Weapon of Choice: Choosing a Phone for World Travel

by Keith Savage · 41 comments

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I am the last of a disappearing race, the missing link between modern man circa 2010 and the late twentieth century. There are times when passers-by look at me like I’m Encino Man, their eyes full of scorn and ridicule (which I could accept if I looked like Pauly Shore Brendan Fraser, but I don’t kinda do) as I wield an archaic tool seemingly more fit for Cro-Magnon man.

No, I’m not talking about stone-knapping tools nor my heavy browridge or protruding sagittal crest. I’m obviously referring to the fact that I use a phone without a data plan.

It’s an important element in a larger decision I’m making: what communication devices am I bringing with me on my trips? I’ve talked about surviving on the road without my significant other, and much of this survival will depend on choosing the right technology to bridge the gap. I use a 15″ unibody MacBook Pro for the bulk of my computing and communication needs. It allows me to use Skype to hold audio/visual calls back home whenever I’m in a usable wifi network and where it wouldn’t be inappropriate. Great, check.

My phone situation is a little shakier.

AT&T has been my cell service provider for five years and I currently use a Blackberry Curve 8900. I bought it last September without the data plan, before the conception of Traveling Savage, mainly for easier texting. Up to this point, I have resisted the iPhone and other smartphones for two reasons: 1) I’m hardly ever away from computers and wifi as it is so I couldn’t justify the added expense of the data plan, and 2) I felt I didn’t need yet another distraction in my life.

Apple's iPhone 4

But times are changing. Maybe you’re picking up on my desire for a data plan-enabled smartphone. It’s true, but from what I can tell data plans and world travel don’t really gel. If you’re not careful in your research of international data transfer costs and management of data usage, your bank account can be the victim of a ruthless savaging by your service provider. For the sake of objectivity, I focused on a handful of core phone use-related questions to help me determine the right course of action.

How will I make local calls while abroad?

My Blackberry is a world phone so I can use it mostly anywhere in the world. However, most service providers treat these calls as international calls, which generally results in money disappearing so fast you don’t even have a chance to kiss it goodbye. With AT&T, I could add the World Traveler package for $5.99/month, which provides discounted rates. For example, the cost per minute drops from $2.29 to $1.99 per minute in Argentina. Not exactly inspiring. A better option altogether would be to buy a local pre-paid phone (aka “burner”) for local calls. It’s usually cheap and I’d get a local number with it.

How will I make international calls?

Much of the information above applies here. I could use my normal Blackberry (or future upgraded phone) to call back to the States or elsewhere, but I will incur international roaming fees. In an emergency, this will be fine. If I’m checking in with Sarah, Skype could suffice as a replacement. Otherwise, calling cards could be a good option, though I’d need to compare the cost per minute against my service provider’s plans.

How will I text?

International texting is an altogether different beast, and service providers generally sell packages that encourage you to pre-pay for a certain number of text messages. Bang for your buck seems really weak as rates are high to me, especially for the tiny bit of bandwidth that’s required of a text. Sending a single text message without a package discount can easily cost $1.

How will I access the internet?

Let’s assume it’s inconvenient to unpack the laptop every time you want to tap into the internet. Obviously, one popular option is to use wifi-enabled smartphones with data plans. Much like texting and calling plans, international data usage is a rich man’s game. While I don’t have a data plan on my phone now, my understanding is that pre-paying $199 for 200MB of data is not a good deal. One strong alternative would be to use an iPod Touch for wifi and some combination of other phones/phone options as described above.

SIMple Solutions

An option that many travelers are using today is to use “unlocked” smartphones that allow the switching of SIM cards. Travelers can buy a local SIM card that enables the phone to be used as a local phone, thereby escaping the crippling international charges enforced by traditional carriers. To be fair, this is not my area of expertise. For American users, unlocking the iPhone from AT&T’s service has become common practice, though it does violate the AT&T contract.

SIM cards

So what’s the weapon of choice?

Every traveler has different communication needs. Some would be happy with a local pre-paid phone and a calling card. For travelers with more complex needs, you need to analyze your service provider’s rates, restrictions, and packages. For my needs, I’m leaning toward getting the iPhone 4 and using it in conjunction with local pre-paid phones. While abroad, the iPhone will be used in Airport mode (wifi only) 99.99% of the time. I’ll also have access to the all the useful applications for the first time. No international texting for me. While I’m home – you know, for the other 8-9 months of the year – the iPhone will help me stay on top of social media while I’m on the go and sleep next to me on an iPhone-sized pillow.

