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Smart phone while traveling

My 7 year old and I are traveling to London for ten days for spring break. We are wrapping up our itinerary plans and are staying in a hotel near Westminster.

I haven’t been to London in fifteen years, and so I’m not sure whether I should purchase a cell or smart phone for use during our trip? I don’t have a cell phone, nor need one in my non traveling life in a small town. But it seemed like it would come in handy in a big city.

I was planning on buying a pay as you go phone from Carphone Warehouse once we settle in. Is this a sound plan, or should I not bother? We do have a few prepaid bookings for museums where it would be nice to have a q code for our tickets in my phone.

Any and all advice is appreciated. Thank you.

Posted by
5010 posts

I dunno. While many people can not imagine a life without a phone permanently glued to their heads, it seems you enjoy your life without one just fine (shocking to many, I'm sure). Will it be any different in London? Hard to say. If all you are thinking is a q code for a couple tickets...you could probably get that and print it out on paper (gasp!) at home before you leave. So that's an alternative.

Now, personally, I like to travel with an iPhone and an iPad Mini, and I find those useful enough to pay for some data (I put lots of critical detailed travel info on these devices and love having it all quickly available at a moment's notice). But I already have these devices, and make good use of them (FWIW, I've never bothered with a q code) for maps, and other things.

Now, if you are wavering in your commitment to a phone-free life and are looking for an excuse to finally get one...well, who am I to try to talk you out of that? ☺ If you really feel you're ready to make the leap to a life with a phone, it might be a better investment to buy one at home (that you would want to keep) rather than get what is essentially a disposable one?

Posted by
2449 posts

A smartphone is extremely useful while traveling but if you don’t use one at home, will you actually feel the need to learn to use it and then actually use it?

Main uses for me: maps, last minute internet research (whats that interesting building? What time does the museum close? Is the food at this restaurant well-reviewed?), camera, emails home, and ebooks for guidebooks and entertainment reading.

Are you staying in hotels? Apartments or Airbnb’s often want you to call or text them when you arrive, and clearly you need a phone for that. Hotels, no. Also a hotel will be able to make calls (restaurant reservations?) for you while if you are more on your own you’d need your own phone if you had to call anyone.

Posted by
18158 posts

A few other ways in which it can be very helpful to have a smartphone in Europe:

  • Apparently because of budget cuts, tourist offices in the UK, including London, are very rare these days. You could spend a lot of time making a trip to one of those and find it overcrowded and more interested in selling you stuff than in providing the type of visitor information such offices used to offer everywhere (and still do in many places other than the UK). A smartphone will help you fill that gap.

  • Museums (and I suppose some other tourist attractions) increasingly have descriptive information about their exhibitions online and accessible via their Wi-Fi to those with smartphones. In some cases this has lead to not-overly-generous information actually posted inside the museum. I don't remember whether I have had that problem in London specifically, but broadly speaking, we seem to be moving in that direction.

  • There are lots of destination-related podcasts and walking tours you can download ahead of time--often for free--and have at your fingertips, loaded on your smartphone.

  • I have rarely showed up in a major city and not learned--from a poster, a leaflet, etc.--about a special event or exhibition I was very interested in that pre-trip research had failed to uncover. Traveling with a smartphone makes it very easy to obtain the necessary details about how to take advantage of such special opportunities: It will allow you to determine the exact location of the event/exhibition, discover the hours it is open and obtain any necessary tickets.

  • In crowded conditions it isn't always easy to open a paper map (which I do prefer to smartphone maps in most situations) wide enough to find the section devoted to the correct part of town and read it. Having an electronic map on a smartphone solves that problem.

Posted by
2570 posts

I have a smart phone so I feel it is now an indispensable tool in my life. On travels, I use it for maps, research on tourist sites & sights, making reservations, taking pictures, listening to free guided tours on Rick’s Audio Europe App and a host of other things. If you decide to purchase one, do not wait until you get to London to do so.. Buy it a month or two before you leave and start using it as if you were on vacation since it will have a learning curve. That way, you’ll be familiar with it and with using the apps.

