Staying connected while I travel is very important to me. I guess it is also important to most travelers. It’s our lifeline back home, our travel guide, our maps, and so much more. I started traveling well before there was such a thing as a smartphone. Yeah, I know, I’m getting old. Fuck you very much.
I can’t imagine traveling without a smartphone now. I think I’ve tried all of the most common ways of staying connected while abroad. I’ve bought local SIM cards, I’ve surfed from Wi-Fi network to Wi-Fi network, I’ve used skype, and I’ve tried using my home service on their included international plans – what a joke those are, and I’ve bought their international passes. My favorite by far has been using the Google Fi service.
I’ll give you my thoughts on using each of these options and why Google Fi is now my default favorite in most destinations.
Buying A Local SIM Card
In many places buying a local SIM card is easy. You can walk into a phone store, show your passport, purchase a SIM card data package or with a local number, they set it up for you and you are in business. Thailand is one country where it is just that easy. They even have ‘Tourist’ SIM packages.
Other countries are not that straight forward, and some make it more difficult for foreigners to buy them all together. Brazil comes to mind. So you really need to do your homework before you head somewhere.
But let’s just take a look at the ‘it’s easy to get one’ example. This was never a perfect solution. Up until a few years ago, most phones in the U.S. didn’t have a dual SIM card option. This meant swapping out your home country SIM card for the new one. Which means you couldn’t get or make calls, even in an emergency unless you swapped the SIM cards again.
So, it was great for local coverage but a pain to check your home phone, even when you were on wifi because you needed to swap it out. Plus now you had to worry about possibly losing or misplacing your home SIM, those nano cards are tiny.
Now days you can get an iPhone or Android phone that has an eSIM and a SIM card slot. So provided you have your number on the eSIM, it makes this problem a non-issue. But not everybody has that option.
I had two phones for a number of years. My primary phone that I use at home, which stayed in the room safe wherever I was going and my cheap travel phone that I’d use with a local SIM card once there. I still carry a cheap second phone today, but that is because if it gets lost or stolen, I won’t care as much.
Relying On Only Wi-Fi
I met some travelers in Siem Reap only using Wi-Fi service with their phones. I sounded like a cheap option that might work for me. I tried it out and what a pain that was. I think I lasted two days. I walk around a lot, which means I also get lost a lot, sometime on purpose because it’s fun. Not being able to check a map quickly without having to pop in and buy a cup of coffee sucks.
There are plenty of other reasons as well, but I’ll just say it isn’t an option for me.
Skype was a great option at the time to connect with people back home. I could rent a U.S. number and give it out to my family and friends to call me anywhere overseas I was, and it would ring on my phone. I’d also buy some cheap credits to call them.
However, it did nothing to connect me to mobile service while I was in country. I needed to buy a local SIM as well. Now days there are better options.
Using My Mobile Carrier’s Free Internation Plan
My mobile carrier includes a free international data plan when traveling. This one sounded good on the surface, but I didn’t read the fine print. I tried it in Mexico and Canada and it worked great, 4G speeds. I tried it in Thailand and could barely check email get maps to load.
Turns out it is only good at 4G speeds in Mexico and Canada. The rest of the world it’s like half a G speeds. I’m not sure what it equates to in actual G’s and I’m too lazy to look it up right now, but it tops out at 128kbps.
If you’re stuck and, in a bind, and that is all you have, it’s better than nothing. But not useable or desirable for day-to-day use.
Using My Mobile Carrier’s International Pass
This is a good option if you are only going someplace for a week or two. it gives you highspeed data in whatever location you are going. You just turn on your phone when you arrive, it connects to the local network and you are good to go.
Downside is that it is expensive. I think my carrier charges $35 for 10 days with a 5GB data cap or $50 for 30 days and 15GB of data. That is on top of my regular phone bill. If you are travelling for a longer duration, this might be tricker to work. I’ve never tried a multiple country trip with this either, not sure how they handle that.
Of course, your phone needs to be compatible with the network of the country you are visiting. These days, any iPhone or decent Android will have world compatibility.
New Favorite Google Fi
I switched over to Google Fi several years ago when I was doing a lot of travelling and doing some extended trips. Obviously, this was the pre-plague years. I took it across 16 countries in Europe and Asia.
The only time I bought a local SIM card was in Vietnam, which had notoriously bad service. I got it at the airport without even trying my phone, because I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to buy one once I got to the city. My phone had a dual SIM card, so I just popped the Viettel SIM in the second slot.
Other than that, It worked great wherever I went. Calls home were reasonable at 20 cents per minute. And usually, I’d to that hooked up to Wi-Fi at the Hotel.
The best part is the price. If you don’t use a ton of data, you can get the flex plan that starts at $25 + $10 per GB of data used. I was using about 2GB of data a month when I was traveling, so it cost me about $45. Compared to $70 I was paying before with another provider. If you use a lot of data, prices can get comparable.
I’ve been happy with Google Fi at home and especially for travelling. I can just get off the plane and my phone starts working and I don’t have to worry about SIM cards or passes. Obviously they don’t cover everywhere in the world, but they cover 210+ countries.
If you aren’t looking to change your phone service or spend the extra dosh on a second mobile number and phone. Local SIMs and International data passes are still the best options in my opinion.