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.
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.
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.
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.