What’s your weapon of choice? Do you have experiences or tips to share? I would really love to hear your input, especially since I haven’t decided which way to go yet.

Original photo by Erik Mallinson, William Hook, and Adrian Nier, respectively, via Flickr under Creative Commons

Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 11, 2010 at 1:04 PM

Update: I bought an iPhone4 a couple of days ago. I love it, but what would you expect from a gear junkie?!

JunoNo Gravatar July 29, 2010 at 10:56 PM

What an insightful article Keith!
Hm, I am iPhone juncky, so I’m bias, but I think iPhone is quite a good option.
I didn’t really use others. When I was in Hong kong and Taiwan, I use it really well. For example like a map or language tools and rocomend walking pathes. it doesn’t cost you any money to connect. It was good. If you found the write apps, iPhone is great. I will bring it to my travel in the future. 🙂

Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 30, 2010 at 1:53 PM

Thanks Juno. Not sure why us Americans are punished with this primitive phone system.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 28, 2010 at 1:20 PM

Nice summary article over on the New York Times: http://travel.nytimes.com/2010/08/01/travel/01prac.html

Maybe the author was reading all of your good advice, guys!

AkilaNo Gravatar July 28, 2010 at 5:37 AM

So, we took an IPhone with us when we traveled but we didn’t have a phone plan (we had finished our plan for a long time) and so we just used it as an iPhone.

We bought an international unlocked GSM phone for really cheap and then bought an international SIM card but never use it. Bottom line, we use Skype to call family and friends and don’t have a cell phone inside the country. We have a Google Voice account with a US number which people can use to call us and leave voicemail for us.

We never really need to make local calls and in most countries they have public phones so we use those if we need to make a local call. And, I think Skype is the best and cheapest way to call family and friends because you can also do video call — definitely set up a video camera for each other before you leave.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 30, 2010 at 1:55 PM

Hey Akila, so you use your iPhone more or less like an iPod Touch while abroad? That’s cool (and what I’m thinking) because you can still take advantage of all the apps that way. Thanks for the tips!

Michael TysonNo Gravatar July 30, 2010 at 3:56 PM

It’s definitely the easiest option, but don’t forget to do some research first, just in case there’s some decent pre-paid mobile internet plan that you can get access to. It’s becoming more and more common, and what it gives you (beyond using the iPhone offline) is instant omniscience – which makes an incredible difference while travelling, if you use it right =) The spontaneity it enables alone… If I could wax more lyrical, I’d probably turn into singing candle.

Caz MakepeaceNo Gravatar July 27, 2010 at 3:45 PM

This kind of stuff wrecks my head! I too am quite Neanderthalish when it comes to phones. We still have an LG chocolate with no data plan (don’t laugh). We are certainly moving to smartphone when we get back to Oz. All this information is going to be extremely helpful so thank you. It sounds as if it might be a little easier if you are not from the US. Does anyone have any ideas about Australia?

Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 30, 2010 at 1:52 PM

Sounds like an iPhone is the way to go in Australia. You won’t have to deal with AT&T’s annoying unlocking policy. Good luck Caz!

Michael TysonNo Gravatar July 30, 2010 at 3:52 PM

An iPhone’s definitely what I’d be recommending, Caz. I’m an Australian, and before it was easy to buy an unlocked iPhone here in Europe, I bought my 3Gs through Vodafone AU and had it shipped to me here.

Last time I looked, about 8 months ago, you could buy it up front from Voda, then pay a bit extra ($80 AUD) to get it unlocked (which just happens magically once you ask them to do it)

ErinNo Gravatar July 27, 2010 at 3:43 PM

I feel like we are the only ones but we don’t travel with a phone at all. We never have and we don’t miss having one. We use skype most of the time and if we don’t have internet then we just use a phone booth for local calls. Very oldfashioned!

There are a few times when a phone would have been useful but not enough for us to justify the extra thing to carry and the feeling of being too connected. That said, as you aren’t travelling with your wife I can see that you’d want an easy way to stay in touch.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 27, 2010 at 3:52 PM

I think it’s great that you guys are able to shirk a phone – my wife and I used to do that when we traveled around Europe. Your last sentence hits the main point right on the head. If nothing else, the phone will be peace of mind for both of us.

