I recently got a Facebook message from a friend who’s about to go on a two-week trip to Ireland and Croatia and wondered if I had any advice for him on staying connected while he was there. As it happens, I got that message while sitting in Edinburgh Airport, waiting to get on the first of three flights which, with any luck, will get me home today after a sixteen-day vacation in France, Ireland, and the UK, where connectivity was a constant concern. And as I write this post, I’m sitting on BA 297, currently at 38,000 feet over Greenland, completely (and happily) disconnected. So I am more than willing to give advice about connectivity in Europe.
There are three parts to this rather long post:
I hope this helps you stay as connected as you want to be on your next trip to Europe.
My general recommendations
There is no single best answer for everyone – you have to weigh cost, convenience, and reachability. But here’s my advice anyway.
Using your carrier’s international bundle plan is by far the easiest way to go, both for you and for people who want to call you. Estimate your usage and buy the appropriate package – find out what will happen if you go over the package limits (you don’t want a $20/megabyte surprise). Forward your phone to a US voicemail number before you leave if you don’t want people to call you.
If you only plan to use your phone in an emergency, go with your carrier’s default plan. Forward your phone to a US voicemail number and turn off data roaming (or all cellular data) – you do not want to pay $20/megabyte.
If you are only going to one country and have an unlocked phone, a local SIM can save you money (but realize that there can be considerable hassle involved, depending on the country, and that you’ll have to give your contacts the foreign number if you want to be reached). Do the research to see how much pain is involved for the particular country you’re visiting.
If you’re going to more than one country, the hassle of local SIMs is multiplied, and the savings are reduced because of breakage.
Plans and Realities
Our trip this year was complicated. We started with six nights in Paris at an apartment with excellent wifi (thanks, Airbnb!), followed by eight days on a cruise ship:
- Two days in France
- One day at sea
- One day in Dublin
- One day in Wales
- Three days on small Scottish islands
I intended to pick up a Lebara SIM for France at the airport and a UK SIM in Wales. I expected to be disconnected at sea (the ship offered slow, pricey wifi via satellite) and was willing to take my chances in Dublin.
In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is. And there was.
I didn’t see anywhere to get the SIM before I left the airport, and when I asked for Lebara SIMs at shops in my neighborhood in Paris, no one carried them.
Our apartment had great wifi, and I had a Paris tour app with a good offline map; I was also able to find wifi at various stores and restaurants in Paris. I kept looking for the Lebara SIM without success – on our fourth morning, I found a cellphone shop in Les Halles which might have had one, but they only spoke enough English to point me to the Orange shop down the hall.
Orange sold me a “mobicarte” SIM for 10 Euros plus another 10 Euros for 500MB of data which took care of my communications needs (voice, text, and data) for the rest of our time in France (including the time on the cruise ship). If I’d bought that SIM on the first day, I probably would have had to add another 10 Euros to get another 500MB of data – as it was, I used over 400 MB of data in the time I had it.
I found free wifi at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Guinness Storehouse, and outside a Burger King. That was all I needed that day.
In the UK
I never even looked for a UK SIM – we did have a little time in shopping districts, but looking for a SIM was much lower priority than looking for other things. I found free WiFi at the port in Holyhead, Wales, and in Tobermory, Scotland, but was basically disconnected most of the time until I got to Edinburgh Airport this morning. If someone had really needed to reach me, they could have called the French phone number – voice coverage was OK.
So it all worked out, just not as I’d expected.
The Option Game
There are many ways to stay connected while traveling out of the US. I’m going to look at several of them in some detail, and I’m sure there are even more choices.
Your Cellphone Carrier’s Default Plan
If all you need is a few minutes of voice and a few texts, your cellphone carrier’s default plan may be just fine. They charge something like $1.50/minute for calls (incoming and outgoing), and about $0.30/text (outgoing), with incoming texts probably being free. Data is prohibitively expensive, though – AT&T would have charged me over $20 per megabyte, so you’ll need some other way to get to the Internet.
- Your US phone number works – anyone who has it can call or text you as if you were at home. They pay nothing extra.
- You don’t need an unlocked phone.
- Anyone can call or text you as if you were at home. This includes junk callers.
- Callers probably won’t realize that you are many timezones away.
- You can’t afford to use cellular data. Really. $20/megabyte is $20,000/gigabyte.
Variations on the theme
- Forward your cellphone to your home phone (if you have one) or a Google Voice number; that way, people can leave voicemail and you can retrieve it when you have a data connection and reply at your convenience.
