Life Musings

5 technology essentials for the long-term traveler

I’ve been on the road for almost six months now- criss-crossing the States, spending a month in Mexico, and the last ten weeks in France. It’s been a whirlwind, one that I’m still caught up in wondering where it will take me in the following days and weeks to come. Long-term travel is something I’m new to and this is the first journey I’ve embarked on alone for longer than two months. Thankfully, there are some creature comforts I’ve discovered that have made traveling long-term easier. Here are five things I’ve learned to rely on heavily during my journey.

1. Get a Skype account

Needless to say, I’ve had moments of homesickness when the ability to phone home was the only thing that kept me from buying a return ticket back to the States. 
So, how do I stay in touch with friends and family across the continents? It’s easier than you might think. Before I left the States I cancelled my expensive $100+ per month cell phone service and bought a Skype phone number. Skype allows you to choose the area code for your number, so I chose a local one my friends and family could call for free. This allows me to reach people who may not have a Skype account or a computer close by (hello, Grandma). It also allows me to receive voice mails when I’ve missed a call from someone back home (it shows up in my email where I can listen to the message). For those lifestyle-independent nomads who are trying to run small businesses, having a Skype phone number offers a cheap and reliable way for you to communicate with folks back home when things need to get done. I also like having the option to communicate with potential employers if I decide to return home and look for work (not likely, but you never know)! 

Skype also offers credit to use for calling locally within the country you’re traveling. I bought $10.00 worth of credit three months ago and I’ve made multiple calls for setting up appointments, contacting couch surfing hosts, etc. and I still have a little over $3.00 left. If you’re only traveling for a short time, it’s not as likely you’ll need a paid subscription or Skype credit, however if you’re planning on being on the road for longer than a few weeks, I would highly recommend using Skype as the best way to stay in touch with loved ones back home. I can’t tell you how happy I was to see my Dad’s face after two months when he finally purchased a webcam and we could Skype together. Of course, it’s no substitute for the hugs he gives, or sitting across the dinner table from him enjoying our favorite Indian food, but his smile and laughter keep me going when I am missing home the most.
Like father, like daughter?

2. Spotify

I’m in love with Spotify. At first, I resisted the digital music revolution, insisting on going to the used record stores and buying scratched cds, taking pride in my old school appreciation of music. Unfortunately, my backpack won’t fit my favorite Beatles record or my collection of Wilco cds. My itunes library is good, but my limited backpacker’s budget doesn’t afford me to keep up with purchasing new music. When I first traveled to Ecuador (sans my laptop) I ran into major issues when my Pandora account and Last FM weren’t available. That’s when I realized Spotify’s global network allowed me to listen to my library of music and playlists from my account with a simple wifi connection. I honestly hink this saved me from a nervous breakdown. Spotify’s new music recommendations, radio stations, and its ability to create and save multiple playlists make it ideal for music lovers. These features are all free if you have a wifi connection and it saves you from taking up space on your hard drive since you don’t have to download any of the songs or albums.

That being said, I decided to purchase a premium account ($9.99/mo) so that I could listen to my music collection without a wifi connection. This enabled me to download my favorite songs and playlists to my phone which now acts as an ipod. This comes in really handy and lets me listen to music on those long flights and train rides when I need to drown out the screaming children next to me or just want to sleep. Since Spotify is available in many countries across the globe it’s also nice to be able to easily share music with locals and “follow” them to see what other parts of the world are listening to. $9.99 per month may seem extravagant for a backpacker, but for me it’s been essential to be able to have unlimited access to music while traveling.

3. Buy a Local Phone

I hesitated on this one for quite awhile, stubbornly wanting to rely only on my Skype account and pay phone cards for communication (I know, nobody uses a pay phone anymore and after trying to squeeze myself and my backpack into one of those tiny booths too many times I finally realized my stupidity). Unfortunately, sometimes you need to make a call when no wifi access is available. If you are couch surfing or using work exchange programs like Workaway, being able to contact your hosts can mean the difference between being stranded and having a place to sleep for the night.

I finally gave in and bought a cheap phone while in France and this has made making travel arrangements so much easier. The phone cost about $25.00 euros and is a no-frills phone with a SIM card that I can add credit to as I go. It’s not blocked so I can buy a new SIM card and a new phone number in any country I travel to which makes it really ideal. The SIM card cost about $10.00 euro, and there’s actually a spot for an additional card so I can have two numbers in use at the same time. Having this phone and a French phone number has saved me so much stress and money spent on coffee trying to get a wifi signal!

4. Unblock-US

I’d been without American TV and movies for almost six months before I finally broke down and subscribed to a service that would allow me to access my Hulu and Netflix accounts abroad. I mean, sometimes a girl just needs her New Girl fix! Unblock-US costs $4.99/mo and provides an internet address from the U.S. so streaming networks think you’re viewing from home. Having a way to stay connected to media and culture back home has made traveling long-term easier and been a welcome creature comfort. Having access to the Netflix library also allows me to indulge in local French culture and improve my French by watching films on the road.  

I’m a big advocate of being present and immersing in the local culture (which maybe means not watching so much American TV, etc.) but I think it’s important to find a balance when you’re traveling long-term. Having the ability to enjoy some comic relief while watching a few episodes of Friends after a stressful travel day gives me the ability to laugh it off and pick up the next day to do it all over again. 
Pop-up maps are the coolest.

5. Bring Your Laptop/Ipad, etc.

Last fall, 

I traveled in Ecuador for two months and chose to leave my computer at home for the duration of the trip. After spending copious amounts on internet cafes (hey, those $1-3 every day add up over time!) and being kicked out in the middle of Skype conversations or writing blog posts, I realized the convenience of having your own laptop is simply necessary. It may add extra weight and you may have to be more careful about it getting stolen, but I would simply not be able to have the flexibility of making last-minute travel arrangements and plans without having my laptop handy. Most couch surfers I’ve stayed with have wifi and are happy to provide the password, so this adds to the convenience of having my own computer to use.TheBarefootBeatMy little office on the go!

I’ve talked to people who have had their laptop badly damaged from hard days on the road but I’ve found a system of packing my computer that has protected it from cracks or nicks (okay, mostly). I have a laptop cover that I always use and then I place my laptop carefully in my bag where it is cushioned by my clothes and the padding of my pack. Of course, I always keep it in my carry-on when flying, because who can really trust those baggage belts?

What are your technology essentials on the road? How do you stay in touch with your home culture and loved ones back home?

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