Love them or hate them, smartphones have transformed the travel experience for millions of Americans. When traveling around the States, we map out routes, see real-time traffic and find nearby restaurants in seconds.
It makes sense, then, that we would want to use our smartphones when traveling abroad. Once you've activated your account to allow international access, you'll be able to call, text, surf and use apps... but at what price?
It's often a hefty price, unfortunately.
Going online abroad without going broke
Most Americans iPhone users don't think about their call and data usage back home. They have tons of minutes and virtually unlimited data allowances.
Not so when you use your phone abroad. When placing a call with your iPhone in France, for example, your carrier must connect to a French carrier in order for the call to go through. That connection is not going to be free, and it's not covered by your "minutes" back home.
When visiting France a few years ago to review budget hotels in Paris for EuroCheapo, I struggled with making sense of how to set up my iPhone to avoid extraordinary charges. I later wrote a post on the subject in our blog, which prompted hundreds of comments. It turns out that I wasn't alone in trying to get to the bottom of this!
Below are seven things to keep in mind if you're set on using your iPhone while traveling in Europe.
(Note that this article is focused on American iPhone users -- who are AT&T or Verizon customers. Much of this information, however, will also apply to other smartphone users.)
Buy an international plan for phone calls.
If you need to place and receive calls while abroad, purchase an international calling plan before you go. Call your carrier and discuss your options.
Without a special calling plan, both AT&T and Verizon charge high per-minute rates. For example, AT&T charges $1.39 and Verizon charges $1.29 per minute for calls you make or receive while in France without a special plan.
If you pay for a special international calling plan ($5.99/month for AT&T's plan, $4.99/month for Verizon's plan), that charge drops to $.99 per minute. It's still not a great deal, but it could save you if you plan on spending a lot of time on the phone.
Turn off your phone when you're not using it.
Even leaving your phone "on" can be dangerous when traveling. If somebody calls you from home -- and your phone rings in another country -- you'll be charged one minute just for the connection, even if you don't answer it!
Thus, if you're not planning to use your phone, keep it turned off. And if you are planning to use it, make sure that your friends and family know that you're traveling and not to call you (unless, of course, you want to talk to them!).
AT&T offers a texting plan.
Texting has made trip logistics so much easier -- you're running a few minutes late, you're standing in front of the coffee shop, etc. It's only natural to want to text abroad.
Verizon's text pricing is straightforward: They charge $.50 to send and $.05 to receive a text message in Europe. No special plans or deals.
AT&T's texting rates are a bit more complicated. Without a special international texting plan, AT&T charges $.50 to send a normal text ($1.30 for photos and videos), but that rate can go down to as little as $.10 each (for their $50/500 message plan). Rates for receiving a text depend upon your plan back home. Read more in AT&T's Travel Guide.
When texting, don't forget that your phone is on!
Remember that your phone will have to be active in order for you to send or receive a text message. Therefore, any call that comes through to your phone while you're waiting to receive a text message is billable for at least one minute (as I mentioned above, even if you don't pick up).
Therefore, exercise caution while texting. It's great for limited use, but otherwise keep your phone off.
Consider a data plan for email and surfing the web.
If you'll need to check emails while you're out and about, consider buying a data plan. You'll pre-buy an amount of data transfer, from 50 MB* ($25 for AT&T, $30 for Verizon) to 800 MB ($200 for AT&T). (Read more about AT&T and Verizon data plans.)
How many emails can you download with 50 MB of data transfer? It's hard to say, which is precisely the problem. If your phone automatically downloads attachments, an email from your mother with 20 adorable kitten photos could wipe out your entire data allotment.
We'd recommend setting your phone to not download attachments automatically (and beware of emails from your mother).
To calculate your estimated monthly "data burn rate" (including emails, web pages, social media posts, streaming music and videos), check out AT&T's data calculator.
Be careful with apps.
Understanding how much data an app requires practically requires a degree in computer sciences. As such, proceed with caution when using apps abroad.
At the very least, avoid using apps that require a constant stream of data (for example, Pandora and Youtube).
Simplify your life and do it all for free!
Fortunately, there is a way to disregard everything that I've just written, vastly simplifying your iPhone experience abroad, while paying nothing. It's called "airplane mode."
When you switch your phone into "airplane mode," you block its ability to make or receive telephone calls or transfer data through a data network. However, your phone may still connect to a Wi-Fi connection, and thus send emails, surf the web and use apps for as long as you'd like without incurring any charges from your carrier.
When I'm working in Europe, I'll choose a cheap hotel with free Wi-Fi (which is usually pretty easy to find, as I mentioned in my last column), and then use my iPhone in airplane mode when I'm back in the hotel. Total charge: zip.
I also take my phone with me throughout the day, and check in on emails by popping into a free Wi-Fi zone (for example, in most Starbucks and McDonald's).
With your phone in airplane mode, you can't make a "normal" phone call. However, once you download the Skype app to your phone, you can call any telephone in the States for about a penny per minute -- or connect to another Skype user for free (ditto Facetime).
Disclaimer: Airplane isn't always convenient.
The obvious downside with airplane mode is that you need to have a Wi-Fi connection in order to make or receive a call (via Skype), check your email or use an app. Furthermore, you can't send or receive text messages.
If you can't overcome this hurdle, then go back to points 1-6 above, buy international telephone and data plans, and use your phone sparingly and cautiously.
Otherwise, switch it to "airplane" in the airplane and keep it there for the duration of your trip. And hey, sometimes it's a blessing to be a little bit less connected.
Your tips for using a smartphone abroad
Do you have other tips for using an iPhone or other smartphone while traveling? Share with us in the comments section.
Check out my previous post on EuroCheapo for tips on how to set up your iPhone when traveling abroad.
* UDATE: A previous version of this article quoted the data allotments as 50-800 KB not the correct 50-800 MB.