HOW TO OPTIMIZE YOUR PHONE WHEN TRAVELING
Stay connected from anywhere in the world. People often need to contact you. Contact accommodation, get directions, book buses and trains, contact airlines, use Google Maps, translation programs, get help in an emergency, contact Amazon when your Kindle needs replacing – you name it, a smart phone can be tremendously useful. Wi-fi may not be fast, always available and cheap everywhere.
If you’re planning an international trip, you may be wondering how you can stay in touch with loved ones back home without running up extremely expensive roaming fees charged by your mobile provider. This extortion isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. Replacing your phone’s SIM card will definitely reduce the sticker shock.
Should I buy a local SIM-card or a global SIM card or in some cases, use international roaming? Local foreign SIM cards and global SIM cards both have benefits and drawbacks, and which one you buy depends on your personal requirements.
Mobile phone compatibility
When buying a local or global SIM card you need to make sure your phone is unlocked and that it’s compatible with your destination country’s radio frequency.
Firstly, to use a travel SIM in your device, you’ll need to make sure that your handset is network unlocked. When you buy a device through a carrier, it’s usually ‘locked’ to that network – meaning you can’t simply take your phone and use it on a rival carrier’s plan. Depending on who your original carrier is, you may be able to have your phone unlocked by the cell company themselves, or give the company’s customer service hotline a call or visit their website. Unlocking iPhones can be done by contacting your carrier, but they will forward the request to Apple to be processed; alternatively, you can fill out an online form. If your phone is locked, one option is to buy a cheap unlocked international phone (G3 Wireless, Motorola) to use specifically for your trip.
As well as a phone unlock, you’ll also need to ensure that your device will work on a GSM network. Most of the countries you’re likely to visit (with the exception of maybe Japan and Korea) use the GSM standard for mobile devices. in the US carriers rely on two different types of technology – GSM (AT&T and T-Mobile) or CDMA (Sprint, Verizon). GSM compatible phones use a SIM card – a small removable card that stores customer information, but CDMA phones may not have a SIM card slot.
Different countries operate their mobile networks on different radio frequencies. Most modern mobile phones, brought in the UK, will support the three major international frequencies, but you will need to check to make sure.
As a general guide, if your phone is ‘quad band’ then you should be able to use it anywhere apart from non-GSM countries like Japan (though if your phone supports 3G connectivity it should work in Japan). If it is ‘tri band’ then you will be able to use it in most countries apart from a small selection in South America. If your phone is ‘dual band’ then it will work across Europe, but you will have problems using it in the US.
To get a complete run down of the different radio frequencies for each country see GSM World’s official list. You can find out your mobile phone’s frequency in the specifications part of our mobile phone reviews or by searching on the internet for the device’s specifications
Some countries have blocks on phones used there and require registration (Turkey requires registration, even when a local SIM is used; Italy requires registration with your passport and activation takes 24 hours). And in some countries, global SIMs do not work at all.
Do pay careful attention to data plans if using a Smartphone. It’s easier than you might think to chew up a data plan when you may be accustomed to unlimited data.
1. NO PHONE
The cheapest option is to just leave your phone at home and hope for frequent Internet access. Skype or FaceTime will always be the cheapest way to make a phone call and there is the option of video calls. This would be unacceptable to many and you would lose some of the most useful features: Google Earth, translation apps, a camera and everything else a smart phone can offer a traveller.
2. LOCAL SIM CARDS
If your phone is unlocked (you’re able to use SIM cards from different cell companies), then it’s possible to buy a local SIM card and/or an international calling card when you arrive at your destination country. This is by far the cheapest option out there, especially for longer-term travel. It usually costs $2-$10 to buy a local SIM card — which you can then refill with minutes on demand. It is easier than it sounds.
You’re guaranteed much cheaper calls to local numbers, but you will have to pay extra to call internationally. The other benefit of using a local foreign SIM card, is that you should never have to pay for receiving calls from home (though the person calling you will have to pay extra to make an international call!).
The downside to local SIM cards is that they can sometimes be confusing. Why do prepaid minutes would magically disappear in Central American countries? Turns out they were only good for a week before they expired. Every company will have it’s own special rules that you’ll need to learn about, which may be difficult if you don’t speak the language.
Before buying a local SIM card, try to research which company has the best coverage for the particular area you’ll be traveling in. You can go online and ask other travelers who’ve been there recently, or wait until you arrive and ask locals which provider they use.
3. GLOBAL SIM CARDS
Global SIM cards are best for travelers who are visiting many different countries on different networks in a short period of time. Because it is the same SIM card, you’ll have the same phone number, can roam everywhere, have access to voice, texting, and data, and spend a lot less on your cell service.
Take your own cellphone with you swapping your regular SIM card for a specially made global or travel SIM bought in advance of your trip with known rates that are appealingly lower than what your home mobile provider offers. Pay as you go and only put money on when you need it.
