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20 Tips for Using a Smartphone Abroad

ipad photo shot in hipstamatic and edited in PS Express

Long, long ago in a faraway time I had to lug around an extra backpack just for my camera, my travel books, my walkman - SHUT UP I KNOW THAT DATES ME, reading material and the various gadgets I would need when I set out to see the world on my dinosaur.

Happily, those days are long gone because now I just do a bit of work getting my trusty iphone up to speed, throw that and my ipad mini (you don't even need the ipad but it's really handy for photo storage, magazines and photo editing for my old, bifocal wearing eyeballs) into my purse and I am out the door. Between those two items I have a library of reading material, a million travel books, currency converter, maps, gps, camera and darkroom, a phone, a computer, a travel agent, a translator and personal DJ.

thanks to my iphone, I can travel overseas for 10 days with only this fashionable child's carry on and a purse

Word of warning: This list is very iphonecentric because I use an iphone5 , I have an ipad mini and my desktop is a mac. We are an Apple family and have been an Apple family for well over a decade so I am not familiar with android or other platforms. I am pretty sure that every app that I use is available for other smartphones but because I have no personal experience with them, I am concentrating on what I know based on things I do myself. If you have great tips for using your smartphone abroad, please share them in the comments.

1.You can contact your cell phone provider and purchase a variety of international phone plan add ons. If you know that you are going to have to make the odd call home, or take a call from time to time, buy an international phone package for calling, texting and data for one person in your party and then just buy the cheapest texting package for everyone else. That way, you have the option of making phone calls or checking a map in an emergency from one phone but for your daily communication needs, you can all text each other. Unless your entire family is abroad on important business, there is no need for everyone to have a data package and the low cost texting package gives everyone peace of mind, especially if one of your family members is a wanderer. It's nice to let older kids do a bit of exploring on their own and knowing they can text you to tell you that some nice young man just tried to sell them a bag of pot puts everyone's mind at ease.

I am with Telus in Canada, for example, and we paid $15 each for a basic international texting package for The Kid and I and the combo data/calling/texting plans range from $50 to $150.

2.You can always buy a cheap phone that is not tied to any provider, or, If you have an old phone kicking around, take that with you. You just buy a local prepaid sim card when you get to your destination and then you won't have to use your own phone at all.  In Canada, for example, Telus will jailbreak a phone for a small fee. If you travel frequently, it is worth it to just keep your old phone when you upgrade the next time, have it jailbroken and designate it as your official travel phone.

3. Download Skype so that you can make phone calls for a fraction of the cost. You can always facetime for free with other mac users over wifi but not everyone is on a mac or an iphone so skype can keep you in touch with the poor sods you left back at home. Skype video calling is free over wifi , as is calling skype to skype, but I just put $10 or $15 into my skype account before I leave so I can make a few phone calls to cell phones or landlines at home without worrying about it.

4. Obviously, you are going to make sure you are not using data so you will need to tune up all of your phone settings.The easiest way to deal is to just turn your data roaming off and leave it off. You will still be able to make and receive calls if you have to, you can text and you will access data when on wifi. You can also go in and choose the actual apps you want to give data access too but unless you are absolutely comfortable doing that, just turn the data off. Make sure your fetch feature on your email is turned to manual too. Call your provider and get instructions for your particular phone, and write those instructions down because I guarantee you, you will wake up in the middle of the night at least once while you are away in a panic because you are sure that you forgot a step and are going to come home to a $200,000 bill.

Unless you are self employed like we are and a missed call can equal a missed paycheck, you are on vacation, for the love of Pearl, so you aren't supposed to be on the phone anyway. It's an amazing travel tool but almost everything you need to do, you can do over wifi and it's really easy to find wifi abroad. You can stop in a cafe, spend a buck on a coffee and ask for the wifi password and check whatever you need to check. If you insist on taking it a step further, read up first but trust me, unless you are travelling for business, just turn the damned data roaming off.

I usually change the message on my phone to ask people to email or text me as I will not be checking my voicemail while away. There, problem solved.

5. Download i translate please and if you do not know the language of the country you are visiting reasonably well, upgrade to premium. It does require you to be online to use it but I have found that everywhere we went, we were given the password to the wifi whenever we asked so it was never a problem using this brilliant app to order in restaurants or get help in a pharmacy.  The coolest part is that if you really can't get your point across, you can just say what you want to say into the app and the app will then say it for you in the language you are currently butchering. It works the other way as well, so your new Italian friend can tell the app that you are about to be arrested for public drunkenness and the app will then translate it into english for you. You will never have to wonder how to say "Esigo un avvocato" again!

