A friend of mine was heading off on a three-month trip with her partner, and I asked her how she was planning to stay in touch with home during her journey. “We just thought we’d use internet cafés,” she told me. She wasn’t planning on taking any electronics other than a camera, nothing with wifi capability.
This makes perfect sense if you understand that our home country of New Zealand has one of the worst internet connections in the developed world, and that free wifi access can be hard to come by. When you do find it, it’s almost always limited by size, as consumers pay per gigabyte of usage. And they pay A Lot.
However, this isn’t the case everywhere. In South East Asia it sometimes seems like every cafe has wifi, and in Europe some parks have their own connection. Even South America, which we thought would be more backwards, has better internet than New Zealand. It’s easy to find somewhere to connect, check your emails, and move on.
In contrast, finding an internet cafe can be more difficult. Since so many places have wifi, and so many people have devices that allow them to use this wifi, demand for internet cafés has decreased. And when you do find them, the computers are usually old and slow, and opening hours can be erratic. Not to mention the dangers of someone getting access to your passwords.
It’s important to be able to communicate, and the best way to do this is to bring a small device with you. What you choose will depend on your travelling style and who you’re travelling with.
1. Smartphone/iPod touch
A small device like an iPhone or other smartphone is a great choice if you’re travelling alone. If the phone is unlocked you can buy a local sim card to allow you to make and receive calls at a fraction of the price you’ll pay for roaming charges. Your family will be able to get in touch with you and you’ve got a way of communicating with accommodation providers without breaking the bank or spending an hour looking for a pay phone (believe me, I’ve done it).
The small size of a smartphone means you can bring it out unobtrusively to check for wifi almost wherever you are. And you can do almost everything you need to do: check and send emails, browse the internet and make cheap calls home using Skype. Not to mention the games.
If you’ve already got a good phone, or don’t want to be contacted, an iPod Touch has almost all the functions of an iPhone while being a lot cheaper and slimmer. I travel with one of these, and I keep it in a zip pocket where it can’t be seen.
2. Tablet/mini computer
If you’re travelling as a couple or with a friend, a larger device might be worth considering, as it’s easier to write with a full-size (or almost full-size) keyboard, and you can watch movies on it on rainy evenings. They’re still small enough that they won’t take up much space in your bag, but large enough to have a bit more functionality than a smartphone. Depending on the harddrive space, you could also use it as a storage space for your photos.
Options include the iPad, a Samsung tablet, or a small laptop like the Asus Eee PC. I used to have an Eee PC, which fit neatly into the top of my backpack, and which was great for writing emails and blog posts, and making Skype video calls. Eventually its lack of harddrive space started to cause a problem, and it died when the charging cable broke: it just couldn’t survive the treatment I gave it.
3. A full-size computer
If you’re planning to work on the road or do a lot of writing, it might be worth taking a full-sized laptop. Of course there’s an enormous range to choose from, but as a general rule the lighter the better. I’ve seen people travelling with four-kilogram beasts, and I can’t imagine what kind of damage that’s doing to their back. Weight was a major consideration when I chose the Eee PC, and was similarly important when I bought its successor: a MacBook Air. Sure, it wasn’t cheap, but it’s light, fast and easy-to-use; and it does everything I need it to do. Usually without having to stuff around downloading extra software for it.
Whatever electronics you choose to take with you, it’s important not to flash it around. Petty thieves are everywhere; don’t give them opportunities to practice their art. Keep small devices in a zip pocket and larger devices in a locked bag. That said, depending on where you travel, you might be surprised at how common these types of devices are. As electronics are becoming cheaper and cheaper, they’re more and more within the reach of people with limited means.
It’s definitely worth taking some sort of electronic device with you, wherever you’re travelling — as long as there’s electricity available to charge it, of course. You’ll save time and probably money, you can be contacted and be in contact, and you can keep yourself entertained on those slow evenings when you just want to relax.