Your phone can be the multilingual, resourceful travel buddy with a fantastic sense of direction you’ve always dreamed of.
But it can also attract a lot of unwanted attention — so I’ve put together some tips on how to be a savvy smartphone traveler.
You’re going to want to keep these three goals in mind:
- Have a plan if your phone gets stolen or lost.
- Prevent insane roaming fees.
- Make the most of your phone’s capabilities with offline maps, translators, etc. to help you when you’re on the go.
1. Keep your phone out of plain view — and be extra aware in large crowds.
Do *not* underestimate the ability of thieves. Once, at a train station in Rome, someone spilled water on the back of my shirt and, when I turned around, I felt someone else tugging at the phone I was holding in my hand. Luckily, a bystander noticed and her reaction was enough to scare them away.
Because of a phone’s high resale value, device sneak attacks are rampant all around the world, but especially in highly congested tourist destinations. Keep your device out of plain view as much as possible, and stow it in a place where you can feel or see if a stray hand is grabbing it (a zippered pocket inside of a tote, for example).
For big cities, I prefer a tote or cross-body shoulder bag to a backpack, because I can keep an arm on it at all times. On a packed bus, someone could easily access your backpack without you knowing it. If you must wear a backpack, keep it in the front of your chest when there’s a crowd or secure a double zipper with a keyring (literally any barrier to entry will deter a pickpocket).
2. But be prepared for the worst-case scenario: losing it.
Before you leave, follow these four steps:
- Make sure your contacts, photos, and other data are backed up (for iOS: through iTunes or iCloud; for Android: Settings > Backup & Reset).
- Next, add a strong passcode. Consider shortening the auto-lock time and creating an alphanumeric (numbers *and* letters) code instead. On iOS, when you go to Settings > Touch ID & Passcode > Change Passcode, tap “Passcode Options” to create different types of codes. If your phone is stolen, the thief won’t be able to access your personal data. If you’re not sure the device is stolen, put it in Lost Mode, which will lock it with a passcode and display a custom message on the screen (like the one above).
- Make sure you can remotely wipe your device. Enable Find My iPhone for iOS and Android Device Manager for Android phones. You won’t be able to use these services if the device isn’t connected to the internet, but you can create a pending Remote Wipe so that your data is erased as soon as the phone has a data or Wi-Fi connection.
- Finally, use a service that backs up those vacation photos every time you connect to Wi-Fi, like Google Photos, which offers unlimited storage for photos up to 16 megapixels, and is both iOS and Android compatible.
3. Turn data roaming OFF!!!
This goes without saying, but: Roaming = a death wish . You’ll incur roaming fees even if someone calls you and you don’t pick up.
Before you go, turn off Data Roaming. Actually, just do it right now. It’s too easy:
- On iOS, go to Settings > Cellular > Cellular Data Options and slide Data Roaming to OFF.
- On Samsung, go to Settings > Connections > Data Usage > International Data Roaming and uncheck International Data.
4. And then use the magic combo: Airplane Mode + Wi-Fi.
I know. You’re not dumb. But — JUST IN CASE — I’m going to be the asshole who tells you to turn on Airplane Mode as the safest precaution against data roaming charges.
5. Save areas you’re going to visit offline via Google Maps.
Since you won’t have a data connection, downloading maps is extremely handy for a variety of reasons, like being able to show a cab driver where your hotel is, orienting yourself (GPS will work without data), etc.
* When you’re connected to the internet, open Google Maps and search for the area you’ll be visiting.
* Press and hold the area on the map to drop a pin.
* Tap the options menu (top right), then select Download offline area. Finally, select Download to make it accessible offline.
To see the downloaded map, all you have to do is pan around the main map and pinch to zoom in. You can view a list of your offline maps by tapping Menu (top left) > Offline areas.
6. You can also download all of the maps available in Frommer’s eBooks — for free.
There are a TON of cities available here (mostly established tourist destinations). The maps are a bit dated, but still useful!
7. Sync your destination’s local language for offline access with Google Translate.
Having a digital translation dictionary can literally save your life if you have a food allergy. Find out how to say “pine nuts” in every language! And even if you don’t have an allergy, it’s still insanely useful, obvs.
Open the app and tap one of the languages (in blue text) up at the top. Scroll or search for your desired language. If there’s an arrow next to it, it can be downloaded. Tap the arrow and once it’s successfully downloaded, you’ll see a check mark.
8. Use apps that can send messages over Wi-Fi, like WhatsApp, Viber, Messenger, Hangouts, or iMessage.
Keep in touch with travel buds and those back home! All of these apps offer free texting and audio calls over the internet. With the exception of iMessage (which is iPhone-only), they’re available on all platforms, and have both mobile and desktop versions. Viber, Messenger, Hangouts, and iMessage (through FaceTime) have video chat features as well.
