Is it smart to travel with your smartphone?

Ah, the tight tether of the smartphone.

We travel to escape, oftentimes, the humdrum of our everyday. As I mentioned a few posts ago in Things I Bring: Don’t bring your laptop unless necessary, i.e., you have to work while away. I think most people would agree with this. Decidedly fewer people, I suspect, would be willing to leave the beloved smartphone at home, however. Most times, I’m Team Smartphone. Here are some key questions to consider when contemplating if it’s smart to bring the smartphone, and how to do it.

Will it work? Of course, it will. Won’t it? Double-check with your mobile carrier on which features will and which won’t.

How much is it? Do they have wi-fi where you’ll be? Is it free? The answers to these questions will also help you decide on a data plan. Call up your mobile carrier and find out about their international calling, text and data plans. Ask if you can sign up for a prorated international plan only for the days/weeks you’ll be abroad. Getting an international plan will save you money on a per-text, per-minute basis. Or consider using a service like Skype on your mobile. When it gets down to it, ask yourself if you’re really going to need or use the cell phone.

Alright, you’ve decided to bring your phone. Now what? Figure out how to avoid data roaming charges with your phone’s settings. Many cellphone carriers will have information on their websites about how to change your phone’s settings. Ask your cellphone carrier’s customer service reps to talk you through it over the phone or in the store. Think about conserving the battery life by turning off some alerts. (Or, by turning it off altogether!) Save on data by changing your email to download messages manually. Don’t forget the cellphone charger and an international current plug converter! And it would probably be useful to have important phone numbers written down or printed out, just in case (like the toll-free numbers for your credit cards as discussed in “Where Are your Papers?”).

Is there an app for that? Depending on where you’re going, you can find a lot of travel apps out there – both free and with a fee. (Sorry, my Droid buddies: I’m only speaking from iPhone experience.) Search for the cities where you’ll be travelling in the App Store, or simply “travel”. You can find apps for museums, like the Louvre; for airports, like My Airport for CDG and Orly in Paris, and all-purpose guides like Lonely Planet and TimeOut. There’s apps for language like the TOTALe app from Rosetta Stone, which serves as a companion to your RS purchase, or Living Language for Spanish, which comes with 11 free lessons and allows users to buy more lessons in-app. Many airlines have apps that allow you to check in and display a boarding pass right on your screen, like American Airlines. Some, but not all, of these travel apps work without an internet connection. Check out the ratings of each app in the App Store before you buy, and snag the free version if one is available. A few free apps I’d recommend: TripAdvisor, Yelp (for US travel), AAA Roadside Assistance (for those road trips), FastCustomer and Kayak. You might want to peep the most popular Travel apps in iTunes. Many folks use the built-in camera on your phones instead of traveling with a separate digital camera and all its accoutrements. I think that’s a smart option, too. Bonus: there’s plenty of fun camera and imaging apps you can play with to make your images look super cool (like my favorite, Instagram).

I’ve got a few apps, but what about a map? A few of the travel apps include maps and location-based features, like directions to restaurants and other attractions tagged on the map. But if you don’t want to buy a map app, or even if you don’t want to rely on wi-fi access, try downloading or saving PDFs of maps to your phone. You can store PDFs in iBooks. One kind of map that might be useful to download as a PDF to iBooks would be subway or other public transportation maps, since, in most American cities, cellphone and internet service diminishes underground. If all else fails, pick up a road map at a gas station, or city landmark maps at the local tourist office or at your hotel.

Be aware of your surroundings, as always, and make your use of your fancy mobile phone as inconspicuously as possible. Despite all your pre-planning, your mobile phone might not work well or even at all while traveling. It’s not as easy as this recent iPhone 4S commercial makes it look. This past summer I visited the Grand Canyon and my iPhone 3GS was out of service plenty of times. Notice the “Coverage varies” disclaimer at the end. Those crafty Apple people… So, like all good travelers, think on your feet and be ready to downshift to plan B.

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Correction! [posted February 16, 2012] *Clears throat* As my astute friend Steven pointed out in the comments, bicing in Barcelona is designed for its residents, not for tourists. One bike sharing system soon to be geared (sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun) to visitors with an associated app: Washington DC’s Capital Bikeshare and the apps iFindBikes or Spotcycle. Capital Bikeshare, with the National Park Service, proposes adding five stations in 2012 to the National Mall, around which one can find the city’s biggest tourist draws: the Capitol, the White House, numerous monuments to past Presidents and patriots, and the Smithsonian museums. But, buyer beware! If its current pay structure will apply, Capital Bikeshare rental on the National Mall for extended periods of time – without checking the bike back in – can be pricey. As this Washington Examiner article points out, a three-hour rental would cost $45. Let’s look at the competition. As a counterpoint, there’s Bike and Roll, a franchise that’s in Chicago, NYC, San Francisco, Miami and DC, renting bikes and offering tours for visitors. Their full-day rental is $35 with other must-have amenities included like a helmet and a lock free of charge. (Capitol Bikeshare doesn’t offer helmets or locks.) Around the world, cities have added bike sharing to current systems of public transport. Depending on your need and the cost and amenities offered, bike sharing may work better than other rentals or modes of transport. But it’s worth comparing the options.


6 thoughts on “Is it smart to travel with your smartphone?

  1. hey S-lo, bicing in Barcelona is not bike rental, its actually bike share scheme like zipcar but for bikes, and its just for the locals 🙂

  2. Great advice here! I love the advice of downloading PDF maps. My husband and I spent more time in various McDonalds around Europe on our honeymoon than anywhere else because we were always trying to get the free wifi connection to use google maps.
    I also like the reminder about roaming charges and prorated international plan.
    Thanks for some good info!

    • LOL! I had this inner debate about mentioning Ronald & Co. and their free wi-fi. Ditto with Starbucks in the US. Of course this has to do with my feelings towards their companies as a whole and their practices. I thought, “If I mention either of these two companies, folks might be tempted to patronize these businesses, rather than a mom-and-pop shop. I will contributing to bio-hegemony and local-washing! Bah!” But after lot of fist-shaking and harumphing, free wi-fi is still free wi-fi 🙂 Glad you found the post useful!

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