By Rick Steves
I love all the technology that makes travel easier than ever. Even when you want to get away from it all, it makes sense to take your smartphone (or tablet) with you. You can keep in touch if you want to, plus you’ll have instant access to resources that can enrich your trip. I wouldn’t leave home without mine.
Essentially, having a phone on hand — especially if it’s a smartphone — helps you make the most of your travel time. For example, some of Europe’s blockbuster sights, such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Colosseum in Rome, allow you to buy tickets and have them sent to your phone — enabling you to skip the formidable lines when you get there.
Besides managing the nitty-gritty details, you can enhance sightseeing with audio tours and podcasts. I’m even starting to see more innovative ways to use your mobile device when sightseeing, such as the QR codes posted at spots of interest. Scan one, and bam! You’ve got the information right there on your screen for free.
Even in this age of email, texting, and near-universal Internet access, smart travelers still use the phone for voice calls. I call tourist offices to smooth out sightseeing plans, museums to see if an English tour is scheduled, restaurants to check if they’re open or to book a table, hotels to confirm reservations, and so on. Can I do all of these online? Sure. But I find phoning more reliable — I don’t have to wait around for a reply, or worry that the information I find online is out-of-date. My mobile phone lets me get driving instructions as I approach my hotel, locate a lost travel partner, or chat with family and friends at home as I roam the streets of Rome.
When it comes to keeping in touch — both by phone and online — you have three basic choices.
“Roam” with your US mobile device. This is the easiest option, but likely the most expensive. It works best for people who won’t be making very many calls, and who value the convenience of sticking with what’s familiar (and their own phone number). In recent years, as data roaming fees have dropped and free Wi-Fi has become easier to find, the majority of travelers are finding this to be the best all-around option.
> See my tips on roaming with your own phone to Europe
Use an unlocked phone with European SIM cards. This is a much more affordable option if you’ll be making lots of calls, since it gives you 24/7 access to cheap European rates (rather than having to pay pricey international roaming fees). Although remarkably cheap, this option does require a willingness to do a bit of shopping around for the right phone and card. Savvy travelers who routinely buy separate SIM cards swear by this tactic.
> See my tips on using European SIM cards
Use public phones and get online with your hotel’s Wi-Fi or shared computer, and/or at Internet cafés. These options can work in a pinch, particularly for travelers who simply don’t want to hassle with the technology, or want to be (mostly) untethered from their home life while on the road.
> See my tips on staying in touch without a mobile device
Keep in mind that mixing and matching works well. For example, I routinely make use of both options 1 and 2 — I bring along my smartphone for Internet chores and Skyping on Wi-Fi, but also carry an unlocked phone and buy cheap SIM cards for affordable calls on the go.