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Latest phone advice?

I'm afraid even before COVID I haven't been to Europe in many years and technology keeps marching on. At that time I bought two burner phones with local SIM cards and rented a GPS along with my car.

Now there are so many options, it makes my head hurt. Can someone (like Harold with his excellent Mint post) run through the current options? Such as, just use my current Verizon phone and turn on an international plan? Or get a T Mobile account in the States and only use it on the trip? Or buy a burner phone and get a local SIM knowing that calling home will be expensive? And what's the deal with this app called Whatsapp or something? What kind of business model gives people free calls and texts? And what about data, I've currently got unlimited so I never think about usage anymore.

I need to lie down for a minute.

Posted by
2118 posts

I used to go to a lot of trouble for technology stuff as I am always working on my trips. It’s so much easier now.

TMobile customer. I use my phone for unlimited texts and data for email etc. Calls are usually (not sure if that’s for all countries) 25 cents a minute but I just turn on my WiFi calling and I can call that way for free from the hotels.

WhatsApp is used a ton - at least with the companies I have worked with recently. It’s a free app and works well - I’ve only used it for messaging and sending pictures and videos. You can make a call with it but I have not tried it.

When I want to video chat with someone like a friend, as long as I have WiFi, I will use Facebook video and that’s free. I can also just call without video via Facebook. For clients, I just call with my regular phone feature while on WiFi.

It’s really a vast improvement from even 5 years ago.

Posted by
419 posts

Also a T Mobile customer - step off the plane at destination, take cell off airplane mode, you get a text that say, "Welcome to ......" - SUPER easy! I think I spent $14 talking to my husband on and off, but that wasn't a requirement, lol.

Posted by
1086 posts

A T-Mobile prepaid account (but not one with a long term contract, which I'm not sure they do anymore) or a Google Fi account let's you use text and data outside the U.S. as part of your plan. Calls are also discounted from what others charge. The data is at a slower rate, suitable for emails and some web browsing. You can pay a little and upgrade to faster speeds just for the time you are outside the country. T-Mobile has sent me texts when I traveled laying out the options and how to obtain them.

One advantage (or disadvantage): Others back home can contact you simply by dialing a U.S. number.

If you have decent data speeds through wifi or otherwise, you can make free calls through WhatsApp or other similar services, such as Google Duo or Line. If you have data that isn't slowed down too much, you can get a Google Voice number (just need a free Google Gmail account and a credit card) and make international calls at low rates. That helps to call overseas when making plans and reservations plus helps in calling when in the foreign country.

Ease and affordability of communication is worlds better than what we dealt with in the past.

Posted by
5519 posts

We switched from Verizon to T-Mobile 3 years ago for our regular service. Being over 55 years old, we get senior plan pricing. As described above, it’s a vast improvement! And Google Maps on the smartphone was better for Crete than the GPS that came with the rental car, unless you need a mechanized voice reminding you to turn left in 200 meters.

Posted by
758 posts

Same as Cyn. Dumped our Verizon acct 3 years ago for T-Mobile senior plan. Kept our same phone numbers. Saved considerably over Verizon. Used the phone for free text and data in Ireland and for a Budapest to Amsterdam cruise. Other than a camp ground in Colorado, no problems with coverage.

We usually go to the Costco kiosk for new phones. My husband had gone to Costco just to upgrade his phone. Phone was going to be full price with Verizon plus they were going to charge an upgrade fee. Instead the rep offered a 2 for 1 deal with T-Mobile and the much cheaper plan. No regrets.

Posted by
2399 posts

We’re currently looking into switching from AT&T to T Mobile. After all these posts, have decided to go for it.

Posted by
2396 posts

Ah technology, what would we ever do if you stopped changing. Thanks for the info.

As an aside, I often see people saying Hey we went to T Mobile for the senior discount. I have the same plan at Verizon, I don't think it's something they only offer me because they love me. Unlimited everything at a discounted rate for both my lines.

Posted by
5519 posts

T-Mobile’s senior rate was just a bonus. Their foreign calling & data were the primary reason to consider them. The domestic signal quality and coverage were spotty the first year, especially n the Colorado mountains, but that’s improved considerably recently. Still now perfect, but it beats a landline with an extremely long cord.

Speaking of landlines, we just ditched our last year. Might not need the buggy whip much longer, either.

Posted by
2396 posts

Cell phone coverage is intensely YMMV. It can vary even between a few blocks.