It’s easy to understand the draw of these. If you’ve not traveled, there can be anxiety when travelling to a foreign country, finding the local mobile provider, hoping they speak enough English to help you, and so on. The pre-travel jitters get the best of all of us, and being able to put one thing aside before you arrive, namely your phone’s data/voice connection, is appealing.
But how good are international or travel SIMs? The short answer? Not very. The longer answer? It depends. The little bit of stress relief before you leave is going to cost you in the long run. Most services charge you for the SIM itself, adding more to the overall price. Global SIM cards usually offer cheaper international calls and texts than your home network. However, this depends on what country you are in.
For instance, if you’re travelling across more than one European country, the rates in Europe are usually cheap and you won’t have to change SIM cards when you enter different countries. In this instance, global SIM-cards offer good value for money with significantly cheaper rates and you will usually be able to receive texts free of charge.
But if, for instance, you are visiting just one country in Asia, such as Thailand or India, then it would be a better idea to buy a local SIM card, as you only need coverage for a single country and global SIM call rates are more expensive in Asia. In Thailand, the cost of making calls is almost the same as roaming with a home SIM card. So when it comes to global SIM cards you really should check what rates will apply in the countries you’re visiting, this information should be available on the seller’s website.
You also need to think about who you will be calling while abroad. If you plan on making more calls to local numbers, then a local SIM card is a better option. If you expect friends and family to call you from home then a global SIM card will usually minimise their costs more than a local SIM will.
It is also worth thinking about how you will top-up your SIM card. A global SIM card will usually allow you to top-up online or over the phone with a credit or debit card. For local SIM cards you will probably need to top-up via vouchers bought in-store.
Another advantage to global SIM-cards is that if something goes wrong while topping-up, or you need help using phone services, the customer support will always be in English.
Decide on if you need data and/or voice. Some people just use data as that is what most people need on the road. Some buy only voice for calling hotels etc and occasional calls home, not for data. They travel with a laptop using hotels with wi-fi for email and data connections.
Travel SIMs aren’t the perfect option for everyone, but if you’re thinking about giving one a try, the most common carriers are GO-SIM, WorldSIM (many travellers experience nothing but frustration with this company), OneSimCard, Plus SIM, Telestial, eKit, GigSky, G3, Vodafone, TravelSIM and many others. The cost of plans vary and you must simply check each one to find the best value if you decide to go with a travel SIM.
4. INTERNATIONAL ROAMING
If you have a cell phone plan with a major carrier in the US, Canada or Europe, you can usually continue to use your phone while traveling overseas. Keeping the same phone number and text address can be extremely convenient. But it can also be astronomically expensive. You can easily return home to a phone bill that costs more than your whole vacation did!
But if you’re traveling overseas for a short period of time (a week), and don’t plan on using your phone much, it might be the best option. Just make sure to keep the phone in “airplane mode” when not in use, otherwise you can rack up big fees without knowing it.
It’s wise to call your provider to make sure the phone will even work at your planned destination, and confirm how much their international plans cost if not included in your regular service.
25 FREE MUST HAVE i-PHONE APPS
Long, long before smart phones, everyone traveled with nothing more than backpacks, a Lonely Planet, maybe a chunky laptop for the rare hostel that had WiFi, and a pocket of change for phone calls home.
How times have changed. Today, we depend on our iPhones for everything.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
Evernote (free). A great tool for collecting all of your notes in one place.
Use it to collect all of your must see places, notes from great blog posts and even lists of great places to stay. There’s also a desktop version of Evernote.
Pinterest (free). A way to organize great images. Pin photos of a place you’d love to visit. Keep track of your travel inspirations.
Twitter (free). Though most people use Twitter as a way to keep in touch, it’s also a fantastic tool for saving money on travel. Many airlines and hotels announce special deals on Twitter first, and other Twitter users are a helpful source of information on great local food and attractions.
Tip: If you’re a heavy Twitter user, try HootSuite , which helps you schedule tweets and follow hashtags.
BOOKING YOUR FLIGHT (go to Cheap Flights in my Travel page)
SkyScanner (free). This is the go to site for researching flight costs and finding out which airlines fly certain routes. You don’t book your flights directly through Skyscanner, but the app can directs you to the airline’s website. Skyscanner’s especially fantastic for researching cheap flights to any destination from your location.
Google’s OnTheFly (free) Itasoftware. This is the web version of the ITA Matrix use to search flights. Like the web version, the iOS app, called OnTheFly – ITA Software, is reliable, easy to use, and remarkably accurate with airfare prices. All prices include tax.
Like SkyScanner, you can’t book directly with the ITA Matrix.
FlightTrack ($4.99). Keeps track of your flights.