You can purchase an unlocked phone at eBay or Amazon and then get a non contract inexpensive SIM card for the time you’ll be in the US. You’ll then have to buy a local SIM once you cross the pond. If you haven’t done so yet, go to the Travel Tips section on this website and read about Phones & Tech.

Posted by
90 posts

In 15 years technology has changed so much (then windows xp/Blackberry) and now aides travel, cost has tumbled too.

I find an iPad mini very useful, a larger screen than a smartphone it doesn't have a SIM card, but I use the ubiquitous free wifi to check maps, my GPS location, train timetables, attraction times, many attractions now use pre booked timed entry.

If there were more people in your group and daily split ups, a phone is useful for a rendezvous.

10 years ago if abroad I used to pay to use the hotel's computer terminal in a public area to check my email, now there is free hotel wifi, whatsapp/twitter/FaceTime/Skype.

Posted by
2449 posts

The previous replies bring up a good point - if you are counting on services you used 15 years ago - much has changed.
It will be hard to find a pay phone.
Internet cafes are rare (hotels do still often have computers for guests but the public cafes are going away).
People you meet will expect you to call or text them to arrange plans - this goes for new friends and often private guides or Airbnb hosts.
Free paper maps are more rare (of course you can still buy one easily, but the ones with ads given out by hotels seem to be slowly disappearing). This might not be a problem yet - they are still available - but it’s a change I see coming.
Lots of things are reserved online - museum entry, some restaurant reservations, tours, event tickets, hotels. If you don’t have a way to get online you will either need to do all that before you leave or miss out on those type of tickets/reservations.

Posted by
2665 posts

The only time I have ever needed a cell phone in Europe was when I would be meeting up with locals I Knew. Otherwise it is not needed. I assume you have a computer at home to print most tickets before you leave? I would not bother buying a cell unless on your trip you decided you needed one because it is easy to buy a cheap phone in London that you can just top up...unless the prepay system has recently disappeared. Otherwise a cheap phone and a sim...both available easily in London.

That being said, for many years I have used an iPod and now iPad for entertainment on the flight, etc. I haven’t yet used it when out and about. Although I recently bought an iPad that takes a SIM card so if I can figure that out I might play with it. You could compromise with that if you are nervous. HOWEVER, you will be just fine with nothing. Personally, I like not having a mobile phone.

Posted by
7 posts

Thanks for all the replies. I do have an iPad mini, so WiFi access is an option at our hotel for planning ahead.

It sounds like I can skate by with the iPad and a little planning ahead. I don’t think we will buy a phone now. Rather, we will see what our needs are once we arrive. I have noted the location of the nearest phone store to our hotel if we need a burner phone.

One of the things I love best about traveling are the postcards mailed home, the ‘break’ from the routine, school, and family. I would like offer my daughter such an experience, especially since she is a child of the digital age. I am not anti technology at all, but my childhood feels like it is light years apart from hers since internet and cell phones hadn’t taken off in my neck of the woods when I was her age.

Posted by
1127 posts

A bit unrelated, but perhaps a friend or family member has an old smart phone that you can use. It’s definitely handy for photography.

Posted by
6626 posts

I just got back from 12 day trip in Europe. A smart phone with just data for internet access comes in handy for navigating any city serving as a map and gives you all your options on walking versus taking a bus or a train. It is good for finding your way to restaurants as well something a paper map is lacking

Posted by
7 posts

For those traveling with smart phones did you use just WiFi or do the SIM card thing?

Posted by
18158 posts

For four trips I just used Wi-Fi; for the last one I had a US cellphone plan with good rates in Europe, including free data. I must say that I enjoyed using that free data on long bus and train rides on which Wi-Fi was only intermittently available, if at all. However, my trips are long ones; I don't think I'd mind all that much not having data access all that time on a trip of the typical length (2 weeks or so). I do pay a lot of attention to references to good or bad Wi-Fi in hotel reviews.