Posted by
132 posts

My wife has an unlocked Motorola android phone (bought at Costco) with a Verizon plan for use in USA (better coverage in our area). Buy an EU traveler's plan before we go and pickup the sim card upon arrival. Easy to install and no problems with coverage. Use her phone as a data hotspot for my android tablet. Upon return to US, swapped original sim card back in and all is well.

Posted by
2336 posts

I take 2 phones when I travel in Europe, because I rely on my phone quite heavily for my documents, itinerary, activities and maps. I carry my current Android phone, with my Verizon SIM and an an older Verizon (Android) phone with the Vodafone UK SIM.

I use my newer phone in the hotel room, making calls with WhatsApp and using WIFI only - no data.
I use my older phone, with the Vodafone UK SIM, when I'm out and about and to make local calls, send texts, for maps and navigation (walking and driving) and for daily sightseeing research.

All of my plans and documents are synched to both phones using various apps: OneNote, DropBox and calendar/email.

Here are the details of the SIM card I have used on multiple Europe trips across several countries in my old Verizon phone:
https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/tech-tips/vodafone-uk-sim-card-for-use-in-europe

The last time I checked (March, 2022) Vodafone UK's site still indicates their plans include roaming in "51 European destinations:

https://www.vodafone.co.uk/mobile/global-roaming#:~:text=Stress%2Dfree%20roaming%20on%20Pay,or%20slow%20down%20your%20data.

Posted by
2396 posts

CWsocial, I think you're on the right track. 2 phones seems to make sense, since if you just change over to a local SIM you've lost your home phone number.

I did a bunch of reading up on Whatsapp yesterday, what an interesting app. The one caveat that people seem to skip over is that yeah it's great when there's wifi, but otherwise it's using up your data.

Posted by
2336 posts
  • if you just change over to a local SIM you've lost your home phone number.*

Yes, if you want to stay in touch with folks at home, you either have to give them your "new" (European) number or you can place voice calls over Wifi, assuming your phone and plan support it. I keep in touch with my Mom while I travel and she's learned to use WhatsApp, which you are exactly right, can either use WiFI or data. The data could quickly get expensive and chew through a data plan, so I normally reserve using it for calls over WiFi. I do use WhatsApp to send "texts" even when I'm not on WiFi: to friends at home and abroad, and to service providers, such as hotels.

By maintaining my Vodafone UK SIM across multiple trips, I can provide that UK phone number in advance to people at home and abroad.

Posted by
206 posts

The latest iPhones and many Android phones now have and "eSIM" capability. I believe (but have not confirmed or done this personally) you can load an second electronic SIM from an EU carrier while retaining your original number. Apple support article (iPhone specific):

https://support.apple.com/en-au/HT209044

Posted by
11280 posts

Harold here. The thread about Mint Mobile that Phred was referring to is here: https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/tech-tips/mint-mobile-reviews

I'll repeat some of what I said there. First, you have to find a carrier that meets your needs at home; for the purposes of the rest of this thread, I'll assume home is the US (if it is not, everything changes). Unless you're traveling more than you are at home, it doesn't make sense to get a plan that works for travel but doesn't work well while you're at home!

Here is a good article summarizing some options: https://www.nytimes.com/wirecutter/reviews/best-wireless-carrier/

However, that article, detailed as it is, is still not comprehensive. For instance, my sister needed Verizon to get service at her home and work (other carriers were spotty or nonexistent). But the Verizon plan recommended in the article was more expensive than the prepaid 5 GB per month plan. After a year, the price for that plan lowers to $25 per month. However, it has no international roaming (or maybe it roams only in North America, I don't remember).

Now, once you've identified a plan that works well for your domestic use, see what the travel options are. If they are affordable for you, it's by far the easiest to just use that.

If they are not, you can buy an unlocked phone that is compatible with your plan. This is VERY important - all phone models are sold in different versions, with different compatibilities. For instance, my sister made sure her new phone would work with Verizon, but it turned out it was not compatible with cell service offered by Comcast (not clear why, since Comcast uses Verizon's network).

With an unlocked phone, you can then buy local SIM cards when you travel. These are usually cheap, since the US has some of the world's highest rates for cell service. This does mean, as people have discussed above, that you have a local number. If anyone from the US wants to reach you, they they have to know how to call or text a foreign number, and they have to pay for it. In turn, the cost can be low or high, depending on their particular plan. If it's high, they can text you and you can call them back. With most European SIM cards, there is usually a way to get inexpensive calls to the US; sometimes you have to do something special to activate this.

More in next post....

