Staying in touch on the road

Business travel has plenty of upsides; but for every one there's at least one downside. One of the greatest is a sense of dislocation from home and your family.

Yes, the planes, lounges and hotels in different countries sound exotic, as does exposure to different cultures – especially to those stuck in an office doing the nine-to-five.

But it's still work, not a holiday, often with people you wouldn't normally choose to spend time with, and without the benefit of going home at the end of the day to your partner and/or children.

So it's no surprise that a recent survey of some 10,000 business travellers – including 1000 in Australia – found that a reliable hotel internet connection remains the top priority for road warriors.

The survey, carried out by OnePoll for the InterContinental Hotels Group, reported that the number one stress factor for travellers was not being able to contact home due to lack of internet. This ranked above rude staff, noisy guests and difficult transport links.

Apparently, eight out of 10 Australians who travel for work touch base with their partner at least once a day when away on business, and spend an average of 36 minutes each day keeping in contact with family.

Hotels are slowly setting wi-fi free

The motivation behind the survey is to point out that the InterContinental Hotels Group is the latest hotel chain to unshackle the internet, beginning with Elite-grade members of the IHG Rewards Club (previously known as Priority Club Rewards).

The catch to free internet, of course, is that is has to be fast enough to be useable – especially if you're talking about streaming video apps such as Skype and FaceTime. Voice and video demand more bandwidth than web browsing and swapping emails.

Some hotels are adopting a two-tier model with a free connection that's sufficient for basic use, with the option to pay for a substantially faster feed for heavy-duty data such as video.

But how do you keep in touch when even the fastest connection is as slow as a wet week in Wagga?

Sidestepping slow connections

I faced that problem on a recent stopover at Hong Kong's Regal Airport Hotel, where the in-room internet crawled along at well under 1 Mbps – which in today's broadband world means a painful experience echoing the old days of dial-up. It was literally impossible to get any work done or establish a reliable link back home.

The answer was to buy a prepaid 4G SIM card from Hong Kong network SmarTone, which delivered blistering download and upload speeds averaging 25 Mbps (that's faster than most Australian broadband services).

With an upfront cost of $HK80 ($A11) and a maximum daily charge of $HK24 (a mere $A3.50), I ditched the hotel's wet piece of string and used my smartphone as a personal wi-fi hotspot.

Which gets us back to the apps that make for happy business travellers hooked up to home.

Top apps for keeping in touch

Skype remains the go-to for voice, especially on smartphones over wi-fi rather than expensive 3G or 4G roaming calls.

On top of Skype's pay-as-you-go options there are subscription packages starting at $1.09 per month for calls to Australia.

(You can also mix business with pleasure using a range of premium plans for dialling dozens number of countries, such as the landline-based Unlimited World package for $13.49 per month.)

Of course, most homes these days have smartphones, tablets, laptops or desktops which can run Skype for free internet-based voice or video chat sessions.

In the Apple ecosystem, FaceTime has revolutionised the way that travellers keep in touch thanks to super-easy video calling between iPhones, iPads and Macs.

A very personal approach for Mac users: shoot a stack of photos of whatever city you're visiting and use iPhoto to create a slideshow (with suitable backing music) which you can email home.

Why not go retro?

But as wonderful as that technology is, there's a way to make even longer-lasting memories: send a postcard, otherwise known as "the original status update".

Yes, it's old school, but didn't you hear that retro is in?

It's also slow: you'll almost certainly arrive home before the postcard does. And there's room for fewer words than even Twitter allows.

But when Skype sessions have ended, when emails have been read and probably not backed up, a postcard will still be there to remind your partner and your kids that even when you were away, you were thinking of them.

How do you stay in touch with your family and friends when you travel?

David Flynn is a business travel expert and editor of Australian Business Traveller.

Twitter: @AusBT