Travel Tips Tuesday: Using a Phone While Travelling

Mobile phones are ubiquitous today, and they are changing the way most people live, plan and work. By next year, the planet will have more phones than people. From calling home to arranging a taxi, or even finding a good place to eat dinner, a mobile phone (with or without internet) can be a great tool for a traveler.

Here are a few ways to keep your phone connected when travelling abroad.

Idea 1) Check your Mobile Plan

With an American phone contract, and the right phone, you can enable international roaming. But be warned–this can come at a great cost. Check your plan and fees. Data usage, or even a handful of phone calls, can rack up hundreds of dollars in charges before you know it. One time on a trip to Kenya, I was copied on a three way group text from my friends back home planning a surprise birthday party. The real surprise was that each text I received abroad cost me 50 cents and the conversation had gone back and forth for hours.

Idea 2) Enable International Data Bundles

For many countries, American mobile carriers will offer you a good rate on a small bundle of data. For me I can usually get 120mb for about $30. This isn’t a bargain, but it is much better than paying a few dollars per mb! 120mb is plenty for checking e-mails, viewing maps, and a few internet searches, but isn’t enough for your normal, always-online, usage. I use these plans on quick trips where I can’t depend on WiFi or a local sim card. For example, when I was in Delhi a few years ago, a friend told me to meet her at ‘CCD.’ First I had no idea what CCD meant and by the time I realized it was an acronym for Cafe Coffee Day, I was already out of my hotel. So I enabled my data, used my map, and sent her a quick e-mail. Minutes later I was sipping a coffee with her in the center of Delhi’s Khan Market.

Idea 3) Stick to WiFi

If you have a smartphone, you will generally have wifi capability. Not only is WiFi usually faster, but it also doesn’t have any extra carrier costs. If you disable cell service with airplane mode, you can still turn on WiFi and connect to the internet when you have a signal. Often coffee shops and American chains have free WiFi. In Vienna last year, I had to take a very important conference call–but didn’t want to go all the way back to my hotel. I set up shop in the corner of a McDonald’s 15 minutes early, got a small bottle of water, connected to their free WiFi and made the call on my Skype app–the call went great and everyone was a bit jealous they weren’t with me in Austria. Do be sure to check the connection speed before buying an expensive coffee drink or rushing to a call last minute only to discover it’s too slow to hear anything.

Idea 4) Get a Local SIM

SIM cards are the microchips that carry a phone’s number and data. In many countries a pay-as-you-go, or pre-paid sim is extremely cheap and easy to get anywhere–even the airport.  For a few dollars you can get a local phone number, affordable international call rates, and a few hundred mb of data. To use a sim, you need to make sure that your phone is GSM compatible and has a sim slot (mainly AT&T and T-Mobile, but not Sprint, Verizon, or Metro PCS for example). You also need to make sure your phone is unlocked– note that unlocking a locked phone can risk voiding a warranty. I travel with my awesome Google Nexus 4 and as long as I’m in the country for a few days I swap my sim with a local one. With a local number, it’s much easier to call for taxis, connect with friend locally, and stay online. In Kenya I can get all the data I need for a week with my Safaricom SIM for just a couple of dollars–it’s a much better deal than the bulk plan. They also have less than 3 cent per minute calls home. Sometimes, getting a SIM can be a bit of a hassle. In India the process often requires a passport photo and your original passport and hotel bill. In other countries, you may still need a resident permit or card to activate your phone.

Idea 5) Carry A Second Phone

Finally if I want to keep my US number active, but also get a local number I will carry a second phone. Sometimes this will be an old unlocked phone, or in some countries you can buy an unlocked cheap phone for as little as 10 dollars. With two phone I can get the benefits of both. Plus if you carry two phone you are doing your share in the race to get more phones than people. All these ideas aside, do be cautious–as a traveler, a phone can pull you out of the moment and distract you from the people, ideas, and sights right in front of you.