Having worked in Sunshine Coast accommodation for over 20 years I can tell you the most common first questions travellers ask once they’ve booked is: “What’s the wifi password?”.
Travelling is not the same as it once was. Travellers turn to recommendations from websites before travel guides and restaurants and tourist attractions seek out social shares and online reviews before they look at getting featured in handbooks.
The trouble is tapping into all that online info when you’re on the go.
Below is the only guide you will need to staying connected while you’re travelling abroad.
Download Maps Offline
A handy little feature of Google Maps allows you to download entire regions of the world to your phone’s memory. Here is a pretty quick guide on how to do it.
There are several limits to this method when it comes to using it in practice:
- There is a limit to the size an online map can be (although the 120,000 sq km is likely to have you covered in most instances)
- Depending on how many offline areas you require, it can take up a lot of space on your device (some maps might take up to as much as 500MB).
- You can get driving directions from offline maps but not walking or cycling directions.
But all in all it’s a pretty great fallback when trying to navigate in a city you’re not familiar with.
Find a Franchise
In many places of the world, once you’ve logged into the free Wifi at a Starbucks or a McDonald’s your phone will automatically connect to any other franchise location when you pass it.
Now I’m not condoning you spend you trip abroad in these type of establishments but ducking into one on your first day to get setup can help out a great deal later on in the trip.
If you pick the most common one in that country, you’ll never be too far from a connection – and usually just loitering out the front will get the job done.
Get a Local SIM
This is one I resisted for a very long time – I’m not sure why, I just did.
As we have moved further away from phones being just a device to make calls and send texts and more towards it being an item that does an incredibly broad range of things, being connected with a local network makes more and more sense.
Now, depending on what country you travel to, actually getting a SIM might be your next challenge. Some countries are much stricter than others when it comes to obtaining SIM cards for various reasons – Pakistan is notoriously difficult, for instance because of the use of temporary SIM cards as communication tools of terror organisations and Japan makes it hard to get anything but a data-only sim.
A good fallback for this is the One SIM Card. It won’t be as cheap as a local option but it will still get the job done. Another solution I haven’t tried but am keen to next time I travel is the KnowRoaming SIM sticker.
Take Advantage of VoIP enabled apps
Once you’re connected to a local network you can use your phone just like you do at home.
One thing to consider though: the credit that comes with your phone is only really useful for calling local numbers, which in the majority of cases won’t have a huge amount of use. If you use that credit to make international calls you’ll find you run through it pretty quickly.
What levels the playing field is VoIP enables apps that let you make phone calls over the internet.
For those not familiar with how VoIP works here is a quick run down, but essentially it allows you to make phone calls anywhere in the world providing you have an internet connection. You have probably heard of Skype, Whatsapp, Viber or all three – these are the most common VoIP apps for mobile.
When in my own country I rarely use these apps, because most people I contact regularly are on the same network as me and my phone plan gives me more credit than I could ever use.
However when you’re roaming the world it is an entirely different story. If you use your international call minutes to call an overseas number you will chew through credit on even the most tailored plan. Meanwhile, even the most inefficient VoIP codec is going to give you 33 hours of phone calls per GB of data.
Get around like you do at home.
My tipping point with this came when I was staying in a hostel in Kuala Lumpur and we were discussing if we should get a taxi to the shamefully touristy Helipad Bar. The discussion went along the lines of what catching a taxi was like in Malaysia: how much it cost, if we’d get scammed, etc, when one girl just piped up that we could just get an Uber off her SIM.
Something that is so obvious to me when I am at home remained a complete blindspot to my travel mentality.
On top of this you can install local public transport apps or any other location based app that is relevant to that country.
Think about how often you use your phone in a practical sense every day when you’re at home to get around – why not have that abroad as well?
Prepare before you go
Plenty of the above pointers are no good if you haven’t put any thought into them prior to setting off on your trip.
The primary objective of pre-trip planning is to make sure you have a phone that is not locked to any network. Most people I know have their phones through company plans. If this is what you have, and you’re still under your initial contract then you won’t be able to use another SIM.
Get your hands on an older phone and even if it locked to a network you should be able to get the company to disable the lock as you will be out of the contract period. Then you are fine to use the phone on any network you like.
Some other key things you might want to get sorted before you go:
- If you aren’t planning on using a local SIM download your offline areas before the trip so you can hit the ground running.
- If your phone needs a tool to open the SIM tray, ensure you pack it
- A ziplock bag to carry SIMs you’re not using (a card pocket in your wallet will work fine if you’re travelling to just one country but it might get a bit hectic after that)
- Some way of marking each SIM card, so you know what country it is from if you need to use it again.
- Key information on how to obtain a SIM card when you arrive.
Be careful what you wish for.
My final tip is actually a disclaimer.
The idea of being more connected when travelling has a massive upside as detailed above it can also take away one of the best things of getting out of your home country.
Taking yourself off the grid can sometimes be just as refreshing as seeing different things and going new places. So while the above is all very useful use the information wisely and with restraint.
Alexander Dance is a online marketer who loves to travel and works in the travel industry on the Sunshine Coast in Australia. You can read more of his writing on his personal website.