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travel with cell phones

Do you travel with a cell phone? Pros or cons? Read a few of Rick Steeves articles and seems like a lot of hassles and unknowns.

Posted by
27352 posts

Yes, I travel with a cell phone. It's really, really rare for me to use it to make phone calls when I'm outside the US, but I can in a pinch, because I have T-Mobile service and don't get hit with a $10 charge every day I call someone. I mainly use the phone for web-surfing when I'm on a long bus or train ride and to consult the GPS-enabled maps I've previously downloaded when I need navigational help while walking around.

When I'm in my hotel room, I use my tablet instead, getting online via the hotel-provided Wi-Fi. I make a lot of my hotel reservations as I'm traveling around, purchase train tickets online, and check operating hours of attractions I'm planning to visit.

If you don't want to fool with a European SIM, you can use the internet capabilities of your phone when you have Wi-Fi available, and you can access mapping functions as needed. Those will figure out where you are without a Europe-enabled SIM in your phone, even when you don't have Wi-Fi available.

Last year I had a travel partner for part of my trip, and she didn't have a well-priced US cellphone plan, so we couldn't call each other. We communicated via WhatsApp, a texting equivalent, but that was limited to times when we both had access to Wi-Fi. Still, Wi-Fi's pretty widely available these days in museums as well as in a lot of casual restaurants, so we didn't really have a problem reaching each other when we needed to.

Posted by
1329 posts

Absolutely, especially since 2016 when Verizon made it much easier. I admit I’m a very heavy phone user and active user of social media. Plus, I’ve got lots of European friends so we’re often planning things.

Verizon charges $10/day for phone use in almost mall of Western Europe and they don’t charge extra for changing countries. And that’s only if you use it in that 24 hour period. So, if you’re on a long train trip for most of that day, you can use Wi-Fi and eschew phone data. Plus, I usually earn a day or two of free international use through the Verizon rewards program.

So, i basically use my phone like I do in the USA

Edit: just noticed this was the Bulgarian forum. I’ve never been there so my advice may be useless for Bulgaria.

Posted by
7567 posts

Rick’s guidebooks used to have a thorough “Let’s Talk Telephones” chapter, where he discussed the details of finding and using pay phones in Europe. How to pay, how to dial national access and area codes, calling people on Europe, and phoning home.

Now with mobile phones, and smartphones that are much more a computer than a calling device, things have changed. Our former Verizon service offered an International Calling Plan, which provided relatively inexpensive calling rates per minute, and barely any data usage. Since switching to T-Mobile, we have an inclusive package with unlimited calling and data for a low price. No need to switch to a European number while traveling, no need for a new SIM card. And the phone is great for navigating, on foot or in a rental car. And for making restaurant reservations. And using WhatsAp, video-calling friends back home. And checking in for our flights. And, and, and. The hassle is making sure the phone stays charged.

Posted by
2768 posts

Of course. I can’t imagine traveling without it. But I don’t use it as a phone (I almost never call anyone, rarely I text my travel partner if we went out separately and need to meet up).

Any modern smartphone can be used as:
-camera/video camera
-web research (look up history facts, sight info, restaurant reviews, transit times...)
-map and directions
-translator and language dictionary
-repository for your own notes and documents
-e-ticket for trains, sights
-access to email, social media, and bank accounts at home (can email your friend and pay your mortgage)
-guidebook as an ebook
-ebook for leisure reading
-tv/movie/music player for entertainment
-way to book hotels if you are going more spontaneous (using apps instead of calling it walking door to door)
-weather forecast
-alarm clock
-only way to get Uber/Lyft if your destination has those and you use them
-address book
-currency converter
-many sights like museums offer apps with tours or further info about the place, such as signs next to paintings with a code to scan to get more info about the art
I could probably go on and on

Most of these things except calling (and there are apps for that) are available over WiFi so you don’t even need to buy anything extra. Just turn off data and use WiFi in cafes, trains, museums, and your hotel. It’s super easy to find.

Of course you don’t want to travel with your nose in a phone all day - but you can use it as a highly valuable tool without being an addict. I think Ive replaced about 10lbs of stuff with one pound in phone and charger.

Posted by
11294 posts

"Read a few of Rick Steeves articles and seems like a lot of hassles and unknowns."

Which articles are you reading? Things change rapidly in this arena.