Go this route only if you don’t plan to use your phone on your trip unless there’s an emergency.
Your Cellphone Carrier’s International Bundle Plan
Your carrier probably will sell you a bundle of data (or data and calls) at a more reasonable price than the default plan. AT&T, for example, offered me 120MB for $30, 300MB for $60, or 800MB for $120, and I know they have packages which include voice and text for a bit more money. This can be a good deal if you’re going to be in more than one country.
- Your US phone number works (as above)
- You can use your bundled data (and calls) in more than one country
- You don’t need an unlocked phone
- Anyone can call you and won’t be aware of the time zone issues (as above)
Variations on the theme
- Forward your incoming calls (as above)
This is probably the best choice if you want to be easily reachable from the US (if not, forward your calls to a voicemail service), especially if you’re going to be in more than one country. In hindsight, this is what I should have done.
Get a local SIM
If you have an unlocked phone, you can get a Pay-as-You-Go (PAYG) SIM from a local provider. I did this in France on this trip, and have done it in the UK on previous trips. If you’re really clever, you can get the SIM in advance (I wasn’t that clever).
- This is the lowest-cost route (well, other than going without a phone). I paid 20 Euros (about $27) for an Orange PAYG SIM in France, which got me a local phone number, 500 MB of data and 5 Euros of credit for calls and texts. Incoming calls and texts were free. Outgoing calls in France were about 40 cents/minute, calls to the US (if I’d needed them) about $1/minute, and outgoing texts were pretty cheap, too. If I’d run through my credit, it would have been easy to recharge the SIM, either over-the-air or at almost any grocery store or tabac.
- I gave my French number to those who I wanted to be able to reach me. Anyone calling my US phone got voicemail.
- I could use my phone for calls and texts in other European countries for a reasonable price (50 cents/minute for outgoing calls, 15 cents/minute incoming calls or outgoing texts, incoming texts free). Data while roaming would be expensive, but packages were available.
- I didn’t have my French phone number until I bought the SIM, and it will expire in a few weeks.
- I had to find an Orange shop. Fortunately, there was someone there who spoke English, knew the plan I needed (mobicarte) and was able to set me up so that I had voice and data before I left the shop (hint: bring an ID – a driver’s license was fine). I had tried an SFR shop but no one there that day knew English, and my French was definitely not up to this task.
- If you’re going to more than one country, you will have to repeat the process in each country. And it will be different in each country.
- You need an unlocked phone.
- Your US phone number goes dead when you swap SIMs. You can forward voice calls (as above), but I don’t think there’s any way to forward texts.
- The local plans may have interesting wrinkles; as an example, the plan I used in France disallowed VOIP (Skype), Usenet, and POP3 access to mail (but the Gmail app worked fine).
Variations on the theme
- In some countries, there are vendors who specialize in catering to travelers (for example, Lycamobile or Toggle in the UK, and Lebara in France). If you can get their SIM at the airport (or even order it in advance), that could be a big win.
- If you don’t have an unlocked phone, you could buy a new PAYG phone instead of just getting a SIM.
- If you’re going to spend most (or all) of your time in one country, this is a very cost-effective solution.
- If you’re going to make repeated trips to the same country, you can probably buy enough credit to keep your local number active between trips.
- This is much easier if you speak the local language!
There are companies who will sell SIMs which charge more-than-local but less-than-roaming rates all over the world; I think they’re primarily intended for voice and text, not data. I didn’t research this for my trip, since I cared more about data. If you want more information, Google is your friend.
If all you need is data, this company offers a variety of plans ranging from $8-$16/day for “unlimited” data (they seem to have a 500MB/day soft cap, though). The price varies depending on whether you need one country, one continent, or the whole world. I used them last year for our trip to the Netherlands and Belgium.
- You set the whole thing up before you leave the US.
- You pay a fixed price per day.
- You need lead time – they send you a special SIM, and if you need it in less than a week, the shipping is expensive.
- You need to figure out what countries/regions and dates you need because you have to set it up in advance.
- You need an unlocked phone; last year, they supported AT&T-locked phones, but this year, such phones seem to need their “world” plan (at the highest price per day, of course).
- They only support data, not voice (although they do allow VoIP). And when you put their SIM in your phone, your US phone number goes dead (as above).
I used them in 2012 and was happy. Enough had changed in 2013 to make me go elsewhere. Check their website and talk with their help desk before making a decision.