Travel News & Deals
Share your best summer vacation pictures with us for our photo issue

The smart way to travel with a smartphone

Given the number of people you see on the street, head down, eyes focused on their phones, it's no surprise that more than half of American adults have a smartphone. We love to call, we love to text, we love to post to Facebook. But what we don't love, if we are traveling abroad, is an enormous post-vacation bill or, worse, being disconnected. Andy Abramson, whose role as chief executive of Comunicano, a marketing agency, keeps him on the road about two-thirds of the year, and Sebastian Harrison, president of Cellular Abroad, offer these 14 tips for staying tethered while you're away.

If you just need a phone for emergency calls, consider buying or renting an inexpensive phone for the country you're visiting. The local solution is usually the easiest, the connection gurus say. If you buy locally and it doesn't work, you can return it and have the shop help you.

Or you can ask your cellular carrier to unlock your phone (assuming it will work where you're going). If your phone is unlocked, you can swap SIM cards in and out. Call your carrier to find out if your phone is unlocked. If your device is paid for (that is, you've reached the end of your contract), it shouldn't be a problem. If it isn't, your carrier may play hardball and tell you no. (Mine did.)

If your carrier won't unlock your phone and you need voice and data, buy an inexpensive unlocked smartphone here. I'm an iPhone and Blackberry user at home. Abroad, I use an inexpensive unlocked Blackberry (you can find them on Amazon or EBay) and buy a SIM card with voice and data. Works like a charm. Do I miss the iPhone? Yes. But I don't miss the big fat bill.

Don't want to mess with multiple phones? Check with your cellular carrier to see whether it has an international plan that suits your needs. Just be sure to do the math: A $25 SIM card in London might be a better deal than a $100 plan from the U.S.

If you're buying an international voice and data plan for your phone, find out whether you're getting 3G or 4G — or, horror of horrors, the slow and outdated 2G.

If you take your smartphone so you can have it with you when you return home but don't plan to use it, leave it off and, just to be safe, remove the SIM card.

If you don't make plans for using your smartphone abroad and use it overseas, be prepared for a big bill. Foreign roaming charges will send you into shock.

Buying a SIM card? Take your passport with you, Abramson says. Sometimes vendors will ask for it. Be as careful as you ordinarily would with your document, and use your best judgment when you're asked for it.

Do your homework before you get to your destination and find out who the players are in cellular connections. If you're landing at a big airport in a developed country, vendors probably will be lined up waiting for your business. But even in developing nations, you'll find SIM card vendors — sometimes seemingly at every turn of the airport. You can get yourself squared away before you ever leave the airport.

Need Wi-Fi? Be careful. You'll find free Wi-Fi in many places, but sometimes it's not a secure connection. Abramson likes iPass or Boingo.

Away from city centers, consider buying or renting a mobile hot spot. It may not be as fast as you'd like, but it will help you stay connected, and usually you can connect more than one device, useful for families. Also, some hotels still charge for wireless, so you'll be offsetting your costs.

Four words: VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol): One of the most cost-effective ways to stay in touch is VoIP, which you know as Skype, Viber or Google Voice. If you're connected to wireless, you can use your laptop to phone home or use your locally connected smartphone or tablet. The per-minute charge is usually less than 5 cents a minute, and a Skype-to-Skype call is free.

You'll want to make calls, but pay attention to how much data you're getting when you're setting up a plan to stay connected. For many travelers, Harrison notes, data use is really the bigger issue. It's Facebook, Instagram and Skype that can eat up your allotment. Try to avoid streaming videos or using the video feature on Skype. They're data hogs.

What you'll need for VoIP besides a good Wi-Fi connection: a good set of headphones with a microphone. If you're using a laptop, these may be built in, but the sound quality may not be as clear as you'd like.

a microphone. If you're using a laptop, these may be built in, but the sound quality may not be as clear as you'd like.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
  • 14 budget destinations around the world

    14 budget destinations around the world

    Where to go in 2014 that won't break the budget? Bolivia's volcanoes, Dracula's castle, even the back roads of the Mississippi Delta. Veteran Beverly Hills travel consultant Roxana Lewis suggests these 14 somewhat less traveled destinations to discover and explore -- and stretch your dollar. --...

  • 14 destinations to visit in 2014

    14 destinations to visit in 2014

    Every new year brings new opportunities and potent anniversaries, but 2014 seems especially rich in them — especially remembrances of war. Here are 14 ripe destinations for the year ahead — some cities, some countries and one New York borough. -- Christopher Reynolds Trip planning guide: places...

  • 14 travel adventures for families

    14 travel adventures for families

    Family travel creates a lifetime of memories for children, so we've searched the country for places and activities that are extra cool. Check websites or call for information, as prices and schedules can vary by age and season. -- April Orcutt Trip planning guide: places to go and travel tips

  • 14 sports events in 2014

    14 sports events in 2014

    An especially vibrant year for sports begins early. February, usually one of the quietest months for fans, will roar, starting with a Super Bowl in snow country and the Winter Olympics in Russia. In fact, most of the top events are in the first half of the year. Here are 14 events for 2014 that...

  • 14 offbeat destinations for 2014

    14 offbeat destinations for 2014

    Some of the 14 offbeat places we found are silly, some are serious and some raise money for local services or charities — but all are fun. The dates listed are for 2014, but not all the festivals and contests have their information posted yet, so keep checking their websites for updates. --April...

  • Music venues to attract travelers who march to their own beat

    Music venues to attract travelers who march to their own beat

    Concerts, festivals and bars around the world that add something special to the sights and sounds of a trip abroad.