The Ultimate Guide to Staying Connected on Vacation Abroad

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Does being cut off from the outside world give you the heebie jeebies?

It’s summertime, which means it’s time to hit the boarding gates of the nearest terminal and get out of town. And if you’re going somewhere exotic that requires you to dig your passport out (hey, Mexico still counts), you may be wondering what life is like when the connection is cut, literally. Some of you will delight in it; and some of you will fail miserably.

Regardless, if you can’t stand the thought of unwiring (or unwinding) during next your foreign jaunt, we’ll give you the best tips on how to indulge your masochistic desire to be accessible to your friends and family back home.

As always, there are several weapons of choice for shamelessly indulging your need to always be tethered to your home comforts while you’re on vacation. In no specific order, you’ll need any of the following: Google Voice, a VPN, Skype, and an Android phone (completely optional, but unlocked if preferable).

(MORE: Why Unlocked Phones May Be the Smarter Alternative)


Sign Up for Google Voice

To not use Google Voice while you’re abroad is to not understand the full capabilities of Google Voice. The service, which unifies all your phone numbers into one, can notify you of missed calls, text messages and voicemails by e-mail.

We won’t go into a step-by-step on how to set Google Voice here, but yes, the service allows missed calls to be sent straight into your email inbox. Now you’ll know who called you – even when you’re away from your phone – and return missed calls at your convenience.

(MORE: Short History of Google Voice)

If you’ve also set up text message alerts, you can respond to a text message forwarded via a Google Voice text notification by just hitting “Reply” to the email. The recipient will receive your e-mail as a text message.

Similarly, you can send a text message to anyone in the U.S. by sending a short email to Google’s predefined email address for that number (it’s the same “email” Google Voice uses to alert you of a new text message). Best part about “text messaging” using this method? It doesn’t cost you anything.

Same thing goes for voicemails. Not only can you set up Google Voice to be your default voicemail inbox, but if you want to, you can choose to have Google Voice transcribe voicemail messages left for you and have them delivered to you via email.

Whether messages transcribe accurately is another matter, but it’s usually good enough to get the gist of what’s being said. And you can use Google Voice’s web interface to listen to your voicemails as audio files, too, without having to “call in” to get your messages.

All of that information is easily accessible by Google Voice’s web and mobile interface, as long as you have a Wi-Fi signal.

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When Google Voice Meets Android

We’ve mentioned before that you can pop any wireless SIM into any unlocked phone and go on your merry way in most countries. Some places, like Hong Kong, also offer prepaid data packages.

If you’re lucky enough to also have an Android phone, which smoothly integrates with Google Voice, you’ll get instant texts, transcribed voicemails, voicemail audio, and notifications of missed calls to your U.S.-based Google Voice number. It will give you full access to what’s going on with your telephone number at home, in real-time.

You may not be able to make calls back right away, but you’ll likely be able to send a text saying that you’ll try to get back to them as soon as possible.

(MORE: Best Amazon Kindle Feature? Free International Web Surfing)

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Connect Through a Proxy to Make Calls (and Use Your Favorite Video Services)

Life not quite the same without Netflix? You’ll be in shock the minute you step off of American shores – turns out all that good stuff like Hulu, Pandora, Netflix and more, is restricted to the U.S. only. In some countries, Facebook and Twitter are also blocked thanks to state censorship.

The best way to circumvent this lack of access is by hooking into a VPN (virtual private network) or proxy that allows you to connect to a U.S. server. Once connected, you’ll be able to access all the content that you can’t live without.

(MORE: A Brief History of Chinese Internet Censorship)

A VPN also lets you to transmit data more securely, allowing you to be at ease that China isn’t monitoring your mindless surfing. And as an added bonus, now that Google has added free calling to any U.S. number via Gmail, you can call any U.S. number gratis once you’re connected to your proxy or VPN. It’s exactly the same as grabbing an unlimited Skype subscription to the good ol’ U.S. of A.

There are many VPN services out there offering rates by the week, month or year. VPNinja offers rates for more short-term stays abroad, while yearly WiTopia seems to be a favorite in countries that restrict internet access.

Comparing the cost of a VPN against a Skype subscription, the winner seems clear: a proxy will give you the most bang for the buck. For instance, it costs $6 per month for VPNinja, and $7 per month for a Skype subscription. The only disadvantage here is that you won’t be able to use your smartphone’s Skype app to its full potential over Wi-Fi or 3G.

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Know That Skype Is Still Your Friend

Lo and bold, Skype is still a useful tool, but not for the obvious reasons.

While it’s a great tool for keeping in touch with people back home for free (the caveat being that you’ve got to teach Grandma how to use it), Skype allows free calls to toll-free numbers in the U.S—like the one that your bank might have.

Never fear if your bank has frozen your ATM card or if you need to settle a quick utility bill: As long as you’re connected to a Wi-Fi signal, you can make calls settling emergency household matters back home.

(MORE: Call Me! But Not on Skype or Any Other Videophone)

While the simple option is to roam internationally, its expensive costs don’t really make it a great option for everyday use while traveling. The above tactics should work for any passport-holding traveler, whether you’re backpacking through Europe or you’re pining for Battlestar Galactica in Thailand. Just also don’t forget to turn off your devices once in a while, listen to the birds and go have some fun while you’re at it.

MORE: 25 Essential Apps for Travelers

Erica Ho currently lives in Hong Kong, and still gets homesick for Mexican food family all the time. She’s also still hooked on a Battlestar Galactica marathon because of her stupid Netflix account.

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