It gives up to the minute updates letting you know if you’re flight is still on time as well as useful info on the plane, airport and gate it takes off or lands at
FINDING A PLACE TO STAY
Hotel Tonight (free). Lets you book last minute hotel rooms, at a deep discount, for the same evening. Though it’s quickly expanding into other markets, including Mexico, Hotel Tonight largely offers discounts on hotels in the United States (plus a handful of Canadian cities) and a few major European cities.
Booking.com (free) One of the go to sites for booking hotel rooms. It has good coverage around the world. Easy to use, allows us to search for rooms that will fit 2 adults and 2 children. Desktop version. Booking.com Tonight app to find last minute deals.
Airbnb (free). Book apartment rentals for a family of four. Easy to use, fast, and lets you view conversations and itineraries when you’re offline. The desktop version may be better than the app, as it’s easier to compare and view multiple apartments.
GETTING READY TO GO
PackingPro ($2.99). If you’re a list maker, Packing Pro is your app.
The pre-trip planning section is especially helpful, and can remind you to do things like buy travel insurance. Great if you’re taking multiple trips, and want to make quick work of making a packing list.
Clock (free). Apple’s iStore is packed with probably hundreds of alarm clock apps, but none can beat the reliable, easy to use alarm clock in the Clock app that is native to the iPhone. Get to all those flights on time this year.
Google Maps (free). App gives turn by turn navigation. Available for car, public transportation and walking. Accurate almost everywhere.
Always search your destination on Google Maps before you leave, and make sure not to close the app if you’ll be away from a WiFi connection and don’t have a data plan in whichever country you happen to be in. This way, the map will still be in the map’s history if you can’t get online. If you’re heading to two places, open one in Google Maps and another in the default map app.
Gas Buddy (free), Gives you crowd sourced prices on the cheapest gas, different types of gas, gas station addresses and amenities (like convenience stores) wherever you happen to be. Very popular in North America, where gas prices can vary greatly even at gas stations only blocks apart.
Foursquare (free). Gives useful user reviews and recommendations for restaurants, grocery stores and attractions around the world. You check into places you’re visiting, and can leave reviews, photos and tips. When you check in, Foursquare broadcasts your location to your friends, so it’s not the best app for those who want their location to remain anonymous. Restaurants outside of urban and tourist areas tend to have fewer recommendations on Foursquare, so this app is less useful when you’re somewhere remote.
Yelp (free). Great maps and user reviews of the best places to grab a bite to eat.
Reviews tend to be longer than those at Foursquare, making it useful if you’re looking for detailed information on a new place to eat.
TripAdvisor Offline City Guides (free). You will used these constantly for major cities. As the name suggests, these guides don’t need an Internet connection, making finding restaurants, hotels and attractions a snap when we were on the go.
The offline map modes are nice when you’re too cheap to buy a data plan.
Google Translate (free). Translate to and from over 60 languages with a nice auto detect feature if you’re not sure which language you’re inputting.
You can now download translation dictionaries for Android devices, and it’s rumored that these will be coming soon to the iPhone so you don’t need to be online. It also allows speech input and you can hear the translations spoke. Very handy when trying to make your taxi driver understand you and you’re late for your flight.
The Weather Channel (free). Reliable, and easy to use, this app can get you weather forecasts for almost any location on the globe. The Weather Channel® Max app has some increased functionality, but the new user interface is getting mixed reviews.
XE (free). The XE Currency app lets you convert currency with a simple click in over 180 currencies. XE Currency Pro ($1.99) is ad free and lets you monitor twice as many currencies as the free version.
Skype (free). The gold standard to which all other Internet calling programs aspire, Skype is reliable and easy to use. Calls to the US and Canada are nearly free, and you can call other countries for some of the best rates on the net.
It features video calling and speakerphone capabilities. There’s also a hugely popular desktop version of Skype .
magicJack (free). When Skype is down or not working reliably. Reliable and simple to use, the free calls make it a great Skype alternative. Calling to Canada and the US is free and you can get a free number and voicemail with a new account.
Talkatone (free). Like Skype and the magicJack app, Talkatone makes its calls using a WiFi connection. You’ll need a Google account to use the Talkatone app.
Facebook (free). Share travel photos and updates with friends and family.
Use for things you won’t see on the blog.
Instagram (free). An easy to use, fun photo sharing app, it is great for anyone traveling with a camera. It’s great fun to use, and easy to boot with tons of filters and fun effects. Recently purchased by Facebook.
Vine (free). A relative newcomer to the social apps scene, Vine lets you share short videos from your iPhone with its six second video format.
iNet (free). The iNet app lets us check the devices on our local network and tells us the IP address of all our other gadgets when we’re trying to share something locally. iNet also lets us know who’s sharing our internet connection and lets us verify that we’re not sharing anything we’re not supposed to.
Speedtest (free). Speedtest.net does a speed test to see how fast your internet connection is. It’s a vital tool when troubleshooting bad internet connections or even when choosing a room and decent internet is a must.