Bringing Technology to Travel: Part One, Cell Phones 8

Hello from Alto Adige in Italy, and a welcome to all new readers from! Rick has been kind enough to feature my blog again this month (Grazie Rick!), so I’ll be continuing my series on packing techniques through the end of October, possibly beyond. I’ll also be sharing travel tips and stories from the road, maybe even a few recipes, as I finish the tour season in Italy. I’ve really appreciated all of your comments and encouragement, keep the comments and likes coming and keep me motivated! As a reminder, you can also follow this blog by liking my Facebook page, Adventures with Sarah Murdoch:

Today, as I’m sitting in my open-air office, a sidewalk cafe, writing to you on my IPad, I’m thinking about technology and how it has impacted travel. I’ve become fascinated with how technology can improve our lives as travelers. I remember when I lived in Rome in 1995, I called home rarely and exchanged actual letters with friends and family. Mail day was the most exciting day of the week. I recall getting boxes of peanut butter, pressed flowers in letters, and even a lock of hair. To call home, I had to go to the bar and buy gettone, phone tokens that cost a quarter each. To call my dad one day, I had a sack full of tokens and had to keep plunking them in the phone every few minutes. I remember groaning when he had to answer the door because that pause cost me $4.

Those are quaint memories today. Peanut butter can be found everywhere, I’m not sure that anyone even writes paper letters anymore. Connectivity is everywhere and calling or writing home is cheap and easy. This is a huge improvement in many ways, I can’t deny, I can use my cell phone to FaceTime my kids from the top of the Swiss Alps. That makes my life so much better and easier, but……I’ve been growing concerned as I see more and more people glued to their technology rather than enjoying the moment. I can’t count the number of times I’ve come back to the hotel only to find people from my groups sitting in the Wifi hotspot rather than enjoying the sights they paid thousands of dollars to see. So I’m going to tackle this topic with a caveat- use technology to enhance your trip, but don’t let it dominate it. Be in the moment. Smell the sweetness in the air, listen to the beauty of a language you don’t understand, touch the cold marble of an old church, savor every bite of food with your eyes closed. You can Facebook it another time, it can wait. Ok? Ok. Let’s talk tech.

What to Bring

There is a pretty long list of potential electronics to bring. Let’s stop right here and say this- you don’t need everything. We are still working on this packing light thing, and I know from my own experience that you can sink an awful lot of weight and luggage space into your electronics. I’ve done it for you so that you don’t have to suffer as I have. A typical list of potentials: laptop, tablet, e-reader, cell phone, camera, video camera, hair dryer, curling iron, back-up battery pack, portable speaker, cables, rechargers, adapters. All of these things can be important, depending on who you are, but thin the list as much as you can. If I could choose only one, I’d pick a cell phone.

Cell Phones

Traveling without a cell phone these days is a little like traveling without underpants- you can do it but nobody does and you may regret it. I adore my schnazzy IPhone 6. It cost me a small fortune (my kids don’t need to go to college, do they?), but when compared to other phones I’ve had there is no comparison. iPhones are just better, sorry Android people. They rarely have glitches and the phone itself is much sturdier than their plastic competitors. Obviously just an opinion, but there are other fun reasons to have an iPhone, which I’ll cover later.

You have two options for using your cell phone here, use your US provider or buy a local SIM card with a local number. Some US providers charge an exorbitant amount for cell usage abroad, especially data. You must check very carefully with your provider. It could be much cheaper to pay €5 for a local chip in the country you’re traveling in, then load a bit of money on it for only the time you are there. Pay-as-you-go plans are common here. I’d suggest something minimal for calls but at least 1GB of data.

I paid a king’s ransom for my phone because I bought it contract-free with the intention of using it here in Europe with my Italian SIM. This is called an “unlocked” phone. If you’ve bought your phone at a discount through your phone company, it’s pretty likely that your phone is locked and you cannot use a SIM card from another company. You can ask your cell phone provider if you can unlock your phone or if that’s not allowed in your contract. If they say no, you can still jailbreak it, either by canceling your contract (which could be costly), or by looking for a cell phone shop that does that sort of thing (which is a little shady). In theory, unlocking a phone is a simple process of getting a code from your provider and inserting the code in the phone. iPhones need to be unlocked via iTunes and synced with your computer. You must do this step! I’ve had lots of tour members who thought their phone was unlocked but they didn’t sync…doesn’t work without that step. Once it’s unlocked you can pop out the chip and put in your new one. Could be smart to let the cell phone shop person do that because there are several sizes of chip and you want the correct one.

