Stay connected while you’re away on vacation

Michelle Quinn
Mercury News

After years of traveling to England, I’d arrived at a new threshold when I thought about our upcoming trip overseas.


I can’t do it without data, I declared to Michael, my husband.

What I meant is that I needed a data plan so that my phone would remain continuously connected to the internet.

I didn’t want to have to scour London looking for Wi-Fi cafes or the last working pay phone in one of those iconic red booths.

I wasn’t looking forward to relearning how to text with a $25 burner phone, our solution on past visits. (Remember hitting the 9 key three times to make a “Y” as in “Yes”? Good times.)

Summertime, and the living can be uneasy without a connected device. Instead of getting away from it all, I needed a communications strategy for a 10-day overseas vacation.

This may sound like overkill. But I’ve become so used to having access to email, texting, maps, directions, GPS, Siri, financial information and so on, all easily within reach that I have lost the desire to relive what it was like to do without.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to make the case. Michael has become a digital co-dependent, too. But we faced a host of questions.

The first question for international travelers who want to be connected to the network is: Do I want to buy an international data plan from my existing carrier or sign up for one in the foreign country? There are pros and cons to each choice.

Unlocking means owning one’s phone outright, without it being tied to a specific mobile carrier. That frees you to purchase an a la carte plan.

I owe $100 on my iPhone 6. If I pay it off and unlock it, I could go to a British carrier such as EE for a new SIM card (a microchip) and a 30-day data service plan. For about $30, I could get 3 gigabytes of data, 750 minutes of talk and unlimited texting. (Our family data plan provides about this much data for a month.) I’d also get a local number.

In comparison, $30 with AT&T would let me keep my own phone number yet get me just 120 megabytes of data and $1 per minute talk, as well as unlimited texting.

I don’t expect to do a lot of talking. But I did worry that while traveling my apps would somehow eat up my data in the AT&T plan.

Going with unlocked plan

I decided to go the unlocked phone route. That means I will have a United Kingdom phone number but be able to use my own device. Michael, who has an already-unlocked Android OnePlus smartphone, will do the same.

Our 13-year-old son, who has an old iPhone, and 10-year-old daughter, who has a tablet, will use their devices only at Wi-Fi hot spots. Life can be tough.

Even with the unlocked phone and data plan, I have to think about one more thing — texting.

I mostly text with Michael and he with me. In Europe, we will continue to use Google Plus Hangouts for texting and our phones’ SMS to communicate with local friends and family. Other travelers download WhatsApp or other apps for very inexpensive texting.

Location-related apps

Deciding to be connected opens up new horizons of useful apps that rely on an international travelers’ GPS coordinates.

Beyond Google Maps, I’ve learned about, which offers detailed maps of the entire world, every city and every town in every country, “even the smallest islands” (as the app maker puts it). The maps can be fully downloaded (to avoid extra roaming charges for those who aren’t signed up for a data plan).

I wanted to test’s marketing promise and tapped “Monarch’s Way” and “Brighton, UK” into the search engine for a footpath in the Sussex countryside. It is part of the 615-mile route King Charles II took in 1651. After I discovered this crazy zigzag route during a run a couple of years ago, I learned that many locals don’t even know about it. coughed it up.

There are other needs beyond finding an obscure footpath that a device knowing my location can provide.

Where’s the bathroom?

If you have ever madly dashed around a foreign city with a kid looking for a public bathroom, the unknown — such as how do I ask for a bathroom in French or Spanish again — has limited appeal.

SitORSquat is either a potentially clever app by Charmin, the toilet paper manufacturer, or a marketing ploy disguised as an app. It uses the wisdom of the crowd to identify nearby public bathrooms.

The app offers directions and a bathroom rating system with a green toilet roll designating a positive “Sit” rating. A red toilet roll is a Squat rating. I say “potentially” because I wasn’t able to figure out why the bathrooms near me received a red or green toilet roll.

Likewise, the TripAdvisor app has many services but offers one thing I really want — information about what is nearby based on my phone’s location.

OK, SitORSquat isn’t a critical for traveling. More useful is TripAdvisor’s “Near Me Now” feature, which offers restaurants, parks, museums and other things within a few feet or a mile or two.

Sure, something profound is lost when a travel app directs your every footstep around a city where you don’t live. After all, bad meals and bad bathrooms can make for good stories.

But I am OK with the trade-offs. My iPhone gives me a bit of traveler superpower in the Bay Area. Why wouldn’t I want that when abroad?

Two possibilities

EE’s 30 Day plan: Three gigabytes of data, 750 minutes of talk, unlimited texting. Need unlocked phone. Receive a local, in-country number. 30 day data service for close to $30.

AT&T Passport: 120 megabytes of data, $1 per minute of talk, unlimited texting. Use your existing phone and phone number. 30 day service for $30.

Michelle Quinn is a business columnist for the Mercury News. Readers may send her email at