There are tons of uses for a Smartphone on your travels.  Some of the things I’ve been using on my T-Mobile G2:

  • Voice for making reservations, etc.
  • GPS for navigation and locating where we’ve parked the car.
  • email.
  • Web browsing for finding travel and general information.
  • Tethering my Smartphone to our Netbook to use as a high speed wireless modem when WiFi isn’t available.
  • TripAdvisor for checking hotel and restaurant recommendations.
  • American Airlines app. for checking flight status
  • Alarm clock.
  • Amazon Kindle reader to read several books.
  • Music player to have something to listen to in the car. Especially good if you bring a mini plug pass through cable and connect into the car’s Aux port, so you can listen through the car’s sound system.
  • Google Translate to translate words I don’t know.
  • Games for when I get bored on the plane.
  • Note taking (with photo capability)
  • Backup camera if I don’t have my “real” camera with me.
  • Mobile Blogging (Bloggeroid).
  • Currency conversion (Oanda).
  • Flashlight – surprisingly useful!

The problem is that is is exorbitantly expensive to use Smartphone features when you travel, unless you make some preparations.  If you want to travel with your phone and just use it  just for voice, you should make sure to disable data roaming to avoid a nasty surprise after your trip.

T-Mobile currently charges $15/MB for international roaming. AT&T is more expensive at  2 cents/KB = $20/MB.  So for instance, to  download one episode of NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” podcast at 20MB,  which we’ve been listening to each week would be $300 on T-Mobile or $400 or AT&T!

AT&T does offer some international data plans, but they are expensive, e.g. $200 for 200MB per month. This might make sense if you are a continual traveller, but for most people going on vacation this is not an attractive rate and I don’t know if you can just sign up for one month.

The solution, if you want to be able to reasonably use your Smartphone while travelling, is to get a pre-paid SIM card in the country you are visiting.  This requires some prep. on your part before the trip:

  1. You need to have a GSM based phone, which most Smartphones are.  It needs to work on the frequency in the country you’ll be visiting , but this should not be a problem as most modern GSM phones are multi-frequency and work anywhere in the world.
  2. The phone needs to be unlocked.  This is where it gets complicated.  I’ve been a longtime T-Mobile customer and one thing they are great about is that when I get a new phone, they will give me the unlock code very quickly without any hassle.  Even when we first started with T-Mobile, I think they did they would do this within 3 months of us starting our contract.  Other carriers may not be so generous – they may charge you an unlock fee, make you wait for several months, or straight out refuse to unlock the phone.  My understanding is that this is the case with iPhones.   This means the only way to get your phone unlocked is to go to an unauthorized source and pay for the service.  Easily done in most Asian countries and you can even do it over the web.  But if something goes wrong, you could end up with a very expensive brick on your hands. 
  3. Once you have an unlocked phone, you need to buy a pre-paid SIM card in the country you are travelling to.  This is easily done once you arrive in the country.  For instance, here in Spain, we went to the Phone House and got a Yoigo network pre-paid card for EU20 that includes EU20 credit for voice and 500MB of data, which is plenty for our needs.  Figure that is equivalent to just 1MB of data on AT&T roaming.  Keep in mind the following:
    – You will now have a new local phone number.  Calls to your regular phone number will not reach you (unless you setup call forwarding to your new phone number).  Once you put your regular SIM card back in the phone, you will be exactly back where you started, and will receive your regular phone calls.
    – Make sure you note your new phone number!  Online hotel reservations will want it and you will want to give this new phone number to anyone you want to be able to reach you directly.
    – It is a good idea to find out how to get your voicemail from a phone line other than your cell phone.  This way you can check your regular voicemail if you want to using your new local phone number or any other phone (including Skype).
    – Pre-paid SIM cards are generally inexpensive only in the country in which they are issued. so if you are visiting more than one country, you may want to get local SIMs in each.  In our case, when we went to Portugal, our Spanish card’s rates went up, but were still better than using our American SIM.  Since we were there for only a few days, we didn’t bother getting a Portuguese card, but we did turn off data roaming in Portugal.
    – Adding credit to a pre-paid SIM is easy.  In fact you can do this at most supermarkets and many shops as well as phone stores.
    – To keep your SIM card and any remaining credit “alive” you need to use the SIM card every so often.  I had a UK T-Mobile SIM card and it needed to have some use (voice call, text, etc.) once every six months.  The Yoigo card needs to be used every three months.  Otherwise, you loose any remaining credit and the SIM becomes useless.  Not really a problem unless you’ve loaded lots of credit onto the card and/or you’ll be going back to the same country say in a year.  If so, you’ll need to swap out your regular SIM for your foreign SIM within the time allowed, e.g. if I wanted to keep my Yoigo card alive, I would need to make sure to send a text or make a brief several times a year each time before the 3 month limit is up.

So, bring the phone, bring the charger (make sure you have a local adapter and a car charger too!) and make the most of your trip.

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