If you’re in the market to change cell phone providers, take a look at TMobile. I switched from AT&T to TMobile because of my extensive time outside of the US. The deal at TMobile is pretty amazing- .20 per minute from anywhere to anywhere, free unlimited texts and free unlimited data while outside of the US. Plus, my monthly phone bill is much less than it was. That’s a crazy good deal. My phone works perfectly here in all countries and all places, the data is a bit slow but good enough for minor use. Only downside I’ve found is that their coverage isn’t as good outside of population zones in the US. I use my TMobile number while doing Best of Europe tours where I’m in several different countries. In Italy I’ve found that having a local number is much better as Italians don’t like calling a US number. I’m also sort of fond of my number, I’ve had it for 15 years and everyone knows it.

Overall, buying a local chip isn’t a big deal and can save you money. Be sure you get  a plan with data, in my upcoming posts I’ll share how to get the most out of your cell phone and data is the key.


Sarah Murdoch is a tour guide and guidebook writer for Rick Steves Europe. Her blog, Adventures with Sarah, focuses on packing tips, travel stories and advice for planning the best trip possible.

8 thoughts on “Bringing Technology to Travel: Part One, Cell Phones

  • Mike Wolk

    Sarah – Good write up on the technology. I live in Prague half the year now and the rest of the time in the US. I went the same same route with the phone (iPhone), but not with T-Mobile. I kept my ATT SIM for my unlocked phone and got one from Vodaphone for over here. Data is cheap, and absolutely essential when I’m biking or traveling out in the middle of nowhere. Of course you are right about how people are missing out by spending too much time looking at these devices. Everyone is missing out on life, even 7 year olds who have them. Maybe the novelty will wear off eventually. We have cars, but do not feel the need to be in them going someplace all the time. By the way, WhatsApp is the best way to stay connected with your friends and family if they also have iPhones.

  • Janet Lockwood

    We just returned from the Rick Steves GAS tour. We arrived 3 days early and took 3 additional days after. We used a eurail pass and utilized the trains in Germany. Luckily I had downloaded the Eurail app on my IPhone. It was a life saver. We could look at train schedules and know which train to take. We did it all on airplane mode. Also used it to email family instead of making phone calls. It worked great without a European plan.

  • Heather Lee

    Sarah, I have really enjoyed your comments, especially on Sicily, where we’re headed next May . I now realize that I need to
    Take off ten lbs. before we go, so to enjoy all the wonderful food quilt free. Got the 6s+ this week and think it will work for all my needs; Rick’s app, my books, maps, emails & calls. I have been taking my iPad and Kindle, think I’m losing weight already.
    Your suggestions for packing lite have got me thinking creatively again! Thank you.

  • Peggy

    Last summer I spent two weeks in Scandinavia and found that my iPhone was sufficient: email, camera, e-reader all in one. Was dependent on wifi, but found that available in even remote hotels.

  • mvaden1948

    Hi Sarah,
    I have as yet to purchase a smart phone but in 2010 did break down and purchase a basic talk/text phone with SIM for Italy from a US company called Cellular Abroad. Although the initial cost was high compared to getting a cheap phone and Sim in Italy it was the peace of mind of having support in English that sold me on it. Plus I had it when I hit the ground so I could call the landlord and let him know I landed and what time to meet me and give me the keys to the apartment. Although I have purchased other unlocked phones (Best Buy has an entire section devoted to them) I have continued to use the same SIM and phone number (just adding more time) for three other trips to Venice. I have no need for data when I’m out and about in Venice, hardly ever look at a map as my camera leads me where she wants me to go.
    I think the saddest thing I see is couples wandering the calles and canals of Venice….possibly one of the most romantic cities in the world….with their faces stuck in their phones or viewing their ride along the Grand Canal through the screen on their phone. I use a “real” camera for pictures and only glance at it occasionally as I’m taking pictures (I can crop the pictures at home) while I soak up the beauty around me.
    I must admit that I travel with a Netbook and load my pictures to the computer each night….but I travel alone and there is no one needing my attention. That’s at 10 pm or so when most Venetians are tucked away in their homes anyway and I’m tucked away in the charming apartment I rented with excellent WiFi.

  • Darlene

    I’ve been enjoying the blog and am headed to Barcelona/Florence for 2 weeks soon. Your installment re: cell phones abroad is timely! And I’ll overlook the comment re: Android People, because the ‘dark side’ is the fun side. 🙂

      • Darlene

        I left the iWorld so long ago that I can’t remember much about it. I’ll let the experts debate those 2 ecospheres while I plan my next trip. 🙂

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