Traveling smartly with your smartphone
European travel specialist Rick Steves gives tips on how to use your mobile device and avoid high roaming fees
Tribune Content Agency
Northwest travel guides
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, 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.
You can also check hours and get directions to places you want to visit, and confirm other details that help you plan your itinerary. I generally don’t care about the weather, but while filming recently in the Italian Riviera — where good weather was critical — I repeatedly checked my weather app hoping for a better forecast than the predicted drizzle.
Besides managing the nitty-gritty details, you can enhance sightseeing with audio tours and podcasts. (It works best to download these at home before your trip.) 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 in Colmar, France. Scan one, and bam! You’ve got the information right there on your screen for free.
Using your phone abroad isn’t hard, and horror stories you may hear about sky-high roaming fees are both dated and exaggerated. With a little preparation, you can text, make calls, and access the Internet — without breaking the bank.
First, confirm that your phone will work internationally. Find out your service provider’s global roaming rates for voice calls, text messaging, and data roaming and tell them which of those services you’d like to activate. (When you get home, remember to cancel these services to avoid extra charges.)
If you’d rather use your phone exclusively on Wi-Fi, ask your provider to deactivate roaming options on your account. You can also put your phone in “airplane mode,” and then turn your Wi-Fi back on.
Luckily, Wi-Fi is easy to find throughout Europe. Most accommodations offer it, usually for free. When you’re out and about, head to a cafe. They’ll usually tell you their Wi-Fi password if you buy something. Some towns have free public Wi-Fi hot spots scattered around highly trafficked areas. Keep in mind using a shared network comes with the potential for cyberattacks. It’s safest to use a password-protected network rather than being open to the world. If you’re not actively using a hot spot, turn off Wi-Fi so that your device is not visible to others. And save your banking and finance chores for your return home.
Though widely available, Wi-Fi can be spotty: Signals may slow down or speed up suddenly, or just conk out every few minutes. Data roaming — accessing the Internet over a cellular connection — is handy when you can’t find usable Wi-Fi. It’s important to set up data roaming with your service provider before your trip; if you do this, it costs about $25 for around 100 megabytes (enough to view 1,000 emails or 100 websites) -- more than you’ll likely need to bridge the gaps between reliable Wi-Fi.
Budgeting data is easy. For example, you can limit how much you use by switching your phone’s email settings from “push” to “fetch.” This way, you can “fetch” (download) your messages when you’re on Wi-Fi rather than having them continuously “pushed” to your device. If you receive an email with a large photo or other attachment, wait until you’re on Wi-Fi to download it.
Also, be aware of apps — such as news, weather, and sports tickers — that automatically update. On some phones, you can select which specific apps can use data roaming; to reduce usage, check your phone’s settings to be sure that none of your apps are set to “use cellular data.”
Because there are various ways that you can accidentally burn through data, I like the safeguard of manually turning off data roaming on my phone whenever I’m not actively using it — try checking under your phone’s “cellular” or “network” menu, or ask your service provider how to do it. Then, when you need to get online but can’t find Wi-Fi, simply turn on data roaming long enough for the task at hand, then turn it off again. By sticking with Wi-Fi wherever possible and thoughtfully budgeting your data use, you can easily and affordably stay connected throughout your entire trip.
Wherever I go — from people-watching bustling boulevards to beach cafes — I appreciate staying connected with my family, friends, work, and most important — the place I’m visiting.
About Rick Steves' Europe
Follow Rick Steves, the Edmonds-based European travel guru, all around Europe. His weekly column runs online each Tuesday in the Travel / Outdoors section.