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Q&A: Is an iPhone a Good Idea for International Travel?

April 22nd, 2010 · 4 comments · Blog posts by Lia, Good design, Transportation bliss

Being of the techie sort–a girl who Google-maps out her trips–and the traveling kind, I often get emails from friends and friends of friends seeking advice where those two worlds overlap.

Here was the question from a friend:

You have an iPhone, don’t you? Have you used it internationally? I’m thinking of getting one, but have heard conflicting things about using it while traveling: Really steep roaming fees and you can’t unlock it and buy foreign SIM cards. Is this true? It would be nice to get your take on it.

The Big Picture

I use my iPhone when I travel, and actually can’t imagine life without it. I’m waiting for the magical day when data roaming is free, and I can use Google maps in Amsterdam the same way I use them in New York.

That said, you definitely can have a huge bill at the end of a trip with an iPhone. I traveled to Vancouver, and for some reason had a brain freeze and forgot that it was a whole other county. Looking up a couple of restaurants and receiving a text cost me forty bucks. Yuck.

The Tricky Stuff

You can’t unlock an iPhone (well, unless you are a turbo nerd), and there’s no easy swap-in and swap-out of SIM cards, as you can with cheapie European phones. If you want an iPhone primarily as a phone, you’d be better off buying a $10 job in the country you’re visiting.

Although AT&T does offer international phone rates, they’re still pretty pricey. Theoretically, Skype has an iPhone app that enables you to make free calls via Wi-Fi, but I haven’t tried it personally myself yet and can’t vouch for it. (But if you have, please let us know in the comments!)

If you want to use an iPhone primarily for a phone (with Skype), your success will depend on whether you’re likely to have lots of access to Wi-Fi. So if you’re heading to Scandinavia–thumbs up! If you’re heading to a remote Greek Island…you may be out of luck.

That said, though there are a few reasons that an iPhone is a great travel buddy.

If you take the steps to make sure you’re not getting roaming charges, it’s a perfect email delivery system on the road. I’m actually so retentive about getting forty-dollar roaming charges that I generally leave the airplane setting on all the time when I’m in Europe, because then I’m absolutely sure I’m not incurring any fees. I turn off airplane mode when I’m in a known Wi-Fi spot, like a hotel. But the rest of the time, when I’m traveling, I can listen to music and take pictures and not worry that I’m accidentally receiving email.

For something less drastic, you just need to change the settings not to push email to the phone–meaning, to go out and get the mail and deliver it to you automatically. Along with turning “fetch new data” off, you set it to “turn data roaming off,” and only connect with Wi-Fi. AT&T has full instructions on how to do it.

The Fun Stuff!

Now let’s talk about the stuff that makes an iPhone awesome–apps! Here are the eight that I use all the time when I travel, including internationally:

  1. CameraBag App gives you a bunch of ways of treating your photos, including something that makes all your pics look like magazine layouts. I use this instead of the native photo app. Plus, it includes a Polaroid option.
  2. MoreLomo replicates the Lomo camera I used to have, so I love this app and how it makes photos look cool and artsy. (See below.)
  3. Zagat to Go replaces the Yelp app for me for restaurant advice. I liked Yelp…until I got food poisoning from one of their recommendations. Now I ignore the crowdsourced opinion and go with editor’s verified picks.
  4. MultiClock is great because it displays four timezones in a style that looks like it was designed to be the official app of the Bauhaus timekeeper movement.
  5. SwissRailClock is just what it sounds like–those awesome railway clocks on your iPhone, reminding you of Europe from home, too.
  6. WordRoll, as in WordRoll NE (for “Netherlands,” the language I’m learning), is my favorite translation app. I’ve tried just about every last language-software app, and this one was the best in terms of accuracy and ease-of-use. I use it all the time in Dutch class, too!
  7. Mint was a bit of a pain to set up, but now I check it all the time, and I can’t think of a better way to keep track of all your expenses–including credit card charges–from on the road.
  8. Facebook is pretty obvious, but still worth mentioning for those who haven’t tried it. It actually seems easier to use than the Web-based browser, and it makes airport layovers much less tedious.

My favorite Lomo-fied photo from my trip to NYC last weekend, taken with my iPhone.

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