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.

Gadling Review: Traveldodo mobile city guides

We like to play around with mobile phones here at Gadling. They’re becoming one of the more invaluable tools for the on-the-go traveler, both domestically and abroad. Recently we were introduced to a website called Traveldodo, an online travel review site that offers an extensive selection of free mobile travel guides for cities across Europe.

Free mobile guides you say? We decided to take Traveldodo’s suggestion, download a free mobile guide to Barcelona and see for ourselves how it worked. Here’s a quick overview:

  • Extensive selection – Traveldodo offers city guides for more than 100 cities across Europe, including everything from Barcelona to Reykjavik to Istanbul
  • Free Download – the guides are free to download and don’t require a wireless connection to read. You will however pay a charge from your wireless carrier (typically around $1-2 depending on your carrier) if you don’t have a data plan. Take note.
  • City Info – the info within Traveldodo’s guides covers Things to do, Food and drinks, Places to sleep, City info, and Country info, as well as a special section where users can submit their own tips for inclusion in future versions.
  • Compatibility – the guides are designed to work with lots of different phones, meaning you don’t need an iPhone in order for it to work. Traveldodo claims most phones after 2006 to be compatible.

Overall, we like Traveldodo’s concept and their utility, though the guides themselves still have some rough spots. Downloading was easy enough – users simply point their browser at the address of their desired city listed here. Despite two tries we could not get the app to work on a Blackberry, which was a troubling sign, but did get the Barcelona guide downloaded on a Sony Ericsson device.

Having visited Barcelona a few times, we took a look through the guide’s listing of Things to do, Food and drinks and City info. The information was certainly useful, though frequent travelers might find it to be a bit basic. One feature that was particularly interesting was the Submit Do/Don’t, which allows users to add their own tips to Traveldodo’s database by email or SMS. This collaborative feature, along with the app’s free download price and extensive range of cities make Traveldodo mobile city guides worth a second look. Check one out if you’re heading to Europe anytime soon.

How to use your mobile phone abroad

I understand why many people don’t pack a mobile phone when they leave the country. Aside from the high costs for international roaming, many associate mobile phones with the annoyances and stresses of day-to-day life. Nevertheless, I am a strong proponent of bringing your phone along for your trip. With a few small modifications, your phone can become a tremendous enhancement while you’re out of the country. When I travel with my friends, we usually carry two phones so we can meet if we split up. Not to mention the joy it brings to my friend Nick or my parents when I dial them from Spain at 3 in the morning. And the best part of all this? You can even avoid the painful international price-gouging that usually comes with using it.

But before you can enjoy this blissful world of cheap local calling worldwide, you’ll need to take a few simple steps to get your phone ready for travel. Here’s Gadling’s guide to using your mobile phone abroad. Follow along as we take you through the steps.


The most important part of using your phone abroad is having a model that is compatible with the worldwide wireless networks. For 95% of the world (excluding Korea and Japan) that standard is GSM. You’ll want a phone that is compatible with the GSM system. If you live in the U.S., both AT&T and T-Mobile, along with a few smaller wireless carriers, use GSM systems. Check with your provider if you’re not sure. If you have service with a GSM carrier, you’re already a step ahead, though you still need to confirm if your phone is tri-band or quad-band, which I will explain in the next step. If you are a Verizon or Sprint customer, your phone is not compatible unless you have a “world phone” – but don’t despair. You can easily purchase a cheap phone online or through a third party retailer.


In addition to a phone that works on a GSM network, different countries operate using different “frequencies” within GSM. Don’t worry about matching a specific frequency when you travel – instead make use of a phone that works across all the various frequencies. A phone that is quad-band works across all four GSM frequencies and will allow you the most flexibility. Tri-band phones will work in most situations, but there’s a few exceptions. Quad-Band is always your best bet. Check your phone’s user manual to find out what kind of phone you have.

For those lucky enough to already have a GSM-compatible, quad-band phone, skip this step and move to the next step, unlocking. For everyone else, you’ll want to get yourself a compatible phone. You can rent these types of phones online, but they can be purchased for about the same price and you get to keep it indefinitely. Sites like Amazon and eBay have lots of cheap handsets for sale. Find one you like and keep your eye out for the word “unlocked,” which I’ll explain in my next step. Also make sure it accepts a SIM card and that it’s quad-band or tri-band as mentioned before.


So you’ve gotten yourself the right phone, but there’s one last step before you’re ready to use it abroad. GSM phones use a technology called a SIM card that identifies your particular phone and its account on the wireless network (see the photo above for an example). If you open the battery pack on the back of the phone, you’ll see a little plastic chip wedged into a slot. That’s your SIM card. Wireless companies in the U.S. “lock” their phones so that if you take out their SIM, it’s useless. You will need to remove this protection before using it abroad. So we’re clear, you can still use “locked” phones in other countries – it’s just that you’re paying $2.00/minute to your favorite phone company back home. By unlocking, you’re using local service providers and getting cheaper rates.

There are a few ways to unlock but the easiest is to buy a phone that comes pre-unlocked. Search for the term “unlocked” on Amazon or eBay and you’ll see what I mean. You can also unlock a phone you already have that is locked. Surprisingly, your wireless carrier will typically give you the codes and instructions to do it, provided you’re not a brand new customer. I called up AT&T and they simply gave me the instructions. Done. It’s not always that easy however – if you’re unsure at all, take it to a third party wireless store and they’ll do it for a small fee. Or check out this.


Your phone is unlocked, congratulations. All you need now is a local SIM card. You can either buy these online (check out Telestial) or you can buy a SIM card when you arrive at your destination. In most countries, mobile phone stores sell prepaid wireless service for low rates along with a SIM card for their network. Once you’re set up, you can add more minutes with refill cards bought at places like ATM’s, convenience stores, newstands or even online. You might also wonder if the SIM card you buy in one country works in others. The answer is typically yes – I have used SIM cards from Spain while traveling in Italy at rates that were still reasonable. The tricky part is when you go to add minutes in other countries. To make this process easier, try to find a wireless carrier who operates in more than one country. A good example in Europe is Vodafone, which offers service and minute refills in Spain, Italy, Germany, the UK, France and Belgium among others.

That’s it. It can definitely seem confusing at first, but there are plenty of resources online to help you if you get stuck. Sites like Telestial or Howard Forums are great resources if you need more information. Give me a ring and say hello once you’ve got it working, will you?