9 Easy Ways to Use Your Phone Internationally—That Don’t Cost a Fortune
We love to travel, but we really don't want to be that out of touch. Here's how to stay connected (on a budget).
Find an amazing international phone plan
How many times have you landed at your destination and texted your loved one to let them know you arrived safe and sound? Before you know it, you’re texting photos of your cocktails or selfies by the beach. Well, if you do this when abroad, you may come home to a massive phone bill that could have been avoided if you had pre-planned via an international phone plan. Many service providers have them, and they are more affordable than you might imagine. For instance, T-Mobile Simple Choice and T-Mobile ONE plans have unlimited data and texting, plus free Wi-Fi calling in 140-plus countries and destinations at no extra charge. “My T-Mobile international plan has saved me more than a couple of times with its unlimited data coverage and texting in over +140 countries,” says Kosta Karakashyan, a lifestyle blogger at Cool Gear Cavalier. “While it’s not incredibly fast, it’s always helpful to text your friends or family that you made it or that you are on your layover and can’t find any Wi-Fi access. Nowadays phone companies are always trying to offer the next best thing, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find a plan that works for you when you’re on the road.” She’s right. AT&T has international day passes at $10 each, which buy you unlimited calls and texts, and use your plan’s monthly data allowance without additional roaming charges. For longer trips, they also have a $40 passbook good for 30 days or 200MB of data. Sprint offers global roaming free texts, 2G data, and phone calls for $0.20 per minute. Finally, Verizon has a few programs, including one that will charge you $25 for 100MB of in 140 countries. You can also buy a TravelPass for $2 a day if you are going to Mexico or Canada, or another 100 countries are covered for $10 per day, and will just follow your regular plan.
Research the airport Wi-Fi, but do not rely on the public network
Even if your airport offers Wi-Fi (free or at a charge), often there are so many people using that network, there’s no chance of logging in or maintaining the connection. Instead, “research on Yelp which airport cafes have Wi-Fi and make that your backup. Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul, for example, does not have Wi-Fi access, but the Starbucks at the very end of the shop area definitely does. Tried and tested,” says Karakashyan. Find out 16 other air travel mistakes to stop making before you next flight.
Have a password handy in advance
Many people are fans of the Wi-Fi Map App, an amazing tool that gives access to millions of Wi-Fi hotspot connections worldwide, everywhere you can imagine. Even better, it’s a community-based app, so if you find one not listed, you can add it and help someone else. This is amazing not only at airports but any city in the world where you don’t want to splurge on a $10 coffee just to check your mail. “The free version only works when you have data, so it’s helpful if you want to switch to Wi-Fi but you need some connection in the first place. If you buy the premium version, you can do offline searches for any area you are in (GPS-detected) so you can find a network anywhere, provided someone graciously shared the password,” says Karakashyan.
Lots of airlines are now offering Wi-Fi onboard, but unfortunately, it’s rarely free. All of Virgin America has Wi-Fi, and many others have a large percentage of their fleet wired thru Gogo, including Delta, Alaska Airlines, American, and United. Gogo is pretty expensive but a little known tip is that if you buy a flight pass before you board your flight, it’s often significantly less expensive, as much as half the price. You can also buy Gogo subscriptions by the month or year and save a fortune, but this is most useful if you frequently travel for business. JetBlue actually offers a free in-flight Wi-Fi option: Fly-Fi with Amazon. You can send and receive emails, browse the Internet, and even stream movies and TV shows on Amazon Video! Other airlines, such as Southwest, offer free Wi-Fi to their most loyal members. Here’s how you can magically connect to Wi-Fi on an airplane in the first place.
At the airport
Boingo Hot Spot access is a great option, and if you are subscribed, you can use it virtually around the world. It’s a great fail-safe if you find yourself in an airport that doesn’t have free Wi-Fi. You can also purchase a personal hot spot and carry that with you. When using airport Wi-Fi, make sure you’re connecting to the airport’s public hot spot or perhaps one of the airport’s restaurants if they offer Wi-Fi. However, keep in mind you are connecting to a public Wi-Fi network, your browsing is not encrypted. As a result, travelers should avoid checking their banking accounts or other sensitive information. “If you’re making any online purchases, always make sure the site you’re on starts with https:// to ensure the online payment process will be secure,” says Safi Mojaddidi from Ubiquiti Labs [UBNT], creators of AmpliFi Mesh Wi-Fi. When choosing a seat, pass on sitting on the floor or behind support pillars because your Wi-Fi signal will potentially be weaker. “The more obstructions in between you and the Wi-Fi access point means reduced performance. Instead, choose a high-top seat with the skinny table-top that many of the airports now have near the gates. They’re elevated, providing clearer access to the airport’s Wi-Fi access points, which are usually installed on the ceiling,” says Mojaddidi. Find out 13 secrets the airlines will never tell you.
Personal hot spots
These are a great option if you don’t want to have to mess with your phone provider’s international plan or buy sim cards. Products like Skyroam are available for rental or purchase and even can be found in many airport mall kiosks. Day passes on this hot spot run around $8 a day and it works as a portable Wi-Fi hotspot anywhere in the world—and you can connect up to five devices, meaning you can save a fortune on hotel Wi-Fi rates as well. Another option is a Google Pixel or the Google Fi plan, which allows you to automatically connect the best available signal (either Wi-Fi or a 4G partner). It works out to be around $50 per month. For a frequent traveler, this can truly been a game changer.
While you are planning on staying connected, power is essential. “I carry a Monster Outlets to Go 4 outlet power strip made for travel, and have done so for years. It’s no longer sold, but there are others like it available (including one, also from Monster, that I’ll likely buy for my next trip),” says Andy Abramson, who was named “2015 Business Traveler of The Year” by Business Traveler magazine. “It reduces the number of European and U.K. adapters I need to carry, and with it, I only really need one European and one UK adapter for all my U.S. power plugs.” For his iPhone and iPad, Abramson bought a U.K. and European power kit. “This way, when I’m out all day, I can hand find a plug at the coffee shop or restaurant and charge up. ” Learn 6 more smart solutions to common travel problems.
A lot can also be said about carrying an extra battery—it can mean the difference between being out of juice or having phone life when you land. “The Anker PowerCore+ 20100 USB-C, Ultra-High Capacity Premium Portable Charger works with every device I carry,” Abramson says. “It allows me to recharge my iPhones, iPad, Mac Book, and Pixel as it has both USB and USB-C ports.” He calls it an essential because if keeps everything powered even when there’s no power near by and fits in his shoulder bag.
Apps to stay connected
We all need—and want—to stay in touch with friends and family back at home. WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal, Apple’s iMessage and FaceTime, Google Voice, Hangouts, Facebook Messenger, and many others all work great. To keep large groups informed, Facebook is great for “this is what I’m up to” while Facebook Messenger is ideal for calls, texts, and video as are WhatsApp and Telegram. “For texting Google Voice is far and away the app of choice. I’ve also started to use Instagram more this past trip, as I’ve found more immediate engagement with friends to let them know what I was up to,” says Abramson. For business conference calls, or family calls with people in different places, ZOOM is ideal. “My second choice is UberConference. For phone service, the two best choices I’ve found are DialPad and Telzio. Both have apps so I’m able to use them over Wi-Fi or on LTE on both iOS and Android, as well as on my laptop,” says Abramson. Want to forget everything you just read? Here are 11 easy ways to turn your vacation into a digital detox.