Posted by
11280 posts

Whatsapp is an app that is used all over the world - except in the US. (People in other countries are genuinely shocked that almost no one in the US had heard of it - they use it ALL THE TIME). It can be used for texts, calls, or video calls. If you use it on Wi-Fi, there's no charge. If you are not on Wi-Fi, it uses data. If, in turn, you have a lot of data (such as on your home unlimited plan, or from a European SIM), you can still use it pretty freely. But if you don't have a lot of data, or if you're paying for data by the megabyte (such as with Mint Mobile), this "free" app can get very expensive, and/or can use all your data allotment. The big advantages of Whatsapp are that people reach you the same way when you are traveling as when you are home, and that anyone you want to contact locally (such as a hotel) is likely to use it. The disadvantage is that anyone you want to contact on it has to have the app installed. When you do install it, you'll see everyone in your contact list who has it already. You will probably be surprised at the number of people this is (I sure was).

If you have a choice of domestic plans, and don't have a reason to favor one over the other, then choosing T-Mobile or Google Fi makes sense, since they are clearly the best US plans for foreign travel that don't involve getting another SIM card. But Phred, be careful; they have tried to make sure that people use them primarily in the US, and only occasionally abroad. They reserve the right to cut off service if they determine that you are using them mainly or only abroad. How they define this is not publicly disclosed, but they do say that you need to have used the phone in the US for a certain amount of time before using it abroad. Plus, it's pretty pricey to get a plan that requires monthly payments that you will only use a few times a year. So, I wouldn't look to get T-Mobile with the idea of using it only when traveling.

So, of the things you listed, here's what I'd say:

1) just use my current Verizon phone and turn on an international plan?
If the cost of this in total (regular plan plus extra $10 on days you use the phone abroad) is workable for you, that's fine. Do remember to put the phone in airplane mode on days you don't want to be charged. I've heard too many stories of people who didn't think they had done something that counts as use, but it did, and they got charged without wanting to be.

2) Or get a T Mobile account in the States and only use it on the trip?
Again, don't do this, but if T-Mobile works for you in the US, it's a great travel plan, as long as you only need slow data. I have T-Mobile, and find that the data works for maps (slowly) and loading web pages like this one, without much graphics or video (again, slowly). It isn't really workable for other things, which I do on Wi-Fi.

3) Or buy a burner phone and get a local SIM knowing that calling home will be expensive?
You don't have to buy a burner phone; you can just get an unlocked phone, and use it in the US and abroad. And as I said, don't be so sure that calls home will be expensive. In addition to using the SIM itself for calls, you can also use Whatsapp (to people who also have it), or Google Voice (should work to any US number). I don't know all the ins and outs of Google Voice, but it seems that it's replacing Google Hangouts Dialer, which allowed free unlimited calls any US number (including 800 numbers) while on Wi-Fi. There was even a way to receive calls. Our poster Andrew H had posts with all the details of Hangouts, so I hope he'll update us on Google Voice.

Whew! That's all I have the energy to type now.

Posted by
20810 posts

I switched from a pay-as-you-go T-Mobile plan (with no service in Europe) to a regular monthly T-Mobile plan before my 2019 trip. I don't remember the exact date; it may have been 2 or 3 months prior to my departure. I was a bit nervous about that, because my trip was 4-1/2 months long. I wondered whether I'd be getting an unwanted communication from T-Mobile somewhere along the way. I did not, nor have I received any subsequent complaint about how I used my phone.

I'd guess my cellular-data usage in Europe was moderate. I do most of my web-surfing in my hotel room via Wi-Fi. I look at maps during the day, but in a way that usually doesn't involve using data. But if I'm on a bus or train trip and there's no Wi-Fi (which is frequent), I happily read this forum and others, using cellular data. I certainly don't attempt to stream video.

Based on my experience, I suspect most folks who don't try to stream video won't run afoul of T-Mobile's unpublished usage rules. I'm not sure what would happen, though, on a long driving trip if you were constantly using something like Google Maps in a way that pinged the network for live traffic information.

Posted by
836 posts

I would concur with many suggestions about TM and Google Fi. I also highly recommend that you buy a phone with dual-SIM card slots. I have a SONY XZ Premium that I bought years ago and it still rocks. Sony will roll out newer versions of their phones later this year. Check them out. They are not the cheapest at first glance, but their quality, durability, and reliability more than compensate for the price tag. The camera is top notch and their customer service is second to none.

Do not buy Samsung, which I consider to be overpriced junk. Their product quality control is bad and their customer service sucks even more.