Jul 9, 2013

Staying Connected During International Travel

I've been driving myself a bit nuts trying to figure out how I was going to stay connected with family and friends while in Europe.  This might be old news to most people but the last time we traveled internationally, cell phones were not commonplace.  Crazy to think that was just 10-1/2 years ago!  How times have changed.

When I asked around, it seemed as though most people didn't know what to do with their phones when traveling internationally, either.  It was a topic of confusion for many people.  (Glad it just wasn't me!)

I have a Samsung S3 through T-Mobile.  About a month ago, I went into my neighborhood T-Mobile store and asked them what my options were.  They didn't even try to sell me on an international cell phone plan, saying it was unreasonably expensive.  Since my phone is not paid in full (I chose to do a payment plan built into my monthly service cost), it could not be unlocked.  Since it could not be unlocked, I could not swap out my sim card for a European sim card.

The T-Mobile rep recommended that I simply remove my sim card on the plane so that I wouldn't be hit with outrageous international roaming charges. Doing so would supposedly still allow me to use wifi when available.  I am not cell phone tech savvy so I really had no idea.  He recommended buying a disposable cell phone once in Europe (in airports, on every street corner, etc.) so that I could make calls if I needed to.

I thought on it for a while and realized that I really don't need to make calls while away.  However, Mars and I agreed that GPS would be critical.   He has an employer-issued Blackberry but his boss denied his request to add an international plan for the month we'll be gone.

I did more research and asked around again.  One friend recommended putting my phone on airplane mode.  This sounded appealing.  Much easier than removing a sim card and I wouldn't run the risk of losing the sim card, either.  But then I tried it out.  As soon as I put my phone into airline mode, the wifi automatically turned off.  Using wifi was simply not possible in airplane mode.  If I kept my phone on airline mode the entire trip, I'd only be able to use my phone as a camera or for playing music already downloaded.

As a test, I removed the sim card.  All applications worked perfectly, including email, Facebook, Booking.com (where most of our hotel reservations are located), and my Google calendar.  Perfect!  T-Mobile guy was right.  That clinched it. I will be taking my phone without a sim card and will connect to wifi when available.

I bought a foldable portable wifi keyboard on Amazon to use with my phone.  I know I'm going to get tired quickly of the tiny touchscreen keyboard.  I'll be using it to make record travel notes and details.  I haven't received it yet but I'll definitely update once I have.

Several friends recommended a free application called Viber, which is a way to make free phone calls through the internet wherever you are in the world as long as both people have the Viber app.  Sounded perfect!  I downloaded it, Mars downloaded it.  I asked my sister to download it so that she could be our United States emergency contact.

Mars and I tried to test it but his phone is having difficulties.  Figures.  His Blackberry is a piece of crap.  Hopefully he'll get the kinks worked out before take-off.  In the meantime, I'll have to test it out with my sister.

We're still not sure what we're going to do about GPS.  We're currently researching whether it's possible to at least download maps and save them on the phone to use in a pinch.

My packing list is insane.  Of course I will be sharing but for now I'm off to bed.  I'm trying to break my 4-night streak of getting just 5 hours of sleep per night.  Guten nacht!

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