I've found that while you may well get through a short trip without really needing to telephone someone, I need to do so at least every 6 to 8 weeks or so, for one reason or another. There are work-arounds if you don't have a phone (people are often super helpful), but it's nice not to have to worry about how you'll contact your next lodging if your train or bus is running really late.

Every traveler has to decide how much it's worth to have a telephone and data access in the situations described above and any others he can dream up. A European SIM is quite inexpensive; using a phone with an American SIM in it abroad is a different story with some of the major carriers.

Posted by
31221 posts

chloe,

As with most decisions, there are pros & cons with both arguments. If you've never had a cell phone or smartphone, you will probably find ways to manage the trip without one. A few thoughts.....

  • the world is becoming increasingly oriented towards cellphones and especially smartphones. As others have noted, public phone booths are becoming less prolific so having a smartphone provides the ability to contact hotels or tour companies, obtain information from the internet, etc.
  • I'm not sure that buying a PAYG smartphone when you arrive in London is the best idea. There will be a learning curve in not only learning how to operate the phone, but also in topping up the minutes when required.
  • As you're travelling with a 7 year old, there's a safety aspect to consider also. In the unlikely event an "unfortunate incident" were to occur, having a phone will be invaluable in keeping in touch with family back home, obtaining information, etc. In all likelihood you'll both have a wonderful time, but preparing for the alternative is also prudent.

Your profile doesn't indicate where you're located, but I'm assuming you have cell service in your small town? If you don't plan to start using a phone in the near future, there are a couple of options you could consider......

  • obtain a travel phone from firms such as *Cellular Abroad, Mobal, iRoam* or others. That would allow you to obtain the phone before your trip and become familiar with it.
  • buy an unlocked smartphone from Amazon or other sites - https://www.amazon.com/s?k=unlocked+smartphones&ref=nb_sb_noss_2 . Spend some time with it before your trip and then buy a UK SIM card from Carphone Warehouse when you arrive. Your hotel will likely offer WiFi so you can use that to access the internet and still have the ability to call when out touring.

I've been travelling with a cellphone for many years (at first a basic flip phone and now an iPhone) and can't imagine ever travelling without it. I often travel solo and have found from hard experience that it's an essential travel accessory. It has so many useful functions in addition to jut making phone calls including being able to access E-mail and especially text messages, researching train details (and buying tickets if necessary), storing travel and Itinerary details, using GPS to find my way around and many more. I have to be reachable from home, so have been using roaming with my home network for the last few years. It's a bit expensive but has worked extremely well.

Is there any possibility you might decide to start using a smartphone at home? I'm assuming you're located in the U.S. and many users on the forum have reported good results with using T-Mobile for travel. That would most likely require you to sign up for a monthly plan, as travel roaming is often not allowed with domestic PAYG plans.

Good luck with your decision!

Posted by
2994 posts

I seldom use my phone overseas for calls, but on occasion, I will need to make a quick call to get in touch a landlord at a B&B, or to send a text. Otherwise, I’ll use it for navigating using maps downloaded for offline use (no WiFi needed). When at the hotel, I’ll connect to WiFi to do anything I need to do on the Internet.

Posted by
11232 posts

On my mother's Android tablet, using the headphones with microphone, I was able to set it up to make calls using Google Hangouts Dialer (thanks to tips here from Andrew H). I don't know if this can work on an iPad Mini, but it's worth trying to set up before you leave home.

Google Hangouts Dialer can make free calls to any US number as long as you're on Wi-Fi. So, it's great for calling home in an emergency, or if you have to call an airline or bank. You can also put some credit on it and make very cheap calls to other countries.