NickNo Gravatar July 27, 2010 at 2:51 PM

I do a few things:
1) Local SIM card if I plan on talking a lot. I’ll eat the roaming charges if I just need to make a few min call home. That goes in my spare phone.
2) I use T-Mobile’s UMA on my Blackberry 9700 while abroad. Calls over WiFi are taken out of my bucket of minutes.
3) Google Voice. I forward my cell number to Google Voice. Google Voice sends me a text transcription of the voice mail. Forwarding your cell number to GV also saves you from getting dinged random roaming fees for call forwarding/voice mail notification. If the message is important, then I’ll call back and eat the roaming charge, but if it’s the “hi, what’s up?” message, then I’ll call them when I can find WiFi. T-Mobile takes the text messages out of your bucket of texts while abroad (if you have unlimited texts, no problems.)

Also, look at http://www.prepaidgsm.net. That’s the awesome site for pre-paid SIM comparisons.

Ted NelsonNo Gravatar July 27, 2010 at 12:20 PM

Another option is buying a phone in the country you are in and then selling it as you leave. I bought a phone in the Philippines for 2500 pesos and sold it for 500 three weeks later, so I basically rented it for 500 pesos (about 10 usd at the time). This works well if you are staying in one country for a long period of time, but may not be feasible if hitting many countries in one trip.

Lauren QuinnNo Gravatar July 27, 2010 at 11:40 AM

So, you know I’m a big fan of your more literary posts, but this was rad too. Because of the insane fees and the pain-in-the-ass factor, I’ve always just forfeited the phone use while I’ve traveled. But on my last trip, there were a couple times when it would have really come in handy. Think I’m gonna look into the unlocking + Sim card for my next trip.

Thanks to all the commenters and Keith for starting the discussion!

EricaNo Gravatar July 27, 2010 at 2:08 AM

I do have to say that I’ve been struggling with the same questions in my head for a while now.

I think I’m just going to unlock my iPhone (no hacking conscience here!) and use different SIM cards depending on where we are.

But yeah – word on the street that is is no longer illegal in the US to unlock your iPhone so I wouldn’t feel too bad about using it to your advantage. 🙂

WanderingTraderNo Gravatar July 26, 2010 at 6:44 PM

Vonage is pretty good I use skype which you can use off the iphone and android. Off of blackberry it gets a little tricky. They only charge 2 cents a minute per call to the united states no matter where you are at in the world. the iphone also has a great app for it. Have you heard of the line2 app for the iphone and bb monica? You can choose a completely different phone number (it can even be an 800 number) so ppl can call you from the states.

MonicaNo Gravatar July 26, 2010 at 6:31 PM

Cool post and timely. Last year I used my T-mobile with roaming and I nearly died when I saw my phone bill. A few years ago, I bought a “world” phone with a UK number and it was fine for just phone use but at 25 cents a minute, still a little pricey (I too travel often without my significant other and our conversations can get lengthy).

This year, I’m not sure what I’m going to do yet but my home phone service is Vonage and they have an app (I use an android based phone) that they claim will let me call home at a very good price. I don’t know a whole lot about it but when I do, I plan on posting about it on my blog. I’ll be watching yours for ideas as well. Thanks!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 26, 2010 at 8:58 PM

Ugh, I’ve heard so many stories like your roaming tale. Michael and Marcello (Wandering Trader) both pointed it out, but look into Skype. Really, it’s one of the best applications out there for making calls around the world.

AudreyNo Gravatar July 26, 2010 at 4:11 PM

Given that you plan to be in the States for most of the year, it makes sense to get the iPhone 4 and use AT&T with a data plan. My suggestion for being connected on a local network overseas is to buy a cheap unlocked phone in the States (we noticed that Fry’s electronic shop had an unlocked phone section) or on your first trip and then keep that phone for all your travels. You just buy a new SIM card everywhere you go (http://www.uncorneredmarket.com/2008/11/mosaic-sim-cards-asia-europe/) – it’s usually around $5-$10 and that includes a local number plus credit on that network. For example, I think in Buenos Aires the SIM was $7 with about half of that in credit. You’re connected in less than a minute.

