How to pick the perfect travel smartphone

Picking the right smartphone for travel can be a major hassle – with so many choices of mobile operators, different phones, different network technologies and different budgets, finding the right one is like finding a needle in a hay stack. Worst of all – with mobile contracts, picking the wrong phone could mean you are stuck with a dud for two years.

In finding the right smartphone, you need to determine your budget, your traveling destinations, application needs, security requirements, current contract obligations and more.

But as always – we are here to help. I’ll stop short of calling myself an expert on mobile phones, but I’m on my 18th year of traveling with a cellular phone, and after over 400 different phones, I’ve seen enough of the mobile world to know a thing or two about what you need in a travel friendly phone.One of the best places to start, is to determine where your trips will be taking you – in the US, we currently have four large operators – AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon. Of these four, two use the GSM system for their phones, and the other two use CDMA. Why does this matter? Well, one of those systems is not used that much outside the United States, which means you could pick a phone that won’t work where your trips take you.

Picking the right network

Your first choice is going to be how to pick the best network. Don’t fall for the ads showing the “amazing new phone with the magical features” – it could very well be that “amazing” only applies to “within the United States”, making it a poor choice for international travel. A good example of this is the new Sprint EVO 4G – an amazing phone, but virtually useless for phone calls outside the United States.

AT&T and T-Mobile are GSM operators – their network and phones are by far the easiest option for international travelers. On their (postpaid/contract) plans, you can simply bring your phone abroad, and use almost any other GSM network. But beware – there is a high cost involved with this (more on that later).

Sprint and Verizon use CDMA (along with a bunch of other operators like Cricket and Virgin Mobile). There is absolutely nothing wrong with CDMA (despite what some TV commercials try to tell you). In fact, if you know in advance that you’ll be staying in the United States or Canada, CDMA networks provide by far the best coverage.

Sadly, when it comes to Europe, Asia and most of South America, CDMA is pretty much non-existent. This means you’ll arrive in France, and your Verizon phone will do absolutely nothing (unless you find some Wi-Fi).

Now, since this stuff isn’t complicated enough already, there are CDMA phones that are sold as “Global Phone” – these devices are half CDMA and half GSM. With a global phone, you use the CDMA network when available, and switch to GSM when you are outside a CDMA country. These phones use the SIM cards found on GSM phones. Confused yet?

Picking the right features

Oh my – this is a tough one, 3G, 4G, Skype, Google Voice, GSM, multi-touch, tethering, 3.2MP, 5MP, 8MP, HD video, Qik, HDMI…

The list of features on current generation phones is worth a story on its own. Bottom line is this – pick the four or five features you can’t do without – then determine your budget, then go shopping.

Things I feel you need on any travel phone are: reliable data/voice, GPS, Wi-Fi and great battery life. Things that are nice to have include a good camera, decent storage for music/photos and videos and an easy way to enter text.

Everything extra is just that – a bonus. Don’t fall for looks – a good looking phone may make you feel important, but a good looking phone with a dead battery won’t help you navigate back to your hotel.

Applications are another important factor – are you looking for a phone that does nothing more than make phone calls, or are you going to be ambitious and find something that can do Internet voice calls, mobile travel blogging and more?

If applications are important to you, you’ll want to focus on the top three platforms – iPhone, Android and Blackberry (I’m excluding Windows Mobile at the moment, because it is transitioning to a brand new version that does not work with older apps).

The world of mobile applications is dominated by the iPhone – plain and simple. The best apps are currently all there – but Android powered phones are catching up very quickly. In fact, the Android platform has several applications you won’t find on the iPhone (Google Voice, Google maps with navigation).

So – determine your needs, then check out the app stores of each platform. If you have favorites on your desktop or laptop, check to see whether those apps are available as mobile versions for your upcoming phone.

With 100’s of phones on the market, you’ll need an easy way to narrow down the available options. The Phone Scoop phone finder is a great tool for this – their database can pinpoint the perfect phone, based off almost 50 different features and requirements.

The Gadling top picks for travel phones

As of this month (June 2010), the phones I’d recommend for travelers are:

Best pick for US only**
Best pick for international travel (CDMA/GSM)**
Best pick full feature smartphone
Best budget pick smartphone
AT&T N/A N/A iPhone 3GS
(or iPhone 4 on 6/23)
Nokia E71x
T-Mobile N/A N/A Garminfone or Google Nexus One Nokia E73 Mode
Sprint EVO 4G Blackberry Bold 9650 EVO 4G* Palm Pre or Palm Pixi
Verizon Droid Incredible* Blackberry Bold 9650 Droid Incredible* Palm Pixi Plus*

* Droid Incredible, EVO 4G, Palm Pixi (plus) and Palm Pre are CDMA only – for use in Europe and other GSM countries, pick a Global Phone

** All AT&T and T-Mobile phones will work around the world on almost any GSM network

Some unexpected choices?

When it comes to travel phones, a lot of folks instantly reach for the iPhone – and while it does indeed provide pretty much everything travelers need, there are some other often overlooked options out there:

Nokia Symbian S60 powered phones
– Nokia phones are a great choice, because of their great variety in hardware and availability of Nokia Ovi maps. This means almost all Nokia smartphones can be turned into a full navigation system with worldwide maps. And best of all, the maps are loaded “locally”, which means you don’t incur data charges when you travel.

Android powered phones – It is no secret that I’m a huge Android fan, but travelers can benefit from the power of these phones thanks to Google maps with navigation. One downside is that these maps rely on a data connection, making them less of an option when you are abroad.

Blackberry devices on T-Mobile (with Wi-Fi)
– T-Mobile Blackberry devices with Wi-Fi have one very special trick up their sleeves – when abroad, you can connect to a Wi-Fi network, and get the same connectivity as on a cellular network. The technology is called UMA, and we covered it back in 2008. With UMA, you can make and receive phone calls, send and receive text messages all without paying for international data. This means you can check into your hotel in Tokyo, get your Blackberry online, and use it just like at home. Minutes come out of your regular pool, or can be unlimited when you add the $9.99/month Hotspot plan. The best part is that you don’t need to configure anything – as soon as the phone gets online, it can use the service.

Things to look out for when you travel

There are some important things to keep in mind when you travel with your new mobile phone. The first, is making sure you are actually able to use it abroad – before you leave, check with your provider whether your account is provisioned for international use. In many cases, a brand new mobile account may be barred from international “roaming”, and you wouldn’t be the first person to arrive abroad and discover that your phone won’t work.

The next important issue is the cost of international data. If you freak out at the prospect of $2/minute phone calls, you’ll probably get a heart attack when you realize that international data costs around $20 per megabyte. To put that in perspective – downloading a one hour movie when you are abroad could end up costing about $14,000. Yes – 14 THOUSAND dollars.

There are plenty of ways to stay away from cellular data when you travel, but the most important thing you can do is disable it entirely – so before you leave, check your user manual or browse support sites. If you try to figure out how to do this when you arrive abroad, you could have racked up a $500 bill before you even find the “off” button.

One final word of advice – when you shop for a phone, consider paying for an unlocked phone. The process of “locking” a phone means your mobile operator has altered its software to only allow subscriptions from their own network to use it. This makes it impossible to walk into a phone store abroad, and buy a prepaid subscription. We’ll discuss the advantages of prepaid phones in an upcoming article.