And why might you need to use your iPad Mini to make calls? Not only are pay phones almost completely gone, but not all hotel rooms have phones in the room these days. It really is assumed that everyone has a cell phone. It's not that you can't function without one, but you do have to realize that having one is now the default - and everything is changing to accommodate this, from the lack of paper maps and schedules to the lack of public phones.

I think your plan to go without phones, and buy one there if and when you need one, is sound. For anything you can't do with your iPad Mini, a flip phone should be sufficient. As a bonus, these are much cheaper and easier to learn than a new smart phone.

Posted by
7125 posts

For four trips I just used Wi-Fi; for the last one I had a US cellphone plan with good rates in Europe, including free data.

Care to share who this friendly carrier is?

Posted by
2665 posts

As you have an iPad mini already, you likely know that you can call anyone with an iPhone with it if you are on wifi with no additional Apps added. FaceTime, etc.

Posted by
1171 posts

I fought buying a smartphone for years! I saw no need. It’s like a microwave. How did I ever live without it?

I use my smartphone for reading books, finding directions, the nearest gas stations and restaurants in unfamiliar places, texting kids ( they never answer calls but do texts, go figure ) and for Wi-Fi video calls, movies, news TV and articles.
I’m glad I bought one.

Posted by
18158 posts

I have T-Mobile service. T-Mobile is one of the cellular provider with reasonable rates for calls (I think 25 or 30 cents per minute) and no charge for data in Europe--at least in most countries. Policies can change, so this should be verified. It has been reported that the company does not appreciate it if you sign up shortly before heading to Europe and proceed to use a lot of data over there. I converted to a monthly T-Mobile plan a few month before I left, traveled for 4-1/2 months and held my breath, sort of expecting a nastygram, but I didn't receive one. I did use hotel Wi-Fi as much as possible, and I didn't stream movies via cellular data or anything like that.

I believe Sprint's rates are similar to T-Mobile's, and Google Fi is supposed to be even less expensive. Google Fi doesn't work with all phones.

Posted by
1217 posts

I also find my smartphone very useful on airplane travel days- download the airline app for push notifications about gate information and flight delays. There have also been a few times when I couldn't get a US credit card to work for payment but ApplePay was th contactless workaround.

Posted by
7 posts

Thanks everyone for the additional information. It sounds like I have a lot to learn about smart phones before the trip. I decided to buy an unlocked iPhone thanks to everyone’s detailed input. It was very helpful since I haven’t traveled internationally in a while. And not since the era of smartphones. That part is obvious!

I haven’t decided between the SIM card switcheroo or trying a service like T-Mobile, since the phone isn’t for entertainment during our trip but rather, emergencies. My main hesitation is 1) I don’t know how easy it is to switch SIM card and plans, and 2) I would like the option of using data to tap into museum audio guides. Because museums are a top draw for me and my daughter, we will definitely do several visits during our stay. I’m leaning towards the T-Mobile option for simplicity.

And to Diane, you made me laugh because I don’t have a microwave either. But that is by necessity because my kitchen is small and I don’t have the counter space. But that’s another topic....

Thanks again, everyone!

Posted by
5539 posts

I added a foreign SIM card on our previous trip (thanks to Andrew H for the mentoring!) and was able to use it again this trip -- same number, so I could give it to apartment owners ahead of time. For €9 I can get 2GB of data for a month (GPS, internet research on-the-go) and inexpensive local calls and texts. Hotel / apartment Wi-Fi takes care of more sedentary internet use like emails and posting on this forum.
Switching out my AT&T SIM and putting in the NL Vodafone SIM -- and then switching back at the end of the trip -- was easy-peasy, just needed a paper clip to do it. (I leave the domestic SIM at home on a safe place and do the switching there.)
You probably don't need data for the museum information, just the museum's own Wi-Fi.

Posted by
5010 posts

As long as your phone is unlocked, switching SIMs is very, very simple. You'll need a paper clip. Or the shop where you buy your SIM may do the swap for you. In either case, it's quite straightforward and just takes a moment.