For making calls to local numbers and landlines, I like using Skype because it’s reliable and easy to use. You can sign up for a free month of unlimited international calls to landlines in 63 countries and mobiles in eight. Hangouts also supports international calls with super cheap rates.
9. Get the eBook version of your guidebook. You’ll save money and it’s more lightweight.
You’ll be able to find the electronic versions of pretty much all major travel guides including Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, Rick Steves, and Fodor’s Travel.
I prefer buying guides from the Lonely Planet shop, because you can download them in any format you want (epub, mobi, and PDF) up to five times, then view them using the iBooks, Google Play Books, or Kindle apps. You can also buy individual chapters for a discounted price.
Frommer’s and Fodor’s books are available only as Kindle or Nook editions (accessible through the Kindle app for your phone). Rick Steves requires you to have an Adobe ID and download the Rick Steves Reader app.
10. Keep a copy of important identification documents on your phone.
The U.S. Department of State recommends that you bring a physical copy of: your passport, visa (if necessary), letter of recommendation from your doctor about medications you’re bringing, extra color passport photos, and driver’s license. Leave a copy with a trusted friend or family member back home too, in case you lose your passport.
It’s also handy to have the scanned documents available on your phone. Use an app/service like Google Drive, Dropbox, or OneDrive to store them in the cloud and locally on your device.
I use Dropbox, because you can sync files offline, easily delete files from any other device, and cut access to the stolen phone. If you have Pro ($10/month), you can remotely wipe the contents of a folder.
To sync a file offline using Dropbox, tap on the options arrow next to the file and select Make Available Offline. It can now be viewed in the Offline tab without a connection.
I also like to keep PDFs of my flight details, hotel reservations, and insurance numbers in my Dropbox. You never know!
11. Write down backup codes for accounts that require two-step verification.
You probably won’t be able to get SMS messages while you’re traveling abroad, so make sure that you can access email, bank, and other accounts. Write down backup codes in a notebook or print out codes and put them in your wallet.
12. Stay clear of public, non-password-protected Wi-Fi networks.
It’s tempting to log on to the first public Wi-Fi network you see but DON’T. There are many hidden dangers lurking behind those unsecured networks. Clever hackers are even known to create networks with the names of hotels in them to trick guests into logging on!
Wherever your are, check that the Wi-Fi is protected with a password before you connect. Free airport Wi-Fi is generally OK – but you might want to save your online banking for another time.
Tech-savvy travelers can try using a VPN (virtual private network) to keep their data safe. I like NordVPN because it’s more straightforward than other services ($8/month or $69/year).
This is more of an issue for laptops and tablets, but it’s good practice to also be aware of who can see your screen if you’re in a public place, like a coffee shop or a hostel lobby. Privacy filters black out your screen from most viewing angles, and 3M makes a good one for smartphones.
13. If you REALLY need to stay connected/have an addiction, get a local SIM card.
Real talk: You’ll find Wi-Fi pretty much everywhere (tiny beach shacks on tiny islands in Thailand included) and could probably survive on Airplane Mode with Wi-Fi alone. But if you really feel like you need it, cell service is just one SIM card away.
If you have a GSM (Global System for Mobiles) phone (all AT&T or T-Mobile customers do), I’d highly recommend getting a local SIM card and popping it into your phone.
In most parts of the world outside of the U.S., you can buy a pre-paid SIM without a contract and reload it with data, calls, or texts any time. They’re cheap and easy to buy! If you’re not sure what type of SIM card your phone needs, this guide will help.
14. If you don’t have a GSM phone, consider getting an international add-on through your carrier.
International packages *are* considerably less expensive than overages. But they don’t work for all countries, so check before you buy. Most carriers offer a per-month rate: AT&T has Passport ($40 for 200MB), as does Verizon ($25 for 100MB). T-Mobile Simple Plan customers are already covered for international data and texting in 140+ countries.
15. Invest in a good, protective case. You won’t regret it!
Your phone is probably going to go through a lot of abuse on this trip, so protect it! Get something rubbery that covers all edges of your phone (most leave the bottom exposed).
Magpul makes fantastic ruggedized cases for iPhone and Samsung Galaxy devices. The Otterbox Symmetry Series is a good lightweight option. If you want to something waterproof, check out Lifeproof’s Nuud cases — or, better yet, if you want one that’s waterproof *with* extra battery, then look at the Fre Power line (iPhone only, unfortunately).
Anker makes the best battery cases for iPhone and I like Incipio’s OffGrid case for Samsung devices. But I’m not a huge fan of battery packs — I prefer a highly protective rubber case plus a small external battery pack like the Travel Card Charger.
And, finally, the MOST IMPORTANT TIP of all is to put your phone down every once in a while and actually experience the adventure!!!
Bon voyage, kiddos!
This piece is part of a collection of travel stories meant to inspire you to explore the world — and help you make it happen. Click here for more Travel Week content!
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