Travel Tactics: Roam Free

Tips for using your smartphone abroad.

By Hannah Wallace | Illustration by James Steinberg

These days, international travelers rely on their smartphones not only to stay in touch with friends and family back home but also to access real-time navigation while in unfamiliar countries. But phone carriers’ international plans can be pricey. Though they may allow unlimited texts, they can cost anywhere from $20 to $40 extra per month, and that’s not including calling rates, which can be $1 a minute. Here are a few ways to make the most of your smartphone, without incurring exorbitant roaming fees.

Use a map app.

A flurry of great apps make it simpler than ever to navigate a new city, even when your phone is in offline mode. One of the most intuitive is Here WeGo, which allows you to use turn-by-turn navigation in a foreign city, even without an internet connection or cell signals. You can download maps for more than 100 countries and get public-transit info for more than 1,300 cities (although you do need an internet connection for real-time transit schedules). With Galileo Offline Maps, the world is your oyster—you can download a map for any country in the world. You can also record your real-time route via GPS and get distance and amount of time traveled, all without an internet connection. You can even use Google Maps in offline mode. Search for a city, tap its name in the lower white bar, then tap the three vertical dots in the upper right-hand corner. You can choose “Download the offline area” from the drop-down menu.

Use a messaging app.

Video calls are still a great way to stay in touch for free, as long as you have a good Wi-Fi connection. FaceTime (on Apple®* devices only), Google Hangouts and Skype are all popular for their straightforward services. But for chatting, group chats and voice calling, check out WhatsApp, a free cross-platform messaging app. You can also send photos, videos, links and even PDFs. WhatsApp has end-to-end encryption, making it the most secure way to keep in touch. (Not even WhatsApp can read your messages.)

Keep your phone in offline mode.

If you haven’t purchased an international plan, be sure to keep your phone in airplane mode. Some phone companies will charge you for incoming calls and incoming texts even if you don’t answer. If you have purchased an international plan and want to limit the amount of data you use, be sure to turn off the “messaging services” option in your app settings (otherwise iMessages or Hangouts will use data).

Buy a SIM card.

If you have an unlocked smartphone, you can simply replace your existing SIM card with a new one from the country you’re visiting. Often these cost as little as $20 and include three gigabytes of data as well as unlimited texting. To unlock your phone, call your phone carrier. (Warning: If you’re still under contract, the carrier may charge you a hefty early-termination fee, depending on how many months you have left.) Just be sure to alert your friends and family of your new temporary number.

Where to Find Free Wi-Fi

Most good hotels have free Wi-Fi these days. But if you’re out and about and need to check your email, where can you go?

Restaurant chains:

McDonald’s and Starbucks are ubiquitous around the world, and both offer free Wi-Fi.

Public institutions:

Most public libraries and even some museums, including the Centre Pompidou, in Paris, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, also have free Wi-Fi.

Hot spots:

When in doubt, the WiFi Finder app can help you find nearby hot spots. (Download the app when you have an internet connection, and then use it in offline mode.)

  • *Endless Vacation® magazine is an independent publication and has not been authorized, sponsored, or otherwise approved by Apple Inc. Apple is a registered trademark of Apple Inc., registered in the U.S. and other countries. App Store is a service mark of Apple Inc.
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: Summer 2017