Posted by
257 posts

I use Google Project Fi phone because it switches networks (I'm in a rural area too) and because it works in London for the exact same price as here in the USA. I used it in April in London, took about 10 minutes for it to become oriented to the new country, but worked great for the whole 3 weeks I was there. It also can create a hotspot for using with my laptop securely. Having the phone I usually use in daily life, all set up with travel apps and all, was VERY helpful. I've gone before and bought cheap phones for me and my daughter in the past, but they were not easy to find, and not that easy to use. I like easy stuff :}
Have a great time.
-Alison

Posted by
792 posts

Wow...Hello from Wisconsin,
You have probably stopped reading the post you started. If you don't have one then most of the nice things they can do for you are too far up the learning/frustration curve to be worth it. My wife and I travel Europe without a phone. If you really need one. You can borrow one in any pub. Throw yourself on the mercy of strangers, you will make their day.

Recently in the Czech Republic we were having difficulty with an AirBnB like rental. The manager did not arrive at the agreed upon time to give us the code numbers to get in. We stopped a couple and asked for help. They made the call and got the code after quite a bit of difficulty. Turns out she was the Secretary to the President of the country. She also gave us her card and said if we ran into trouble to phone her. See? Made her day and ours. But we were trying to rent an apartment for a week not a hotel with a main desk that is occupied 24 hr/day. So months and months of travel in Europe and no need that couldn't be met by asking.

If you need a reservation at a restaurant your hotel can do it. And many hotels have a visitor computer or two. We do travel with a laptop or tablet. But not absolutely necessary.

And many of the apps are for people who can't be without them. There is an app to tell you when the bus your are waiting for is going to arrive...either you wait until the bus comes or you know you are going to wait an estimated 7 minutes and end up waiting for the bus knowing you can complain that the app or the bus is off if it takes more than 7 minutes.

If you can live at home without one, you can travel without one. Keep your frustration level down. Some day you will get a smart phone, learn how to use it, and then you should consider what you have to do to be able to use it when you travel abroad.

wayne iNWI

Posted by
13 posts

I was in London two years ago with a smart phone, but decided to depend on wifi rather than paying extra for local cell service. BIG mistake. A service disruption on the tube left me stranded 3 miles from my hotel and absolutely no clue where I was. I walked for hours trying to find a wifi signal so I could update my Google map. I did get there eventually, but I was exhausted and it ruined my museum trip the next day because I was so footsore. I would highly recommend having the smart phone with cell service so you don't wind up stranded, too - it's always a possibility in London, where the public transportation can be iffy during high use periods.

Posted by
2611 posts

@cathyclark I’m sorry that you walked for hours, but there was no need for it. Also, three miles shouldn’t take 3 hours, an hour or an hour and half at the most. As Emma said you shouldn’t asked, 99.9% of the people would of helped you. Anyone that worked at any tube station would of helped. You could of very easily flagged a black cab to take you.

Posted by
1003 posts

We take only an ipad mini when traveling. We can keep in touch with home using the hotel wifi. When walking around, we use paper maps and ask for directions if necessary.

Posted by
327 posts

If you can live at home without one, you can travel without one.

Chloe, if you're still following this thread, I agree with the above post. Suggest you obtain a copy of Rick Steves Pocket London book (with fold-out map), and you should be just fine. There are other excellent maps and resource materials available should you wish to use them. With your iPad Mini and WiFi at your hotel, you should be good to go and enjoy.

Posted by
31221 posts

chloe,

Congratulations on your purchase of an unlocked iPhone. You'll probably find that it's not only a valuable travel accessory but also very useful at home. My iPhone is always within arm's reach and I won't leave home without it as it's useful for so many things.

Posted by
4662 posts

We are not big smart phone people. We are retired and use our computers at home instead of a small screen phone.

