with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Living from Pay Phone to Pay Phone

Graphic - communication used to be with cans and string - how far have we come?The idea of taking your camera on the road is a concept usually filled with the excitement of being “out there”, embracing life and the possibilities, discovering new worlds and new civilizations…but no one ever told E.T. how hard it would be to phone home.

You used to fill your pockets with change, find the nearest pay phone, and phone home.

Technology is supposed to make things easier for us. Maybe it is, but it comes with a high learning curve. We travel on the road full-time in our 30 foot fifth-wheel trailer. Unlike many of you, we don’t have a fixed home, so we are faced with many choices of how to stay in touch. No method is foolproof, nor is any one method the only choice. It takes a combination of methods to stay connected to the rest of the world while you travel and run your business from the road.

Picture this. We are in a non-cell phone area. I’ve a message to call an editor right away. After hiking 4 blocks to the nearest pay phone, I get out my long distance calling card and dial the 800 access number. I press 1 to tell them I want to call long distance, then dial the editor’s number and then, oops, where did I put the calling card? Oh, here it is. Okay, now I dial the 10 digit calling card number and 4 digit pin. And wait. If the editor is in, today is a good day. If she’s not, I can leave a message, but not a number to call me back. I’m not at a place where I can be called. I have to hike back to the phone and try later. And again and again and again.

Luck is with me today and the editor answers. I put the calling card away and pull out my notebook, holding the phone against my ear with my shoulder and propping the notebook either on my knee (not easy in a standing position) or against the ultra tiny slanted thing they call a shelf. The editor has a lot to say and my neck feels like it’s breaking. A truck drives by and the engine noise drowns out her words.

“What?” I shout into the phone. My neck finally gives out and I switch sides.

At that moment, a gust of wind flips all the pages of my notebook over. I drop the pen when I try to get the notebook together. I bend over but the handset won’t reach so I have to tell the editor to hold on and bend to pick up my pen and get in position again, phone wedged against neck and shoulder.

They call this fun, but it’s life on the road, living from pay phone to payphone.

Cell Phones

Cell phones are great for the travelerWhen we started traveling on the road, cell phones were expensive and coverage was extremely limited. Unless you were near a large city, you were “out of touch.” Today there is cell phone, beeper, even wireless computer access from just about anywhere. But that’s the problem: “just about” anywhere. The further you are from civilization, the greater the chance you will not be able to get good reception or even a signal. With the growing use of satellite cell phones, this is changing. But still many cell phones work only in a specific region or country. More and more allow for international travel, and as the world gets smaller, access will get easier and cheaper. Before leaving home with your cell phone investigate the costs and coverage of your plan.

Cell phones are a technological boon for the traveler. When you need help, have an emergency, or just lost, they can save you time and time again. They make it easy to call home and keep in touch with others as you travel. Many cell phone companies are expanding their cell phones to become a total communications tool featuring email, even television and radio capabilities. In addition to investigating service coverage plans, check out the various features each cell phone offers to choose one that will be the best addition to your travels.

International Cells Phones and Cards
As the world gets smaller, it also gets confusing. Some cell phones cross international lines, some can’t. Some will also work across oceans. Check before buying to find out if the system you are buying allows you to go where you want. Costs vary, so shop around.

International Calling Cards work great when the country you are calling to or from is part of that card’s “network”. My parents gave me a Christmas present of a huge valued pre-paid calling card for me to use from Israel. Even though it was through a major phone company, dialing the 800 number from Israel was a long distance call. I not only had to pay the long distance from my home to the 800 number, but it also charged time against the calling card. Double billing. Read the fine print and ask for details before you purchase a calling card. Make sure the country hosts a toll-free direct dial number. Shop around. Brent’s parents couldn’t get a decent price with their local phone companies, but they found an international calling card which makes calling us really cheap, so they bypass the local companies completely.

And just when you think that cellular phones are the cure-all to every need of the traveler, the process gets complicated. There are now rules and regulations that vary from city to city, state to state, and even country to country on when, where, and how to use a cell phone. Many areas now have restrictions on using a cell phone while driving and the penalties can be high if you are caught talking and steering. Many restaurants have rules about having cell phones turned on or used while dining. We have a couple rules of thumb as we cross city, state, and country borders regarding cell phones and other behaviors that may be punishable: “When in doubt, don’t.” and “Safety first.” Unless it is an absolute emergency, we will not talk and drive at the same time. This puts safety first. Don’t forget that they invented answering machines before they invented the cell phone, and they have value, too. Before the telephone, people had to wait months for a letter or communique. Waiting an hour or two or even a day or two to return a phone call isn’t the end of the world. Turning off the cell phone reminds you of the peace and quiet you originally sought when you decided to take your life on the road.

Prepaid and Long Distance Calling Cards

Graphic - There are many choices to consider in creating your staying in touch plan.Luckily, we live in a modern age where home is as near as the closest telephone. There seems to be one on almost every corner. But can you use it? Here in Israel most of the pay phones aren’t “pay” phones, they are pre-pay phones. You must buy a pre-paid card at local stores and kiosks in order to use the telephone. Many places around the world are doing away with coin operated telephones, replacing them with pre-paid and credit card access.