If you do decide to go for an unlocked/jailbroken iPhone in the United States, we used T-Mobile’s prepaid in the US. The SIM was about $15 and included some credit on it. Data wasn’t available, but the network coverage for our 6 week trip was good.

Good luck!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 26, 2010 at 8:56 PM

Cheers, Audrey. Thanks for all the information here, at your blog, and via email that you’ve provided. It’s really helped me understand the landscape! I like the setup you describe. Though, as Wayne pointed out, now the US can sell unlocked iPhones. Interesting…

MichaelNo Gravatar July 26, 2010 at 10:44 AM

Well, that’s true, but only if you’re extremely familiar with the process – and the process changes for each version.

I’ve been an iPhone developer for years, and consider myself relatively saavy with tech, and *I* can’t do it in less than half an hour – more when I have to research the process for a new OS version or device =)

Michael TysonNo Gravatar July 26, 2010 at 9:46 AM

Oh man, is this an issue rather close to my heart – I’ve thought so hard about how we stay connected as we roam around Europe. We’re full-time motorhomers in our mid-twenties and so have unique needs – seriously solid internet that works in a lot of places.

Our solution is similar to the one you mention, but we go a bit further: We have a iPhone, unlocked, and we buy local SIM cards. Before entering a new country, I do a bunch of data plan research, and so far we’ve done pretty well; we’ve paid £15/100 hours unmetered data in Italy, and currently are paying £25/7GB in the UK (I take notes on all this here: http://michael.tyson.id.au/mobile-broadband/). It’s not true everywhere, but where we’ve been, data plans are great. We even had 9GB/month for next to nothing in Tunisia!

We use the Internet on our laptops via the iPhone’s tethering.

We do *all* our calling, both local and international, through Skype, using their ‘Skype Out’ system to dial landlines/mobiles. This works both on the laptop and from the iPhone (Skype has replaced the ‘Phone’ app on the iPhone now, which has been relegated to a later home screen page!). Skype also has text messaging, of course, which works fine, although it’s one-way, so I always need to remind people how to respond.

We also have a ‘Skype In’ number in Melbourne, Australia, that diverts to our local prepaid mobile number when I’m not on Skype, so people can call us from home for a local call fee ($80US/year, free to receive when on Skype, mobile rates to take it on the mobile).

Having net access from the iPhone is just insanely useful – being able to be in a strange place and look up local shops and navigate around, quickly translate something into the local lingua, and Tweet pictures of awesome stuff; it changes travel for us completely, in an awesome way =) Couldn’t live without it!

So, for those considering going with the iPhone, which I honestly couldn’t recommend more for it’s great interface and the wealth of apps available, the crux is getting it unlocked. If you live almost anywhere but the US, you can usually buy one off the shelf, unlocked. Otherwise, and my heart goes out to you, hacking it is. If you’re relatively saavy, it’s a straightforward job (and pretty much stress-free, once you realised just how robust that iPhone is against firmware installation stuffups), although there’s lots of reading to do first, and lots of it is carelessly written. Ahh, well. One day Apple may wise up and ditch AT&T =)

Best of luck!

Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 26, 2010 at 10:33 AM

Michael, thank you for sharing notes on your passion! If my plan is to use the iPhone as a glorified iPod Touch while I’m abroad, and I’m OK with that, do I really need to go through the trouble of jailbreaking and unlocking it? I am in the United States, so this is an issue.

Most of the year I will be in the USA and it would be no inconvenience at all to simply use AT&T’s plan and network. I would also still have the phone under warranty as a result of NOT unlocking it.

Dustin Main - Skinny BackpackerNo Gravatar July 26, 2010 at 10:40 AM

Unlocking is just software, so you can un-unlock in about 2 minutes. Nothing to worry about.

MichaelNo Gravatar July 26, 2010 at 10:41 AM

Whew, that was quite an essay, huh =)

If you’re happy to just wifi it up when you’re abroad (no omnipresent omniscience for you!), then absolutely, no need to go through the rather painful unlocking process. Yay!

WayneNo Gravatar July 25, 2010 at 11:53 PM

Another good post Keith, and great timing too. Although I’m not going over seas any time soon the questions I’ve been batting back and forth in my head regard options for bouncing back and forth across the Canadian/US border with the minimal amount of bank account rupturing roaming charges as possible..