Still, when we travel in the USA, I take the phone to call people we are going to visit and to call home to check on our cat sitter.

When going overseas, our phones don't work, but I take mine and can use it to send texts in hotels were we have wifi. Also, can do internet searches using wifi. We travel a lot and frankly, when overseas, we really don't need the phone. My wife takes her iPad which is sometimes of value. If we rent a car, I just rent one with a navigation system.

Also, I do a lot of research and book hotels and some tours in advance. I take maps as a backup if we are driving a rental car.

Frankly, unlike so many people, we are not obsessed with the smart phone.

Posted by
42 posts

Frankly, unlike so many people, we are not obsessed with the smart phone.

I don't think it's a matter of being "obsessed"; I think it's a matter of understanding that it's merely a tool that many find useful for many different purposes. If it's not something that the OP is used to relying on in everyday life, she would likely be able to get by without one on her trip (although it sounds like she has chosen to get one for the trip).

As someone who uses mine for not just phone calls, but for directions, email, research, travel documents, reading, listening to music, etc., I appreciate the fact that it has replaced my old flip phone, MP3 player, laptop, Kindle and GPS, and conveniently fits in my purse. Different strokes for different folks, but no reason to ridicule others for their choices.

Posted by
197 posts

The OP mentioned Carphone Warehouse. How do you get those phones? We'll be in the UK for a month and I would like to get a local phone for GPS and phone calls. Would rather not switch out sims and my phone is locked. If not Carphone Warehouse anyone have any other suggestions for pay as you phones?

Posted by
31221 posts

April,

Carphone Warehouse locations are easy to find. Ask the staff at your hotel where the nearest outlet is when you arrive in the U.K. They represent a number of different cell networks. Walk up to the counter, tell them what you want and the sales people will give you the options.

Posted by
31221 posts

"Frankly, unlike so many people, we are not obsessed with the smart phone."

What Laurie said!

Obsessions are "unwanted and repetitive thoughts, urges, or images that don't go away." While that definition may apply to some smartphone users, it doesn't apply to all smartphone users. Many people find that a smartphone is simply a handy multi-purpose device that performs a variety of useful functions and makes life easier.

Posted by
9 posts

One thing I would like to add is if you do bring a smart device, either tablet or phone, check your carrier to see about international rates. I used to work with AT&T international care and the horror stories about using data internationally were endless. I'm sure things have changed in the six years since I left that job, but it is still a good idea to find out what policies are in place with your service. If you do decide to get a smart phone, or use your tablet, familiarize yourself with your data roaming/airplane mode settings. And of course use WiFi whenever possible.

Posted by
1217 posts

The AT&T and Verizon $10 a day international roaming options are definitely expensive for a longer trip but they seem to come with no surprises.

Posted by
13 posts

I don’t know if this is obvious to everyone, but if you download a city map onto your iPad mini, then, using WiFi at your hotel or Air BnB, you can map out your route to the museum or venue you are going to and then it will stay on your device as you walk there. It’s very handy for walking (and driving) as the voice behind the Google map automaton or Apple map will tell you “turn left, turn right, etc) and you can see where you are on the map. This eliminates data usage. I have never bought a local SIM card (but probably should have) and have found this to be life saving many times. It even worked driving from Beaune to Charles de Gaulle Airport. Have a great time!

Posted by
732 posts

Find out if your Hotel is offering use of a Smart Phone, included with, your room booking. We were surprised by this service at our hotel in Kensington in 2017. There, in our room, we found a Smart Phone in its charger and instructions that said we could use it and take it with us. It was something of a promotional ad, to later try and get you to buy the phone entirely. We didn't use it, "Out and About," but i did play with it some and it worked just like a regular Smart Phone, that made local calls, displayed maps, and had an internet browser. There was no extra charge on our final bill for the little bit that i played with it. We didn't take it with us out of the room, because if we had lost it, we would have to buy the phone.