Mira's post is a great list of why and how a cell phone can be useful/necessary, even if you never make a call. Also be aware that since everyone is assumed to have a cell phone, public phones and even phones in hotel rooms are being removed, and can be hard to find. The same is true of internet cafes and other public internet points - once ubiquitous in every city, they've become rarer and rarer each year.

Just a few years ago, traveling with a cell phone either meant buying a local SIM card (the "hassle" you referred to), or worrying about roaming charges which could be hundreds of dollars (the "unknown" you referred to). However, these days, all four major US carriers can eliminate both of these problems. For most T-Mobile and Sprint plans, you can use your phone in Europe at no extra charge, with free slow data, free texts, and $0.25 per minute calls. For most Verizon and AT&T plans, you can use your phone in Europe by paying $10 per day, and getting all the same data, text and voice minutes you do at home.

If those options work for you, that eliminates all hassle (you keep your same phone number, and don't have to do anything except use the phone) and unknowns (you know what you're paying up front).

If those options don't work for you, then you can look into getting a local SIM, or just using your phone when on Wi-Fi. Buying a local SIM isn't that difficult, but it does mean a new phone number, and is more trouble than just using your US plan.

There's obviously a LOT more to talk about with "fine print." For instance, if you do have Verizon or AT&T, it's important to keep your phone in airplane mode on days you don't want to be charged. ANY activity will trigger the $10 charge. And if you have T-Mobile or Sprint, the slow data is really slow, so it can work only for some functions. And if you want to use a local SIM, you have to have an unlocked phone. Etc., etc. But it really isn't that difficult these days.

Posted by
42 posts

Thanks for all the info- I am Canadian and want to travel to Bulgaria,Romania,and Hungary. I am one of those people who has never had a cell phone so this will be a huge new learning experience.

Posted by
7567 posts

If you’ve never had a mobile cell phone, there are still, I believe, 2 kinds. A flip phone, that folds up, is mostly for making calls, but likely has a camera function, too. Cheaper.

Then there’s the smartphone, like the iPhone I finally broke down and got not so long ago. Android is another type of smartphone. Smartphones are more expensive, but have lots of features. As I mentioned above, it’s really more of a computer that just happens to work as a telephone. I’m using it right now, to type up this message. Have a great time in Bulgaria, with the world’s very best salads!

Posted by
5697 posts

Note that the comments were from people who were already accustomed to using a cell phone in their daily at-home life ... if you will be buying a phone just for a short trip, you might find the learning curve too steep to get those benefits. One can travel without a cell phone, just as one can manage at home.
That said, we do use our cell phones in Europe as WiFi devices in hotels. I have a European SIM for local calls and for data when we are not in WiFi range, my husband puts his phone in airplane mode but is able to make emergency calls to the U.S. on the $10 per day plan.

Posted by
2095 posts

The learning curve for using a smart phone is not that bad. You would have the hang of things in a few days to get by. But, do buy with enough time to feel comfortable researching how to use it for your needs. Flip phones do not take great photos.

Posted by
5687 posts

ttsstevenson, I'd buy an unlocked smart phone now and start playing with it at home. Unless you get service for it, smart phones will work only on WiFi, but they cost nothing per month to use without service. They work free on free WiFi, but of course without service, they are of limited use once you drift away from the WiFi signal. Making calls is in fact possible to some limited degree with WiFi - install the Skype app on the phone and you can make free video calls to people with your smart phone, while you are connected to WiFi.

When you get to Bulgaria, you can buy a prepaid SIM card for your unlocked phone, so you truly can use the phone anywhere, even without a WiFi signal. If you are already familiar with the phone from using it on WiFi (I'll assume you have internet service and WiFi at home, but I guess not everyone does), then you won't have much more to learn once you get the SIM card in Bulgaria, unless you really want to use the phone to make actual calls (vs. using it for maps, research, etc.)

Posted by
7653 posts

If you get along now without a cell phone, then you may find a phone of not much use in Europe. Other than receiving and making calls to the US, I do not use my phone as a phone much when traveling. I rarely use it to call hotels or restaurants, or anywhere within Europe.

However, if you are like me, and use the internet frequently, then traveling without a smartphone is not for me. Between it being my Map; Directions; hotel reservation tool,;airline check-in and update; Uber tool; Internet search for restaurants, things to do, shopping, etc.; Camera; Alarm; and I have probably missed a few.

As for service, I have Google Fi, low monthly fee, $10 a gig of data, and no to few extra fees nearly where ever I travel. Basically, I get off the plane, my phone works, costs me no more than in the states, no hassle.