Calling cards are similar to credit cards for phones. You run charges up using the card and they send you a bill. With pre-paid calling cards, you pay in advance and they deduct the cost of the call from your balance. Watch out for added fees on these cards. Many charge a per minute rate plus a service charge or use fee, sometimes as much as $1.00 USD per call. It adds up quickly. Some require dialing 20 or more numbers. Some require going through special operators. Some are limited by the hours you can use them, and some are limited by the areas they cover. You don’t need a road map, you need a telephone map.

In this highly competitive market, it’s up to the consumer to get a decent rate. In a recent interview with renowned photographer and author, Bryan Peterson, he called me in Seattle from Singapore. Easing my fears about the cost, he explained it was cheaper to call Seattle from Singapore than from California. The Singapore has inexpensive government-controlled rates. In Israel, the local phone company is a monopoly and can charge pretty much what they want. Long distance and cell phones are unregulated in Israel, therefore they offer cheaper access. It is cheaper for us to call from Tel Aviv to Seattle than it is for us to call from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Arthur C. Clarke predicted years ago that long distance charges would be a memory as of 2000. The Internet is bringing us closer, but the phone companies still want their money.

WIFI, Wireless Internet, and Staying in Touch on the Road

Wandering around waiting for the war to start, and then end, it was critical for us to stay in touch with friends, families, and co-workers. It was also critical for us to get access to the news media to find out what was going on. Our shortwave radio helped, once we were able to locate the BBC World Service and other English speaking channels. Unlike when we first began traveling, we were able to find Internet cafes and access points all through Spain, even in the most unlikely places like the northern mountain village of Potes in Los Picos de Europa. With our Hotmail accounts, we were able to correspond with people, letting them know our status. This also allowed us to read the news online from Israel, Britain, and the United States.

Be aware that you are at risk when you sign onto a public computer, be it at an Internet access point or public library. Spyware and other surveillance software can “copy” your keystrokes, stealing your passwords and information, and do other things to get access to your private online records. If you are going to be checking your bank balance, transferring funds, or doing any secure online transactions, take time to read this article on preventing online attacks at public computers at Kim Komando’s computer advice web site.

If your email account won’t allow you access from the Internet and through a public computer, you may be able to have your email forwarded to a free Internet account like Hotmail or Yahoo. Check out the services of ForwardAmerica, Return Path, or do a search for “email forwarding”.

When we started, the Internet was still new and finding someone willing to allow us to borrow their telephone to connect our laptop brought us no end of stares and confusion. Today, cell phones can connect you instantly anywhere in the world and many cell phones permit access to the Internet through a laptop or handheld computer (PDA), delivering not only communication but instant news right to you wherever you are. While still not perfect, the process is improving all the time.

Internationally-compliant cell phones are still expensive, and few are actually compatible across borders. While it is easy to find a cell phone company that will allow you to move between countries in Europe, it probably won’t work in Africa, Russia, or South America. Consider buying an inexpensive cell phone upon your arrival if you will be spending an extended time in Europe or a similar region. Buy a GSM cell phone with an “unlocked” SIM card (Subscriber Identification Module), an easily replaced, pre-paid phone card “chip” that works within a specific region or country. You will get a new “local” phone number (and have to call family and friends to give it to them) and pay a per minute fee for outgoing phone calls, but usually all incoming phone calls from anywhere in the world are free. When you arrive in a new country, check in the local cell phone kiosks and buy a new “chip” for that country instead of buying a new phone or paying the high fees associated with roaming. For more information on GSM phones and SIMs, check out the articles at Rick Steve’s web site and Telestial.

Keep it short!
Keep your time on the borrowed telephones short, as a courtesy. Many times we found campground hosts refused to allow us use of the phone because someone abused the privilege.

Wireless network technology is becoming all the rage, too. Currently there are two wireless network systems that allow people to connect to the Internet through compatible wireless devices: Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Starbucks, McDonalds, and other cafes all over the world are now featuring wireless network technology (Wi-Fi) for their customers to eat and surf the Internet for a fee. Bluetooth is gaining popularity all over the world, especially in the Orient and Europe while Wi-Fi is popular in the United States and in parts of Europe. We invested in a new laptop with wireless technology while in the US recently. Setting up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the home of Brent’s parents, I was able to connect to two other wireless networks for free via neighbors’ home wireless computer systems, cruising the Internet for free. In several airports, I found I could connect to their wireless networks for a small fee, pre-paid time by credit card. Spending a week in Ticonderoga in upstate New York, away from most signs of civilization, I was shocked to find it connecting to someone’s wireless network there, allowing me to once again surf the Internet and email for free. It’s amazing! A friend told Brent that no one in Israel had wireless network systems, and yet, I immediately connected without any problem to a wireless network in Tel Aviv, probably a neighbor. A far cry from when we used to string hundreds of feet of phone cord from our trailer across the campground to the payphone or a willing telephone owner.

Web sites are starting to pop up listing free wireless “hotspots” where you can log onto the Internet for free with your wireless gear. WiFinder and Node Database offer international and US locales.

Keeping up with the constant evolution in technology for the traveler is a full-time job. There are some very good resources on the Internet to help you keep track of the changes, so you can decide what items you need to invest in to help you stay in touch with the world while moving around it.


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