6. Download Duolingo for everyone. It's the most user friendly way to learn the basics of a language and get yourself used to the sound of it being spoken that I have encountered and kid's love the game aspect that duolingo uses to drill the basics into your head.

When I was preparing for my Portugal trip, I used this app every day while I was out walking or cleaning the house. One day I spent an hour practicing at lunch with four little Montessori boys helping me out and I was amazed at how quickly they were catching on and how much fun we were all having.

7.  Something I like to do is to look stuff up before I go out and keep a list with translations on my phone of the foods I know I am going to want, things I am going to want to ask for etc so I am not fumbling around, searching for the Portuguese word for the bathroom while the angry throng behind me starts to get antsy. Doing a bit of work before you leave saves you stress on your trip and I find it helps to get me excited about my impending adventure.

8. Do take potential apps for a test drive before you go. I tried out at least four offline Portuguese dictionaries before we left so that I already knew how to use the one I eventually chose and I didn't waste time and valuable phone space of the apps that turned out to be duds. Do a bit of googling to try to find the most popular apps and then try out all of the free ones because this is not an app you need to spend money on.

9. Remember to backup your phone onto your computer, itunes, the cloud or whatever you back it up to before you leave just in case there is a problem. Make sure all of your photos are safe and sound and then clear your phone so you are leaving with an empty photo album with ample room for the million photos you are going to take on your trip.

Also, I dump lots of apps that I am not going to use off of my phone to free up space and just put them back on after I return. If you get rid of an app you have bought, you can just re-download it, free of charge or you can put it back on when you sync up to the computer again. You can even make a list of the apps that you remove so you can get them from the app store again when you come back from your trip. Unless you have a 64G phone with 50G free, do you really need all five versions of Angry Birds, your TomTom Mexico and 42 menu planning apps on your phone while you are touring Spain?

10. I use CityMaps2Go  and between that and my saved Google maps, we were golden. I would map out our day while on wifi, drop pins etc and then save the maps and refer to them while out and about constantly.
XE Currency app is a great app for your currency conversion needs.

11. Remember that your iphone has a powerful flashlight, a calculator and other basic functions that we sometimes forget about but that come in handy. The alarm clock is very useful as is the alert function in your calendar. As hard as I have tried, I cannot figure out how to get the cork out of a wine bottle with my iphone but I am sure someone will come up with an app for that eventually.

12. If you are driving abroad in a rental car, buy an app like TomTom and let your phone be your GPS. Just a word of warning: the TomTom app doesn't NOT work on an ipad minis unless it is 3G capable. It works on our iphones and our older full sized ipad, but not our non 3G minis so check to make sure it works on your phone or tablet of choice before purchasing. We used the TomTom a few times when we got a bit lost while out walking too since these navigation apps use satellites and not data. Keep in mind it is not really meant for walking so it will give driving directions so it's not always useful when looking to get specific walking routes since most cities are full of one way streets but it was a good way to orientate ourselves on occasion.

13. Because you are going to be using your phone as your one stop travel tool, you are going to burn through the battery every day so get some sort of external charging device. You can get a charging case that the phone clicks into or an external cell like this Mophie is a popular brand but there are many, many others . I also carry the wall usb charger and a cord in my purse because I am always pleasantly surprised by all of the interesting places I find outlets when I am out and about. 

14. Speaking of charging your phone, all you may need for an iphone is a wall adapter for the country you will be visiting. Always check the voltage requirements for the country you are visiting but I think most wall chargers operate on a 100-240V range which means you are fine anywhere in North America and Europe. Even better than a plug adapter, just buy a usb wall charger when you get there. We bought a double usb charger at the airport when we landed for the same price as buying the wall adapter for our own charger here. The bottom line is that Apple products do not require a power converter. Many hotels will provide a usb charger of some sort (you can also find one in the back of most digital tvs!) and your car phone adapter that plugs into the lighter will work on your european rental car as well. Lots of easy options to charge your phone.
Here is a cool list of voltage worldwide

15. Download Airbnb, Priceline and for lodging booking on the fly.You may have another booking site you prefer, so download their app but these are three that I use all the time with great success.

