Some travelers use their time away as an opportunity for a digital detox, and other travelers document the entire trip for their friends, families, and followers. Regardless of where you fall within that spectrum, it’s important to remember that your phone is more than just a way to connect to work, emails, and social media. For female travelers especially, your phone can be a lifeline in an emergency and staying connected should be a top safety consideration when planning your travels.
Stay safe while traveling by staying connected with one of these four methods: using a local SIM card, purchasing or renting a pocket WIFI, roaming with your current provider, or relying on WIFI networks in cafes, hotels, etc. For each option, I discuss the pro’s and con’s and share tips for choosing the most economical option for you.
Purchasing a Local SIM Card
The cost of a SIM card and a data plan varies greatly from country to country, and I typically search for updated information regarding specific carriers and airports in TripAdvisor forums. Local SIM cards typically charge the lowest daily or pre-paid rate, but the convenience, applicable set-up costs, and length of stay will determine if it makes sense for your trip or not. Depending on which country or countries you will be visiting, you can search online forums for an idea of cost and if a SIM card is easy to locate, purchase, and activate. In most countries, you will need to show your passport to purchase a SIM card.
While traveling in Europe for four months I purchased a SIM card from Orange at a storefront in Spain. You can also pre-order an Orange SIM card prior to departing for your trip to Europe on Amazon. The Orange SIM card conveniently worked for me in multiple countries across Europe: Spain, the UK, Bulgaria, Germany, and Austria. The Orange SIM card and first few weeks of service cost €40 EUR and every thirty or so days I would receive an SMS (in Spanish which wasn’t an issue because I understand it) to which I would need to respond to continue using the service. I would also receive balance notifications and be alerted when it was time to ‘top-up’, which was easy to do online. I was overall happy with the experience but it was never entirely clear to me how many GBs of data I get when topping-up €5, €10, or €15 euro, but with normal use a €15 top up would last me about 3 weeks.
Pro’s and Con’s of Purchasing a Local SIM Card
Pro- Can be inexpensive depending on the region
Pro- Cost-effective for longer trips
Pro- Most airport kiosks will activate the SIM card for you
Con- You need an unlocked phone
Con- You temporarily lose your regular phone number so you won’t receive calls or messages until you switch back to your original SIM card
Con- the SMS notifications for activating or continuing service may be in a language you can’t understand
Renting or Purchasing a Portable WIFI Network
There is a wide range of costs within the portable WIFI category, with some options being surprisingly inexpensive and others being way out of budget for a majority of travelers. In many countries in Asia, I have rented a pocket WIFI hotspot for as little as $1-$2 USD a day with unlimited data. Pick-up and drop-off is conveniently located in airport arrival and departure halls, and reservations can be made and pre-paid on sites like Klook or KKDay. Your reservation will provide detailed directions to the pick-up kiosk in the airport. This option is so inexpensive and convenient that every time I use a pocket WIFI in Asia (I’ve personally used them in Hong Kong, South Korea, Indonesia, and Taiwan) I wonder to myself why it doesn’t exist everywhere.
On the other end of the spectrum are portable WIFI devices that you can purchase through providers like Verizon Wireless for $100-$200 USD but require a monthly data plan. Companies like Skyroam sell their portable WIFI devices for $150 USD and charge up to $99 USD a month or $9 USD a day for unlimited coverage. This pricing model is quite steep for most travelers, and would likely only be worth it if you were constantly traveling abroad across multiple regions and countries.
Pro’s and Con’s of Renting or Purchasing a Portable WIFI Network
Pro- Fast, reliable, private connection
Pro- Easy and inexpensive in most countries Asia
Con- Expensive in most other regions worldwide
Connecting to Public or Open WIFI Networks
Relying on public WIFI networks is not recommended as it will only help while you are connected, and it won’t be of any use if you find yourself in an emergency. You can download maps and screenshot information you may need to access, but you will not be able to make calls or send messages unless you are somewhere you can connect to WIFI. If connecting to WIFI networks in cafes or other public areas is your only option or another method you intended to use failed, I suggest being prepared with a VPN like HotSpot Shield. Using a VPN can protect you from any malicious activity taking place on an open WIFI network.
Pro’s and Con’s of Connecting to Public or Open WIFI Networks
Con- Limited connectivity is unreliable
Con- Not helpful in an emergency
Con- Vulnerable to malicious activity or hacking
Roaming on Your Current Service Provider
(This post only discusses US Service Providers)
I would consider roaming the easiest, yet overall least economical option. Roaming has a reputation for outrageous costs, especially when a family makes headlines for a $13,000 phone bill upon returning home from vacation. But over the past few years, competition between carriers has inspired better features for consumers: clear messaging and notifications of data charges, daily limits on allowable data usage, and reliable coverage. I personally use a Verizon Wireless plan with TravelPass, which charges me $10 each day that I am traveling in one of 185 countries, or $5 a day that I am traveling in Canada or Mexico. Data speeds are fast and reliable, and I am able to select from a number of local networks from wherever I am traveling. AT&T offers a similar $10 a day plan in 100 countries. I personally have not used T-Mobile whose plans famously advertise no international roaming charges, but friends of mine who are T-Mobile customers continue to use the service but complain about limited options for network selection and slow data speeds while traveling abroad.
Pro’s and Con’s of Roaming on Your Current Service Provider
Pro- You keep your phone number
Con- Expensive for longer trips
Con- Data speeds can slow down after exceeding daily data allowances
For each trip, you can do a cost comparison of each method for the specific country or countries you are traveling to. For example: when I was traveling in Morocco for 10 days, roaming would have cost me $100 USD, but I was able to find a SIM card provider at the Casablanca airport that offered 10GB of data for $15 USD, which also included the price of the card. On the other hand, when I was invited on a press-trip to Switzerland for 4 days, I discovered after a bit of research that a local SIM card was going to cost me €8 EUR a day plus €80 EUR for the SIM card itself. For that trip to Switzerland, it was more cost-effective to incur $40 USD worth of roaming charges on my Verizon Wireless plan.
You could also use a combination of the above methods for added convenience. For example, you can use a free airport or hotel WIFI network to download all of your emails after a long day of traveling so you don’t use up precious data from your SIM card or international roaming plan.
If you’re considering traveling and leaving your phone behind to go “off the grid” or on a social media detox, I suggest simply logging out or deleting the apps off your phone. If you have more self-control (this wouldn’t work for me), then you could even just turn off notifications for social apps so you aren’t tempted to open them. But for safety’s sake- especially while you are traveling- I suggest keeping a connected phone nearby in case of an emergency or to avoid getting stuck in a regrettable situation.
Which of the above methods do you tend to use more often? Is there another method you use that isn’t mentioned above? Let me know in the comments!
Related: 18 Safety Tips for Female Travelers
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