When it comes to phones I’m even further behind than you. Carrying around an old Motorola K-Razr. No data plan, texting on it is right out annoying. But unlike you I really don’t need a phone for much more than emergencies as most of my communication with friends will be during stops in libraries and coffee shops to work on my photos anyway. I’m thinking of swapping SIM cards and just getting pay as you go plans as needed.

Regardless, I’ll be watching this post to see what other ideas people have. One day I’d love an Iphone, but right now, it’s simply not in the budget.

Cheers Keith,

Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 26, 2010 at 10:35 AM

From what I’ve read, it seems to be pretty easy to get an unlocked iPhone off the shelf in Canada. I assume it’s a more affordable approach than the ridiculous iPhone plans we have here in the States.

WayneNo Gravatar July 26, 2010 at 8:36 PM

Hey Keith, a friend posted this today, thought you might be interested. Apparently Iphones just got out of jail in the US too.


Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 26, 2010 at 8:57 PM

Wow, timely, no? Thanks Wayne!

Dustin Main - Skinny BackpackerNo Gravatar July 25, 2010 at 11:41 PM

If you travel much, roaming with any phone overseas is going to cost you a boatload text/call/data.

If you have an unlocked GSM phone (quad band) you can use it pretty much anywhere in the world with any GSM provider. Buy a local SIM and pop it in. Local SIM cards usually run $2-$5 and often come with the equivalent credit.

Not sure about buying an unlocked phone straight out in the US. I don’t know the different providers well there so maybe someone else can chime in on that. In Canada, Apple sells the iPhone 3GS unlocked, no contract for $549.

Dustin Main - Skinny BackpackerNo Gravatar July 25, 2010 at 11:17 PM

Might want to hold off on the iPhone 4. It uses a new type of SIM card that isn’t widely used around the world. 3GS might be a better and cheaper option. Unlocking the iPhone to use other SIM cards overseas is the best for travel, as data/phone rates overseas are cheap. I had unlimited in Vietnam for $16/month, and spent about $7 in Cambodia for about 3 weeks of usage.

And for the record, Brendan Fraser played the caveman in Encino Man, and I could see a passing resemblance. 🙂

Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 25, 2010 at 11:23 PM

Oooh, burn. How did I mess that one up? Fixing it now, but shit, you’re right. I do look a bit like Brendan Fraser.

To be clear, I was pondering using the iPhone 4 without unlocking it. Where it gets fuzzy for me is what service provider do you use in the USA with an unlocked iPhone? Can you still use AT&T or are you buying pre-paid?

Thanks Dustin!

Michael TysonNo Gravatar July 26, 2010 at 9:34 AM

Actually, the chip on iPhone 4’s SIM (micro SIM) is the same as conventional SIM cards – it’s just the plastic that’s different. With a little ingenuity and a big knife, the problem’s solved: http://www.johnbenson.net/How_to_Convert_a_SIM_to_a_MicroSIM_with_a_Meat_Cleaver/How_to_Convert_a_SIM_to_a_MicroSIM_with_a_Meat_Cleaver.html

WanderingTraderNo Gravatar July 25, 2010 at 10:49 PM

I really think that now adays its really only 3 options, iphone, blackberry, and one that you have not considered: android. I have been a blackberry man since I jumped on the smartphone bandwagon and I can tell you that the iphone is one serious phone. You can use an app called line2 which you can pick an 800 number for ppl to call you. You can use skype apps on both but its much easier to use on iphone. More of the apps are better and have better functionality on the iphone. Only reason I dont get it is because I have fat fingers and I hate the onscreen keyboard. The wifi connectivity is much better on iphone as well. I would def take a look at android if I were you, but in the end I think you will like the iphone. Its easier to use overrall and have the best apps out there… only challenge will be unlocking the new 4.0 software that everyone is “currently working on”.

Another thing you need to consider if you are getting a data plan overseas is the 3g frequency. They are different around the world and if Im not mistaken argentina uses tmobille’s 3g frequency not att so you will use 2g or wifi.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar July 25, 2010 at 11:26 PM

Thanks for the extra info, Marcello! But fat fingers, really? You almost need a pin to punch the keys on my Curve 8900 – how does that not give you a problem?

wanderingtraderNo Gravatar July 26, 2010 at 6:36 PM

Ive never had a prob with being able to hit the keys, Ive had more probs with the scroll wheel. The new blackberry I bought has the touch pad so Ive been good since then

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