At Skype, helping travelers stay connected with their friends and family while they’re away from home has always been a core facet of our products. Skype is a natural travel companion: it makes international calling less of a hassle, is available across multiple mobile devices (including tablets) and can be used anywhere around the world. In the past, we’ve made an effort to publish useful tips for using Skype while on-the-go and already provide unique travel-oriented product offerings. Now as the summer vacation season begins to really heat up, we’re taking our commitment to helping travelers around the globe one step further.
As nearly 140 million Americans plan to travel this summer, the latest travel tips and money-saving advice will certainly be in high demand. That’s why Skype is launching its “Skype Across America” program today with Christopher Elliott (@elliottdotorg) and his family. They’ll be traveling cross-country, using Skype-enabled products to communicate, documenting their journey on their family travel blog, Away is Home.
Elliott is a veteran journalist and blogger who has written about travel for most of his career. His partner, Kari (@awayishome), is a videographer and social media consultant. Their kids, Aren (10), Iden (7) and Erysse (5), are accomplished travelers in their own right. When they’re not on the road, their home base is in Orlando, FL.
We had the chance to catch up with the Elliott Family recently for a quick Q&A session to discuss their role on Skype’s behalf, the importance of technology in the travel industry and more.
What made you interested in partnering with Skype?
Chris: My family and I have been using Skype forever. We use it to communicate in various ways throughout the day.
Kari: Chris’ parents used to live overseas, and that’s how we stayed in touch.
Chris: We wanted to take the family on a one-year trip across the country. We started talking with Skype about the project, and how we had been using Skype. It seemed like a natural fit.
Kari: It surprised us how pervasive Skype already was in our lives.
Chris: For example, I remember trying to figure out how to do a radio interview a few weeks ago, and I didn’t have access to a studio. On the radio, a cell phone interview can sound choppy and my producer wanted something that sounded clearer. We used Skype on my iPhone connected to my WiFi network. It was like we were right in the studio.
Tell our users a bit about what you’ll be doing as you participate in “Skype Across America.”
Chris: Well, it’s a series of road trips, starting in the middle of June and extending through the end of the year. And we’ll be blogging about it on our site, Away is Home. One major component will be talking about how we stay in touch with friends and family while we’re gone.
Kari: The best part for us is that we won’t really do anything differently in terms of our technology use — we already use Skype to stay in touch. It’s really interesting how pervasive it’s become for us.
So how do you use Skype?
Kari: I use Skype on my Mac to stay in touch with my family. Video calling is part of my daily routine, along with instant messaging. Our sons Aren and Iden use Skype to take conga lessons. I also use it to stay in touch with my social media group in Orlando when we’re on the road.
Chris: Even though my parents moved back to the States, I still use Skype to stay in touch with them. Whenever my brother and sister get together, we do a group video call. I have friends in Europe and when we IM, we’ll often say, “Switch to Skype … I want to see you.” And of course, for radio and TV interviews, it comes in very handy.
How has technology changed the way we travel?
Chris: It has brought us closer together and yet at the same time, made travel more distant, almost intangible.
Kari: I think what Chris is trying to say is, we can communicate faster and better than ever. Yet at the same time, there’s a certain detachment when you use a lot of technology on the road. Instead of experiencing the Grand Canyon, you take pictures of it and send them out instantaneously. That creates a kind of distance —
Chris: — Right. You don’t want to overdo the tech when you’re traveling. Otherwise you miss the best part of the trip. You have to find the right balance between experiencing and sharing, which is different for everyone.
What do you perceive as some of the benefits of technology for today’s traveler?
Chris: Being able to connect with other travelers and their recommendations quickly is probably the single-biggest benefit to me. When I was traveling across the country with my family in the 70s and 80s, we didn’t have applications that told us the best place to have lunch, or how to guide us to the best attractions. That’s really a beautiful thing.
Kari: The other benefit to us is having reliable directions through GPS. Before that, we were always getting lost. Now we know exactly where we are.
Chris: Oh, and one more thing. Speaking on behalf of our kids, who can’t represent themselves because they are in summer camp today, let me say that iPads are — I believe the phrase they’d use to describe them is “awesome.” It makes any car trip go faster.
Kari: They’re also hooked on their Sony PlayStation Vitas. We’ve had to confiscate them once or twice when their behavior didn’t meet expectations. It’s a highly effective motivator.
(The Elliot family c/o Chris Elliot)
Chris, many frustrated travelers write to you with their tales of issues with hotels, airlines, trip planners…what do advances in social technology mean for these consumers?
Chris: Interestingly, I just wrote a column about that. I think social technology changed travel for a select few who have unbelievable Klout scores. For the uninitiated, Klout measures an individual’s influence across social networks and provides incentives from brands to those that are most active. They really do get better service because they are online VIPs. For the rest of us, we still have to get good service the old-fashioned way: by making sound buying decisions and politely letting a business know when it hasn’t met your expectations. Simply calling them out on Facebook won’t work. I wish it did! That would make my life so much easier.
Have you heard of any stories recently about how technology ‘saved the day’ for a traveler?
Chris: Sure, it happens every day. When I’m not traveling with my family, I’m helping consumers with their service problems. I deal with a lot of travel complaints. When you’re standing at the ticket counter and the attendant refuses to let you on a plane, for example, you can know your rights immediately. You can whip out your smartphone, pull up the airline contract of carriage, and figure out exactly what the airline is required to do. And if you’re polite about it, and show the airline employee the chapter and verse in the contract without being obnoxious, you’ll get on the next available flight. Before the age of smartphones, that wasn’t possible.
What do you hope to accomplish through this project?
Kari: The idea behind ‘Away is Home’ is that we get to experience a destination like a local. We want to show our kids the real America — not just the places where Americans go on vacation. All three of our children participate in a virtual school, which is an accredited school that conducts all of its instruction in a virtual classroom, via the Internet. So for them, this is their classroom.
Chris: I hope that by doing this, we can show that it’s possible to be away from your home and still stay in touch with friends and family and get work done along the way. I’m surprised at how reliable technology has become in letting people maintain their meaningful connections no matter where they may be.