Travel and smartphones go together — and these days, texting, updating Facebook and good old tweeting-while-eating are the least of it. Instant access to Yelp, TripAdvisor and endless other apps helps with everything from choosing an entree to checking the traffic ahead. Add a healthy dose of old-fashioned phone calls from poolside or mountain trail, and you might say staying connected has become something close to a constitutional right.
Just one catch: Leave the country and your smartphone plan — much like the Constitution — no longer has you covered.
As many people have learned the hard way, calling and texting while abroad can bring painful bills; using data services can lead to insolvency. That’s because standard international roaming rates are outrageous: $2, $3 or even $5 a minute, 50 cents for a text message. A megabyte of data costs $15 to $20. That means that checking the status of your Facebook friends can cost about $3 or $4. That’s a lot to see your high school classmate’s backyard tomato plant.
The good news is there are ways to save. The bad news is there are lots and lots of ways, some complementary and none perfect. Here’s how I’d break it down for five kinds of budget travelers.
• The blissfully disconnected. You’re the type who leaves your cellphone and laptop at home, because traveling is about getting away from it all.
What you should do: Write out your itinerary with hotels and contact numbers and leave it with loved ones. Try not to break your quill pen while doing so.
But be aware: The world doesn’t really cater to your type anymore. Many budget hotels don’t bother with phones in rooms, and good luck finding a pay phone to make a dinner reservation or to check what time a museum closes. Better hope the local farmers speak English when you get lost biking. Send me a telegram and let me know how it goes.
• The semi-connected. You don’t feel the need for constant connectivity and can wait until you’re connected to your hotel’s or hostel’s Wi-Fi network to call home, check email and plan the next day’s activities.
What you should do: Once you connect to Wi-Fi, email, Web browsing and online chat are free. But phone calls are not, so be sure you have an account with an app like Google Voice or Skype that can dial out to real world numbers. Calling the United States is as low as one cent a minute; calling other countries (like the one you’re in — to make dinner reservations, to check on hotel vacancies and contact local friends) is usually something like one-tenth the price of the standard cellphone plan.
Choosing the company is a matter of personal preference. Google Voice has lower rates than Skype to virtually every country and is especially easy if you already use Gmail. Skype is reasonable too and maintains a loyal following. There are many other competitors, and all of them claim to be revolutionary and cheap, but I’ve yet to find one that can beat the reach and dependability of those two. • The moderates. You love to make friends in a new country and want to be able to call and text them later. Tweeting every minute is too much, but you would like to alert your friends the moment you’ve reached the mountaintop/seen the Mona Lisa/eaten a bug. You want the option of checking with TripAdvisor or Yelp to decide between two restaurants. You need to check your email occasionally.