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International smartphone travel tips – Barcelona, Amsterdam and beyond

by Jim Louderback | February 22, 2015February 22, 2015 6:00 am PST

The smartphone revolution has dramatically changed international travel. I just spent a week on the European continent, from Amsterdam to Barcelona, and the changes are remarkable, even when compared to just a few years ago.

Headed to Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress in early March?  Or maybe you’ve got some other international travel pending?  Here are some tips, apps and thoughts to make your travel easier, less stressful, and more fun.

barcelona-spain

T-Mobile:  First, if you aren’t on T-Mobile, sign up now – if even for a month. Unique among US carriers, T-Mobile now offers unlimited, free data and text across most of Europe and in nearly 100 other international destinations with its Simple Choice plan. It’s not fast – you’ll end up with mostly 2G service, but that’s good enough to power Google Maps, web browsing, Uber, Facebook and other apps that don’t require video or other high-speed networking. Calls are .20 a minute, not cheap, but most of the time you can get by with the data and texting. Google Voice and Skype, however, will most likely not work with those slow speeds. You can upgrade to faster 3G service for more money, but I found the slower 2G to be passable for most things.

T-Mobile CEO John Legere speaks during a news conference at the 2014 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas

Europe – and indeed most of the rest of the world – uses the GSM standard, which means your Sprint phone just won’t work as well as other operators, unless you have one of its global devices. Sprint does offer international Wi-Fi calling, however, so that’s worth considering.

That leaves AT&T and T-Mobile, and if you’re on the former you’ll be purchasing expensive mobile data packages, and paying big fees to roam – or you’ll have to get a local SIM card, and you’ll play the sim-swap game. With Verizon, like AT&T, you could choose to go the expensive route and pay roaming fees, or if you have a newer LTE Verizon device you can swap out the SIM for an unlocked SIM and you’re good to go. I don’t believe Verizon advertises this quirk, with good reason, but it works as long as the bands and GSM radios are compatible. Like I stated, newer LTE Verizon devices should allow for this, just check before you travel. That being said I’ve purchased all manner of local and global roaming SIM cards in the past, and found them to be a hassle to set up and configure APNs, and more trouble than they’re worth for the short-term traveler.

If you don’t have a GSM phone, consider buying an older one on Craigslist. Google’s Nexus 4, or even the Galaxy Nexus are good enough, and you can sign up for T-Mobile easily. If you travel internationally more than a few times a year, it really pays to switch to T-Mobile if you can, or even sign up for a Simple Mobile account, and then drop it when you get back.

Oh, and when you land, just enable data roaming. You’ll get a warning, but ignore it. T-Mobile is nice enough to text you every time you enter a new country, letting you know whether free roaming is working. During our train trip from Amsterdam to Paris it was the first indication that we’d crossed a border and entered a new country – nicely done TMo.

City Maps 2Go

Maps:  Even if you do use T-Mobile’s service, make sure and download maps for each of the cities you are going to visit. That helps when you’re roaming on slower networks. Downloaded maps work even if you aren’t using local mobile data service, but it’s not perfect. Since you can’t search in the cloud, many functions just don’t work. Even worse, you can’t download maps in Spain for some reason – as near as I could figure the map provider for Spain forbids it.

There are alternatives. I downloaded the City Maps 2Go app from Ulmon, and installed maps for the cities I was visiting. It’s a flawed service, as not everything I wanted was included – including many restaurants, hotels and attractions. Rendering was also imperfect as I expanded and contracted local maps. Street names would overwrite each other, making it impossible to read, and from time to time the maps would just look like gobbledygook. But even when I was disconnected, City Maps 2Go used my phone’s GPS to position me accurately. It’s useful, but it could be much better.

I’m a fan of Google’s Field Trip app when I travel around the US, because it usually highlights interesting attractions, good places to eat and drink and great historical information. I found it less useful in Europe, though. This was partly because it’s designed for higher bandwidth connections, which caused it to load super-slowly over T-Mobile’s free roaming. But the data seemed less complete and less compelling even after it loaded – at least in my experience using it in the Netherlands, France and Spain.

nyc-taxi

Taxis:  Yes, Uber is changing the world, but no it’s not available everywhere. In Paris – where CEO Travis Kalnick came up with the idea while trying to hail a cab – it works quite well. We used UberX to get all around town, and the cars that picked us up ranged from Mercedes to higher-end Peugeots. All were comfortable, clean and efficient – and we never had to wait longer than 5 minutes. We did get hit with a congestion charge, however, on Valentine’s day eve – but it was just 1.5x the normal fare. Fares themselves seemed higher than in the US, but still less than standard cabs. The local taxi factions are not amused, though, and are staging regular anti-Uber protests. It’s unclear whether these will have an effect, but make sure you check before you go.

There’s no Uber in Barcelona, but I used a local alternative, Hailo, to quickly hail cabs and pay electronically. Hailo works just like Uber, although using local taxis rather than freelance drivers, and you’ll pay the meter rate. It’s convenient efficient and fast. Anyone headed to Barcelona – or London, Tokyo, Singapore, Madrid or Ireland – should install Hailo, sign up for the service and add your credit card info before you go. Highly recommended.

If you’re travelling to Eastern Europe, try out Taxify – an Estonian startup. I didn’t make it that far east, but I’ve heard good things about it.

Tickets, Attractions and More:  Most attractions across Europe – along with many rail lines – now allow you to buy tickets online and download them to your phone. This can save you tons of time. For instance, we went to La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona to see the crazy Gaudi architecture, but it was an hour wait to get in. Undaunted, though, I quickly went up on their website, purchased tickets and downloaded them to my phone. Voila, we were inside in less than five minutes!

Devices and Power:  Despite its tendency to reboot every now and then, I grew more and more fond of Oppo’s N3 as I used it across the continent. The tremendous battery life never let me down – even more important in cities where you can’t speak the language. The quick charging feature topped the battery off in an hour or less, making it an even better day and night companion. And the big screen was great for perusing maps, downloaded travel guides and other travel necessities. I even used it to read books and newspapers when I was waiting for trains, busses and airplanes. Look for long battery life on whatever device you do decide to carry with you – or make sure and bring a spare battery that’s small enough to fit in your pocket.

WiFi: Free WiFi is now available in more and more places. Many hotels offer it for free – instead of the $30 or $40 a day that I paid in most places just a few years ago. Bars, restaurants, Starbucks and even some public spaces also offer free WiFi, which you should definitely take advantage of. Even better, if you are using T-Mobile – and your phone and SIM support it – you can do free WiFi calling to the US as well!

Google Translate:  It’s not perfect, but it can get you out of a jam. We used it to decipher odd-looking items in a Parisian bistro, and it kept us from eating parts of a pig that ought not to be consumed. For that alone it deserves a place on your phone. The web version, too, is similarly useful in a pinch.

The most important thing, though, is get your device ready before you go. Download all the apps, maps, guides and other things you’ll need at home. Sign up for services, add in your payment information, and take it all on a dry run. Chances are you’ll never end up with bandwidth as good – or as ubiquitous – as you’ll find in your own home or office. And an hour of planning and practice could save you lots of headaches out on the road.


Jim Louderback

Jim Louderback joined Revision3 as the CEO in July 2007, and guided the company to a 20-fold increase in viewers, a 12x increase in revenue, 39 new...

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