How Can I Best Communicate with a Traveling Loved One?
Dear Mr. Brown,
If you’re the parent or the loved one of someone who will be moving abroad for a study abroad, teach abroad, or other international experience for the first time, you might be wondering what’s the best way to keep in touch with them and how often you should expect this kind of communication.
It’s true that some of the most common forms of communication while in the same country (think direct phone calls and SMS) will become too expensive to rely on. However, there are so many other (and in many cases, better) options available to you today that you needn’t worry about losing contact with your adventurer! Let’s talk about some of the best forms of international communication you’ll have available to you and what might be a normal frequency to connect through those means.
We’ve talked about Whatsapp in more depth in this article, but the main thing for you to know is that by downloading this free app to your cell phone you’ll have access to unlimited, free international messaging. No need to opt for a very expensive (and limited!), international phone plan or texting allowance each month (which ARE available if you still don’t have a smartphone). For smartphone users, this is the quickest and most convenient form of communication as you can send text messages as frequently as you are used to sending them at no extra cost to anyone.
What’s more is that Whatsapp also has the option to leave voice messages, make phone calls, and use video chat! The option to leave voice messages can be especially convenient and personal when you have a lot to say but maybe can’t find the right time to connect because of the time difference. Likewise, when it is a good moment for both of you, using the calling option (audio only) or video chat option (audio and video) is such a quick and easy way to connect. Again, all of these options are free as long as you are on wifi or have access to data.
Nowadays, you can also get a desktop version of Whatsapp that allows you to transfer over everything you see on your phone to the computer or tablet which may make it easier for you to type out long messages or more comfortable if you are using the video options.
Pro-Tip: Whatsapp is the most widely used application of its kind (we’ve personally used it all over Europe and the Americas) but you may find that an alternative like WeChat is necessary if your loved one will be in certain countries, like China. At the same time, if you both have an iPhone, these kind of apps may not be necessary as iMessages will continue to work free of charge.
With the popularity of video chat options on other apps such as Whatsapp, Facebook, Google+, and Factime, Skype may be waning in popularity but I believe it to still be the most reliable form of communication for longer video calls. Personally, I will take spur-of-the-moment calls or video chats on Whatsapp but if I make a plan to video chat with someone it is almost always on Skype. This is mostly a matter of being a creature of habit but also because I’ve found the connection to be the best as, when using Skype, each person tends to be on their reliable home wifi rather than going in and out of range on their cell phone (although Whatsapp, Skype, Facebook, etc can ALL be accessed on phone and desktop, this is the tendency of the people I personally chat with).
This platform also allows you to send text messages, leave voice messages, etc but be sure that your loved one has the Skype app on their phone or regularly opens and checks their account if you plan to communicate through this means. Because the norm is to have Whatsapp installed, giving you instant notifications, on your phone and thus working as a substitute to your SMS inbox, this is the best way to make immediate contact with your traveler. On the contrary, most people who use Skype tend to sign into it only when they plan to make phone calls so timeliness in seeing and responding to messages will likely not be as reliable.
One final bonus of Skype is that you can add money to your account and use this for very low-cost international calling to any phone number as well. This is ideal for any issues travelers may have abroad (at which time they may need to make calls to banks, offices in their home country, etc) as well as for contacting friends and family that aren’t so well connected to the internet. Over the years, this has been my most consistent form of connecting with grandparents and it always made their day to get an unexpected call from me on their landline! Simply be sure to warn them if you think they’ll be unlikely to pick up a call from an unusual, foreign number. Skype will ask for your name to put on the caller ID but, in my personal experience, this doesn’t show up every time.
Again, the frequency of contact you can expect from each individual form of communication discussed here depends greatly on the individual personality of your traveler and their tendencies before moving abroad. If your loved one is someone who is active and timely with their email inbox, then this might be another efficient form of communication. My personal opinion, however, is that I prefer day-to-day contact via Whatsapp and reserve email for “when I have time.” As personal emails get mixed in with work, school, and other ‘professional’ correspondence, it can be easy to leave these emails unanswered for awhile as they may not feel like the priority. Simply be aware of this and don’t worry too much if your travelers is not responding so quickly via email.
For most travelers, social media platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram are going to be the go-to way of communicating their adventures with loved ones back home. This is a great no-need-to-plan way to stay connected while your loved one is abroad and I highly recommend following any accounts they may have.
First and foremost, these are your best bet in terms of seeing photos of all the amazing places they are going and things they are doing. My parents are not on social media and I imagine they occasionally feel a little left out when my other family members say “oh, I saw that!” about a trip I took and only told them about verbally. While it’s not completely necessary, being able to see photos can easily make you feel you closer and that you can understand more about the experience they’re having so many miles away.
At the same time, my generation is often really good at updating social media and not so good at remembering to call or write home so this could increase the amount of ‘communication’ you’re getting, even if it’s public and not personal. And, of course, you can make this form of communication feel more personal by commenting or sending a direct message about the update you see.
One final form of digital communication that may be available to you is following your adventurer’s blog (if they write one, of course!). Especially for first time travelers, blogging is a common way of documenting their experience which serves two purposes. Firstly, it provides updates and insights from their life abroad for loved ones back home and, secondly, it will always be there for them to look back on, too. If your traveler is not planning to write a blog, you may want to encourage them to do so for both of these reasons.
Although this would, again, be a more public than private form of communication it’s a great opportunity to have as you will likely get more of an inside look at your loved one’s daily life while living abroad. Often times, the little things that we think to include when writing about our experiences means that we provide more detail and reflection than we might when chatting over Skype. This is not a purposeful omission when sharing their stories with your directly, but simply a matter of talking in-the-moment rather than preparing a blog entry on a weekly (more or less) basis.
As with social media, following your adventurer’s blog can help you feel connected with them even when you are not communicating directly and each of these methods allows you to go back and see their happy face when you might be missing them. At the same time, it allows you to see more of their lives and therefore know specifics to ask them about the next time you speak via Whatsapp, Skype, or email, bringing it all full circle.
Sadly, even I, a long term pen pal and snail mail advocate, have to put old-fashion letter- and postcard-writing last. The reality is that this kind of communication may end up being the most precious, tangible, and best form...but it is also typically the one you should least expect. While we do have plenty of information here for travelers about the importance of sending home letters and postcards, as well as some of the basics to know when sending mail home, we recognize that it may feel a little intimidating for a first time traveler to maneuver the post office scene in a foreign country and foreign language.
Even someone who DOES know how to do this and who has the best intentions may end up with a pile of postcards that sits in their room until they return home and hand them out as souvenirs. I highly recommend sending a few cards/letters (maybe even a package? Read our tips here!) to your loved one to encourage this kind of traditional communication but I warn you that the favor may not always be returned, at least not with the same frequency. Especially for the travelers who is active with all other digital forms of instant communication, this method tends to fall to the wayside.
I hope this list of modes of communication for communicating internationally as well as general estimates of how frequently and deeply you can expect to connect through each is helpful for you. Let us know if there are any other forms of staying in touch you have found useful or if you have doubts about how to best utilize or manage any of these. Just as we hope to be a source of knowledge for your traveling loved one, we want to be here to help YOU through this journey as well! Much love to all you parents and family members making the effort you’ve already made to find this article; you are much appreciated!