My job requires me to be on-call 24/7. When I was vacationing in Europe, my primary concern was finding internet access everywhere I go, which means I must have data access with all my wireless carriers. Oh btw, having internet also gives you access to tripadvisor — which is an invaluable resource for countries that do not use yelp. (I wonder if Yelp has ever tried to buy TripAdvisor — because that’s what I would do).
My initial wish was for a mobile phone carrier that serviced all of Europe. Sadly, no such company exists. Each country had their own mobile provider. Lame.
To prepare for the trip, I brought my unlocked, jailbroken iPhone with me. I also had an Android phone with me, but sadly I forgot to unlock it. My #1 tip for traveling in Europe is to bring an unlocked smartphone with you. Rooting your phone is easy. Unlocking it is another story. T-mobile will unlock your phone if you have been with them for more than 60-days, so plan for this if you do not have an something available.
When I landed in London, I found a T-Mobile UK. They sold me a 10 pounds SIM card which was supposed to give me 2GB of data or something like that. I had the salesman try and make it work on iPhone, but he couldn’t do it even after trying unsuccessfully several times to mess with the APN settings. I was in a hurry, so I took my phone and left thinking I would have better luck doing it myself. This was a mistake. I never got the T-Mobile UK SIM to work with my phone, so my entire time in London was offline. Worst two days ever…. So that’s my tip #2 — Make sure your SIM works before leaving the store. Most of the time, the people in those stores know exactly how to make their SIMs work. Knowledge that is not widely available online.
To make matters worst, it seems that getting WiFi in your hotel room is extremely unreliable. This is not a European thing. It is a problem here in the States too. So my tip #3 is not to rely on hotel WiFi. Always bring your own. By that I mean make sure the phone you are bringing, can tether internet. So remember, unlocked, and rooted or jailbroken phone with a Wifi Tethering app installed. This is also a great asset for when you are sitting around in the airports.
My next destination was Paris. I don’t know why, but it was really hard to find a phone store in Paris. They had a lot of stores there, but its all baguette and coffee shops. I honestly saw only one phone store the entire time I was there. That one phone store was Vodafone. They did not speak that much english, and looked really annoyed I wanted to speak to them in english. They told me that if I bought a SIM from them, it would take 48 hours for it to activate, which means I will be gone by then. So again I spent two days in paris offline.
At this point I was really starting to stress out. The hotel WiFi were not reliable, and I was just roaming the streets going from one WiFi hotspot to the next. I even broke my golden rule of not using public WiFi hotspots, for security reasons, because I was so desperate.
Surprisingly, the easiest place I got a working SIM was in Venice. A freaking dilapidated island city surrounded by water. The Vodafone store in Venice got me a working SIM — 40 euros for 5GB of data. The coverage was not bad at all. I had 3G data almost everywhere. But then for some reason it stopped working and I had to visit a store in Rome to ask about it. They told me I had to refill my account 5 euros. I still don’t understand how that happened. I was told that 40 euros would give me 5GB for a month, but that does not seem to be the case. If anyone knows why this is, I would like to know.
After italy, we landed in Santorini. Again, on an island, I was able to visit a phone store and easily get a SIM for 20 euros. 2GB of data for 15 days I believe. You had to follow some instructions to make the thing work properly, but like I said earlier, the people at the phone store were pretty knowledgeable on how to make it all work.
That rounds out my mobile travel experience in Europe. I now have a pocket full of SIM cards with unused data. I dream that one day there will be a place at the airports where we can drop off our used SIM for the next traveler to pick up. But that might be problematic because the SIM is tied to your passport. Speaking of which. In order to buy a SIM, you must bring your passport, so remember that.
I also hope that one day all airports will have SIM vending machines. I saw one in London, but missed the opportunity to use it. If I was to go back, my first stop would be to that SIM machine.
Btw, if you are adventurous. Port your number to google voice. Having my number on google voice allowed me to receive text messages and phone calls on any phone, any where, using the google voice app. I was also able to use it to make phone calls and receive text messages on my primary number, as if I never left the States. This is a rather convenient option when you don’t want to have to remember different numbers when you are traveling.