Now that technology invades almost every facet of our everyday lives, traveling has become much easier if not a little distracting. I remember traveling in China in 2010 and across Asia in 2011 when I was still lugging my heavy laptop around and relying on Mapquest printouts, hand-drawn maps, or those little tourist maps that every hostel has a stack of. Nowadays, all you need is a smartphone. Wifi is widely available in most places I’ve traveled to and is only becoming more prevalent and easy to access. Back in the day, finding wifi outside of your hostel was a huge pain in the ass, usually.
Years ago I kept people informed of my whereabouts maybe once a week depending on how good my internet connection was. Now? I can barely go two days traveling without people freaking out if I haven’t posted a picture of something that I’ve eaten on Instagram. There’s that constant tug of needing to check your email and replying to WhatsApp messages that doesn’t go away even when you’re traveling… Unless you’re somewhere very remote. And even then, someone probably has internet access. I could go forever about the pros and cons of technology but so far, being connected while traveling has saved me from getting lost and ending up in a ditch somewhere crying. Nowadays, being digitally connected is hard to avoid. If you can’t find wifi while traveling, just a buy a local sim card with data and you’re good to go.
If you’re going to be traveling abroad with any electronics, I highly recommend traveling with a smartphone. But first, be sure to check with your network provider that your phone is unlocked in order for it to be used with international sim cards. Unless your phone is already unlocked, you’ll need to call your network provider. Most phones these days (unless your phone is ancient) should be compatible abroad so you just need to make sure that your phone is unlocked.
I have a Google Nexus 5 phone which is already unlocked so I didn’t need to worry about unlocking my phone. It really just depends on your network provider and the type of phone you have. If you’re with T-Mobile, then your phone should already be unlocked since they don’t have contracted service.
And with that, If you have T-Mobile you’re already in a very good place for travel. While many people complain about T-Mobile, I’ve never had any problems and have been with them for over a decade now. They have cheaper service and a pretty amazing international plan that’s included with regular plans. The international plan, depending on the country, comes with unlimited free data, texting, and low calling rates like $.10/minute. When I was traveling on the Trans Siberian last summer I only needed to buy a local sim card in Mongolia. In China, Russia, Finland, and France I was able to get by with my U.S. sim card. As for Vietnam, T-Mobile no longer provides unlimited data and texting as of 2015 so I just use a local Viettel sim card.
Being able to access Google maps while traveling is a godsend. And this is coming from someone who has pretty good sense of direction. Just be careful to not wave your phone around or be too distracted by the moving blue dot on the map in case someone snatches your phone out of your hand.
If I didn’t have graphic design freelance work to do while I was traveling on the Trans Siberian this past summer I wouldn’t have needed my laptop. My phone, besides being to upload photos from my camera, does everything I need it to do.
If you have data or wifi and Google Hangouts and Google voice you can pay much lower rates if you need to make calls. Most of the time I only need to pay $.01/minute. If I’m calling to the U.S., since my phone number is an American number, it’s free. The most useful apps on my phone during travel were Google Maps, Google Hangouts/Voice, Google Translate, WhatsApp, and a currency converter app (I use XE Currency). Google Maps was also great with helping me to route my trips and tell me which bus, subway, or tram I should take. When I was in France I downloaded the local subway and bus apps but everywhere else Google Maps did a really good job telling me which bus or train would get me to my destination.