On Thursday my wife and I are going to Israel for 10 days.
I just downloaded the Skype app for my iPhone and threw ten dollars into an account. A google search tells me that if I put my iPhone in Airplane mode for the whole trip and turn on the wireless connection, I can use the phone to check e-mail and surf the web as long as there's wireless, and I can use Skype to make cheap outgoing calls, to phones in Israel, and to the U.S. (and check my voicemail) all without incurring any AT&T international charges for either phone or data. (Alternatively, I could set up Google Voice and have my voicemails turned into e-mails, but this seems like a perfectly adequate alternative.)
Fifteen years ago, I went to Europe for the first time, junior year of high school with a singing group I was in. We were told to bring travelers checks. We called home from pay phones, calling collect, for some exorbitant cost I am sure. We did not use the Internet. I think I had an e-mail address on Prodigy at the time. I don't think I got any e-mail. Ever.
Ten years ago, I went to Europe with some friends after college. I think one of us brought travelers checks. It wasn't me. We used ATM machines. We called home from pay phones, with international calling cards. We checked e-mail at Internet cafes. I remember one in Venice. The three of us split an hour. I remember being very careful not to get lost as I wandered around to kill the 40 minutes my friends were using the Internet. Only turned right, so it would be easier to retrace my steps. If I had gotten lost, I don't know how I would have gotten un-lost. I suppose I would have just tried to meet my friends back at our hotel. But it would have been an ordeal to find them or to get in touch.
I've traveled a bunch of times since, but with no advances in technology -- have never had a phone with me, have relied on Internet cafes. I mean, phones have existed for a while, no one has used travelers checks in a while... and I suppose lots of things have changed in the past fifteen years, and a lot more dramatically than this. Maybe it's not so extraordinary that I'll be able to check e-mail in my pocket and make phone calls using Skype. Maybe it's not so extraordinary that I'll be able to access a map on my phone. And I'm sure there are more technological advances I'm not taking advantage of, or perhaps not even aware of. But I can't help but feel like it's pretty impressive how much easier international travel has gotten, at least in terms of communication technology and the practical mechanics of getting around, since I was in high school.
Now that I've written this post, I realize what I'm saying is probably way too obvious to be worth a blog post. Oh well.