E.T. Phone Home — Using My Cell Phone Abroad

By Emily Bestor

When I finally made it to high school, I also finally got my first cell phone. Even at 14, I was just about the last of my friends to get one (thanks Mom and Dad). Since then my iPhone has been along on almost every trip I’ve taken.

I know people didn’t use to travel that way. When my parents were my age, they were already dating, and my Dad took a six-week backpacking trip across Europe. In those days, to communicate with his girlfriend, he had to write my Mom letters(!?) while he was abroad. I know what you’re thinking, “how grossly romantic,” right?

In this age of social media, with its hashtags, tweets and the possibility of Youtube fame, people brag about their trips on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, to name a few. But I am not that type of traveler. Therefore, for my own five-week solo trip across Europe this summer, I knew I wouldn’t need much of a phone plan. Just enough to send texts to my family, be able to make a phone call in an emergency, or use a little bit of data for Google Maps if I ever got lost. I tried hard to stay away from Facebook, because I wanted to focus on my trip and the experiences I was having, instead of what my friends were doing back home in the US of A.

For $30 a month I chose AT&T’s Passport package. It’s the cheapest plan available, and with it I had unlimited texting and 125 MB of data Any phone calls I needed to make would cost $1/minute. (AT&T’s more costly packages offer increased data amounts and decreased per minute phone call rates.)

Before leaving on my European adventure, I booked a few key hostels. I was traveling in August, at the height of the tourist season, and I knew that hostels would fill up fast. I also wanted to have a little peace of mind; I was quite nervous before leaving! But, for the cities that I didn’t have advance bookings, my phone came in very handy. I was able to use it to check out hostel reviews, rates and availability for whichever city I fancied to travel to next. So any time I wanted, I could research and book the next few nights of my vacation with my phone, all while sitting in a youth hostel lobby, using free wireless internet.

I also regularly used the Eurail App. This App is offline, meaning once I downloaded it onto my phone, I didn’t need data or wifi to access its information. It was incredibly helpful when looking at train schedules and figuring out how long it would take me to get from city to city. The app has a ton of information like how many stops the train would make, if there was food or a bathroom, if it had first class seats, and if seats had to be reserved in advance.

Thankfully, I never had to make an emergency phone call, but I did rely on Google Maps once or twice. When I first arrived at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof, it was bigger than I ever expected it to be. I had directions on how to get to my hostel, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out where to find the correct bus stop. I started to panic as I began to circle the ginormous train station for a second time, but then remembered it was 2015 and I had a cell phone. After a few short minutes on Google Maps, I found the correct bus stop and was soon aboard the correct bus.

There was always free Wifi at the hostels and often in the museums as well. In Amsterdam, Rick Steves had warned me that there would be a long line for the Van Gogh museum. But Rick also advised me that tickets were available online. The afternoon I arrived, I sat on the grass right outside the museum and used their Wifi to buy my ticket. It was a timed entry ticket, so instead of standing in line, I enjoyed the sun, had a snack, and read my book until I could go in. I waltzed right past the line, showing the ticket that was emailed to my cell phone a mere 40 minutes prior.

Having a working cell phone was also a great way to keep in touch with all of my brand new friends. I met travelers from all over the world in the hostels. In reality, they were all perfect strangers. And it’s a funny thing really, because in the U.S., I would never in a million years decide to spend an entire day with someone I just met, but one of the best parts of my trip was meeting those people. Currently, I am completely wrapped up in school and work, but now and then a photo of one of them pops up on my Facebook News Feed and I am reminded of another chapter in the story of my trip. It’s possible I will never see any of them again, but that’s almost part of the fun.

Depending on your phone plan, the type of traveler you are, and the trip you are taking, you’ll have lots of options for overseas use plans. There are way too many to list. But here are the basics. You can do what I did and simply add the appropriate international service to your existing phone plan. Or you can get a European SIM card. To do this, you need either to unlock your phone or buy a European phone. Once you have the correct phone, SIM cards are sold throughout Europe at mobile-phone stores, some newsstands, and even at some vending machines. You’ll need to make sure it covers all countries in which you’ll be traveling. You’ll also need to ensure it meets your needs for texting and data. Typically, a sales clerk can install it and make sure it’s working properly before you go out on your adventure. No matter what you choose, be sure to monitor your data usage. It is easy to mistakenly exceed your data allotment and that can cost you lots of money.

Having a cell phone while traveling definitely has its perks, but it also can also have its drawbacks. My favorite postcard shows a photograph of about a dozen cell phones simultaneously taking a photo of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre in Paris. Let this be a word of caution. Sometimes trying to take the perfect photograph detracts from the real thing.

—Emily Bestor is a junior at Oregon State University, double majoring in business management and business information systems. Having traveled since the age of three, Emily’s mother thinks Emily might just run the world one day.