Last week a story emerged about a couple that was traveling in Bali and ended up in a scooter accident on their way back to their hotel. Their phone with a local SIM had died, and their only way to call for help was to post on Facebook using a phone tied to an American SIM—a Facebook post that helped them find help and ultimately survive.
The gentleman in question commented that he would be traveling with a hotspot going forward, as a way to always stay safe.
By the end of this year, I will have spent roughly six months of 2018 traveling in other countries, so I feel like I’ve gotten pretty close to perfecting the safest travel routine, when it comes to phones. Here’s what I’d suggest.
Buy a SIM Card Online
These days US carriers offer reasonable deals for international plans. T-Mobile will let you roam for free, and many offer $10/day passes for access that you only pay when you use your phone. I have a grandfathered unlimited data plan from AT&T that doesn’t allow me to take advantage of any of those cheap options, so I’ve started buying local SIM cards.
I used to make a local phone store my first stop whenever I landed in a new country so I could get a local SIM card. It’s a great idea, but it’s a huge hassle for a number of reasons. First, you don’t have a way to communicate with others until you get to that phone store (although some countries have vending machines at the airport). You also need to be moderately comfortable with the language in the country you’re in. I was fine in Mexico and France, but I had a rough time in Italy.
This year I’ve become addicted to these SIM cards you can buy on Amazon. $30 gets your 12GB of mobile data in a bazillion countries for 30 days. I’ve used the same product (but not the same card) in Belize, France, Scotland, Ireland, Mexico, Iceland, and more. I’m in Italy right now, and I’m using literally the same SIM card and plan (so the same $30) that I used two weeks ago all over Australia. They’re universal (but be sure to check if your country is compatible) and I can put them in on the plane and be connected the second I land.
You miss out on having a local number when you do this, but beyond that, it’s a pretty solid fix.
I often have friends tell me they only use wifi when they travel. Don’t do that. Yes, you’ll save a bit of cash, but you’re also putting yourself in an unsafe position if you end up straying too far away from that Starbucks hotspot and need help. At least spring for the cheapest version of the international plan for your carrier so you can be connected if you need to be.
Trust me: The ability to have access to Google Maps and Google Translate when you’re traveling is worth its weight in gold.
And if you want to be “disconnected” from the world back home, just keep your phone off.
Bring Two Backup Batteries
One of the things that struck me about the Bali story is the guy had two phones but he didn’t have a backup battery. Buy one. Then buy another. Carry two with you at all times when you’re out and about in a foreign country. You don’t need two phones, but you should have two batteries.
I tend to stay out from the early morning to the late evening when I’m traveling in a new place, which means my phone is going to die at least once. Having two backup batteries means you’ll always have a charge for your phone, even if you managed to forget to charge one of them the night before. It also means you don’t have to restrict your use of things like Maps. And even if you don’t “need” the extra power you’re carrying around, you’ll have that much more peace of mind.
Tell People Where You Are
Posting your every move on social media isn’t the best idea, but keeping a few friends informed about your travel plans is always smart. I always leave a copy of my planned itinerary and my passport with my boyfriend at home. In theory, if I go missing he knows where I told him I was last and what my plans were for the future.
When you’re traveling alone, consider staying at an Airbnb where you’re renting a room, instead of the entire space. Sharing with a local host has a number of solid benefits. The biggest advantage, of course, is having a local on hand to offer recommendations for the best places to visit as well as areas you should avoid. There’s also a huge bonus, for me at least, in knowing that there’s someone who will notice if I don’t come home at night. Your average hotel isn’t going to notice you’re missing until you don’t check out, and even then might not do anything. An Airbnb host can say “She disappeared Tuesday evening,” should anything go wrong.
Bottom line: Disconnecting is awesome, but you should always make sure you’re leaving yourself a (literal) lifeline in case you need it.
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