Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Travel Tips: Communication Breakdown
Avoid the massive phone bill and prepay for essential communication.
By Brian Irwin

Years ago on a flight to South America, I was forced to check my camera bag onto a small plane due to the size of that kit. When I reached my destination, the kit was missing. I called the airline, the terminals, and my homeowner’s insurance company. The kit surfaced three days later . . . along with a $700 bill for international calling fees. I knew right then, I needed a better communication plan.

Reliable communication is imperative when you travel to fish. I need to be in touch with my office, my family and with guides I’ve hired along the way. So how best to tear down the walls and link up when your guide is late picking you up because their outboard is on the fritz? Or how do you call for help when you rented a boat to do a DIY bonefishing day in the Exumas and the engine dies, leaving you languished – true story!

The Bradford Camps in northern Maine are off the grid. No email, no phones, no nothing. Just the way it used to be. And sometimes getting away from it all is all you need. The camps were in contact via VHF radio in the event of an emergency.

During travel, most people turn to their cell phones. If there’s coverage at your island getaway, or on a chilly mountain river, this is the best option. You can purchase prepaid SIM cards for your phone and then you’ll be communicating like a local. Most moderate-sized and large airports, in both hemispheres, sell these cards.

It also pays to contact your cell carrier prior to departure. I use Verizon and even without a SIM card that company offers a travel plan. In fact, for $10/day you can dial away without fear of a big tab on the next month’s cell bill. This is the best mobile option for the traveling angler and may offer unlimited calling and texting.

WiFi offers another solid choice. Back at the lodge, if it has Internet, various apps can be used to complete a WiFi call. The leading apps are Whatsapp and Viber. Both offer free calls if you use WiFi. A caveat: often these apps don’t trigger an audible ring on a recipient’s phone, meaning your contact might not be aware you are trying to reach them. Both offer a fee-for-contact enhanced service that skirts that issue.

Satellite phone to the rescue. Andy Irwin dials up his grandmother for a birthday call, direct from the High Sierra Camps in Yosemite's backcountry.

Should you be traveling far off the grid, there’s the option of carrying a satellite phone. I have one and it’s saved my bacon more than once. Many sat phones offer data plans, so if you want to surf the web or do your online work while off the grid, you can.

If you select the satellite phone route, you only have two realistic companies to choose from—Globalstar or Iridium. I have a Globalstar GSP-1600, which you can secure for under $1,000 ($300 on Ebay), and it’s fair. Dropped calls are an issue, but that phone has served me well on numerous expeditions and in isolated areas like the Abacos, after hurricane Dorian decimated those islands. Take note: in some places, these phones will get you in trouble. In India, for example, they’re banned, as years ago they were used by insurgents who attacked embassies in Mumbai. I learned this by whipping one out on the border of Nepal while angling for mahseer. My guides were horrified to see that device. I quickly stashed it away. In most places this is not an issue but it’s always best to check before leaving home.

Ryan Suffron holds a trophy laker on Little Duck Lake in northern Manitoba. The lodge is equipped with satellite phones that enable a bit of bragging if you need to call home to the the better half and the kids.

Sat phone plans vary. The significantly more reliable Iridium phones offer better plans than Globalstar, and its satellite coverage is superior. However, Iridium plans aren’t cheap, starting at $52 per month for a mere 10 minutes of usage. Globalstar is less reliable, but offers 1,000 minutes for $699/year. This option is the logical choice for me.

Staying in touch while traveling can be challenge. But with a plan in place, you’ll be able to check on your family while pursuing of a one-in-a-lifetime fish. After the line goes tight and you’ve released that fish, you can dial up and relay the battle.


If satellite phones are too expensive for your budget, there are other options—two-way satellite communication devices. These nifty gadgets offer portable GPS and allow users to send and receive text messages and emails via a satellite network. The most popular units, the Garmin inReach and inReach Mini, use the Iridium satellite network, and can be paired to your smartphone for convenient texting. InReach models cost around $400 and data plans range between $30 and $50 a month. Prepaid two-to four-week plans allow coverage during specific timeframes, such as the duration of a fishing trip. These devices work well whether you’re fishing the Arctic or the jungle rivers in Guyana or beyond. For the cost and size (the mini is about 3”x1”x1”), they are much more efficient than a satellite phone, and more reliable. Even if you don’t have connectivity at a given moment, you can type out a message in the morning, hit send and go about the day, knowing that message will reach its destination—if the inReach connects with a satellite at any point of the day, the message sends. If a Garmin inReach is outside your budget, the ZOLEO two-way satellite messenger offers similar features at a fraction of the cost.

Brian Irwin
Brian Irwin is a freelance writer, photographer, and family physician with credits in numerous national newspapers and magazines. He holds a certificate of travel health from the International Society of Travel Medicine, teaches for Dartmouth’s Wilderness Medicine Fellowship, and he’s a medical director for two ski patrols and a swiftwater rescue team. He lives in North Conway, New Hampshire.