16. You can save Google maps for offline use simply by typing "ok maps" into the search box when you are looking at the map you have just brought up. This link gives a longer, more complicated way of saving a map for offline use which did not always seem to work for me. Once I figured out the "ok maps" trick, we were fine. Not all of the features are available offline, but if the GPS on your phone is enabled, you will see yourself walking down the street in the wrong direction,  away from the location that you have dropped a pin to locate as well as zooming in and out and it will save your marriage. Trust me.

18. Take photos of all of your ID, keep PDFs etc of all confirmations for hotels, flights etc with your phone and keep them on it.  If you don't use icloud, put them in dropbox too so that you can access them from any computer if you lose your phone.

19. Speaking of losing your phone, please put a password on your phone, even if you don't use one at home so that if you do lose it, nobody can access your personal information etc. Of course, you will also have "find my iphone" enabled so that if you do lose it, you can put a message on the screen for anyone who finds it with information about who to contact- either the hotel you are staying at or another person in your travelling party. If you do lose your phone, this app will help you locate it and you can lock it remotely if you forgot to password protect it. Find my phone app for android is very similar for non iphone users.

I have heard that using the app to make your phone ping loudly can help you find it wedged down between couch cushions after you have been unable to find after an entire morning of frantic, fruitless searching but I have no personal experience of that. None. Nope. Not me.

20 . Finally, use it to take your travel photos. Unless you are Ansel Adams and are planning to blow up your travel images to billboard size to be displayed at the Guggenheim, you can get amazing quality from your iphone with the help of a couple of free or cheap editing apps.

If you are an instagram or twitter person, make up a hashtag for everyone's travel photos so that you can easily find them all in one spot. On our last trip, we all used #Shackfamilyvacation so a quick google of that hashtag brings up all of our photos across the various social media platforms. That way you will find groupings like this or this or this and can see all of your travel photos, taken by everyone who used that hashtag, all in one spot.

My favourite photo apps are:

Snapseed- this photo editing app is always stop #1 for almost all of my images. I use it to sharpen, brighten, boost contrast and adjust colour balance even if I plan on continuing to edit with another app like PS Express.


top left is straight out of the camera and the other three are using a combo of snapseed and PS Express

PSExpress - this is my second favourite app and and kind of like filters for dummies. A great app to let you add fancy, fun filters to make your images look more dramatic and you don't have to be a photo pro to figure out how to use it.        

after initial editing in PS Express

going crazy in PS Express

Hipstamatic - turns everyone into a hipster. Seriously though, it's a really fun app to use and it   turns a photo of a cup of coffee on a scratched up old table into a piece of art. I like to choose one         filter/lens combo for each situation so that the photos are unified. Play around with all of the different combinations, save the ones you like so you can use them with a simple click.

same image taken using four different hipstamatic lens/film combos
straight camera shot

using a combo of hipstamatic and then using tilt shift in snapseed

TouchRetouch the app that lets you remove crap from your photos. Took the perfect   photo of a mountain vista if only that annoying guy in the neon green shirt wasn't standing right in the centre of the frame? ERASE THAT DUDE PRONTO! love this app

If you really want to take great photos, here is a really good article to read on iphone photography
notice that annoying lamp post?
why thank you TouchRetouch!

 If you are really serious about your photos, buy this tripod mount like this and you can mount your phone to your tripod. We also like to use an Ollo Clip , which is a little combo lens system for the iphone that lets you shoot in wide angle, macro and fish eye. 

Shack used the wide angle lens on the Ollo Clip for this photo of a cafe in Porto

If you are an Apple person, all of your devices are connected via the icloud. If you make sure icloud sharing is turned on with your iphone and your desktop, laptop and/or ipad, the photo stream will automatically upload from the phone to those devices every time you connect to wifi. I would go through all the days photos every night in bed, do some preliminary editing, making my pics and getting rid of the photos that didn't work, were blurry or duplicates etc. That way, I could clear them off of my my phone, freeing it up with more space to accommodate the next day's photos. If you aren't on a mac device but have a laptop, you can connect using bluetooth or you can purchase an app like this to transfer over wifi. 

I know, I know, you are going to say "Well, back in my day, we managed to travel all over Europe with nothing but a "Let's Go Europe", a train pass and a dictionary and we managed just fine"

Well, back in the day, we also waited for days for an international operator to get us a line out of Greece so we could call our moms and tell them we were still alive so stop being such an old fogie, get with the program and get yourself a smartphone.

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