypeOut plans. This gives me the ability to call any phone in the world from Skype, landline or mobile phone. It also gives me a USA phone number (which is indistinguishable from an "ordinary" phone number). I can forward that phone number to any other number in the world. And I can retrieve the voicemail from that number anywhere I can get online. When I am originating a call in the USA, all long distance calls within the USA are free. While traveling, I can call anyUSA phone from any internet cafe (or from a laptop) for a little over 2 cents per minute. In fact, I am so happy with the service so far that I intend to keep my SkypeIn USA phone number for the rest of my life. It is the one number someone can know that can always reach me, no matter where I am traveling.

When I am at home in the USA, I use a Philips Skype Phone This slick device rings at my house when someone calls my Skype USA phone number. I do not need to have my computer on or running Skype in order to send or receive Skype calls. I use it at home just like anyone else uses an ordinary landline.

Since I seem to only be in the USA a few months per year, I got a pay-as-you-go mobile phone plan from T-mobile (10 cents per minute). For $40 I got a sim card and and excellent quad band phone from them. After I had used it a month I asked them to "unlock" it for me. This means that I can use other sim cards in that same phone, not just sim cards from T-mobile. By having a pay-as-you-go plan, I pay no charges when I am outside of the country like I would on a regular mobile phone contract. Most phones bought in the USA from a telecom provider come locked to that provider and you must request for them to be unlocked.

When I call friends from home, I just use my Skype phone instead of using my mobile minutes on my mobile phone.

When I visit another country, I take out the T-mobile sim card and purchase a local sim card. This costs anywhere from about $1 to $7, in my experience, and usually includes some talk minutes. So then I have a local phone number in the country I am visiting. I buy call time on a per minute basis by buying mobile phone cards for whatever telecom provider I am using at a 7-11 or wherever they are available. So then I have an easy way to keep in touch with locals and to call ahead for hotel reservations or whatever I need. When I have traveled in developing countries, the mobile phone is really the only way to keep in touch with locals -- many do not have an email address or regular internet access. Instead, they use text messages and mobile phone calls to keep in touch.

Then I will usually forward my USA Skype number to my mobile phone number. I will incur Skype charges from the USA to the country where I am visiting. Usually, this is pretty cheap. For instance, it is about 10 cents per minute to call Thailand or Colombia this way. So let's say a friend is calling me from the USA on their mobile phone. They dial my US Skype number and my phone rings in Colombia. My total cost will be the Skype USA to Colombia charges plus my per minute charges on my Colombia mobile phone. This will probably total about 15 cents per minute. This also means that I do not need to notify friends of new mobile phone numbers for each country that I visit (or explain how to dial into that country), there is one easy way to reach me by calling my regular USA Skype number. This is also a good phone number to give for your financial accounts.

Project Colombia

I have enjoyed seeing many friends and family since I returned home to America last month. OK, enough of the easy life, time for some more adventure! I am leaving again in ten days for the country of Colombia, in South America. I plan to stay there for about 8 weeks.

Why Colombia, of all places? Well, there are a lot of reasons.

One of my longtime goals has been to become fluent in Spanish. I speak it OK now but I would like to move up the curve significantly. So a couple of months in a country where few speak English should really help me to speak and understand better. I will spend the first couple of weeks in Cartagena in Spanish language school. I will also be living with a Colombian family and taking daily dance lessons (salsa, samba). After that, I plan to tour the country independently by bus.

Colombia is much safer than it used to be. A decade ago Colombia was probably one of the most dangerous places in the world to visit. However, since President Uribe was first elected 6 years ago (and reelected by a huge landslide two years ago), there has been a complete turnabout. Violent crime has plummeted. The murder rate in Medellin is down over 90%. The groups who were in violent opposition to the government are shadows of their former selves. Tourism has almost tripled in the last three years. The secret is out and many more people are visiting. In fact, I would say that Colombia is probably about as safe as an average South American country now (which means, however, that it is still much more dangerous than the USA or Southeast Asia).

Colombia has the second largest population in South America after Brazil. Colombia has the second largest Spanish speaking population in the world after Mexico. Colombia is America's closest ally in South America and has enacted policies that have reduced economic protectionism, crime, and corruption. Economic growth has accelerated to 7% per year.

I plan to "go native" on this trip. That means no English language reading material except for a guidebook (since it is only available in English). I will still think in English sometimes when I talk with fellow Anglo travelers, use the internet, and write my blog, but I intend to keep to Spanish as much as possible. In fact, I just bought my first Spanish novel the other day -- an interesting book targeted at middle to high schoolers rather than adults which makes it mostly comprehensible to me. OK, wish me luck! This trip is a stretch for me and I will need all of your support!