I bought my very first smartphone in May 2016! Nope, I’m not a millennial. Up until then, I was still travelling around the world with paper maps and phrasebooks! Now however, I find it hard to imagine not using my phone when I travel.

I decided to write this post for the older folks among us who are not always sure how to use their mobile phone − or “cell phone” for us North Americans − abroad, or even if they should bring it along. (If this makes you laugh or roll your eyes, then you probably are a millennial and may enjoy reading about how people kept in touch while travelling in the 90s!)

My phone is a low-priced Android device from a company called Blu. The Life One X is pretty basic and doesn’t have a lot of memory, but that’s OK because I’m not a huge phone user anyway. In fact, even at home, I rarely use my phone to make phone calls. I text more than I talk, and I use a few basic apps, which are a great help when I travel (see below).

While the camera on my Blu phone can’t replace my Olympus mirrorless or Canon DSLR, it does take decent pictures (low light being the exception). I often use it to take quick photos of bus schedules, menus, maps, or other printed information.

How I get my phone to work abroad

If my stay in a given country is longer than two weeks, I typically purchase a local SIM card, providing me with a local phone number, and allowing me to text and make calls. I also make sure that I have data so I don’t need to rely on WiFi all the time.

In most countries, a SIM card with enough minutes/data for a month costs only between CA$15 and $30 dollars. (Your phone needs to be unlocked before it can use a SIM card from another provider.)

SIM cards (different sizes and countries/providers) (how I use my phone when I travel)

SIM cards bought in various countries. (The bigger ones were for my old Nokia phone.)

This is much cheaper than roaming (VERY expensive), an international SIM, or even a special plan your provider may try to sell you.

If I’m only in a country for a week or two, I rely on Wifi, which is available in most accommodations, cafés, and restaurants nowadays. In some cities, public parks also provide free WiFi. That’s all I need to use my five favourite apps.

The 5 phone apps I always use when I travel

Because my phone has very little memory, I limit myself to only a few apps both at home and abroad.


I only started using WhatsApp a couple of years ago, but I couldn’t imagine not using it now. Many AirBnB hosts use it as their preferred way to communicate with guests. And I can also use it to send messages and photos to my friends at home (to let them know I’m OK or make them jealous(!)), or even have a live chat if I feel lonely. It’s all free!

Google Maps

I will never be lost with Google Maps, as the “blue dot” shows me exactly where I am.

Google Maps app (how I use my phone when I travel)

Something many people don’t know is that if you open the app and zoom in on the area you need while you have WiFi, the street names and other information are retained even after you leave the WiFi zone. And the blue dot (your position) keeps updating.

I especially love using Google Maps when I take public transit in a new place. I follow my progress on the map to make sure I’m headed the right way and get off at the right stop. Of course I also use it to map my route and know what bus or train to take to reach my destination.

I’m pretty good at reading paper maps, and finding where I am. But a paper map doesn’t tell you which way you’re facing, which can be very important when you emerge from a metro station in a foreign city, feeling disoriented. Google Maps on my phone shows a blue cone pointing in the direction the phone is facing so I can quickly orient myself. I love Google Maps!

Google Drive

When I travel, I like to keep electronic tickets, vouchers, and other documents on Google Drive. For each file, there is an option called “Available offline” that you can turn on. Then it’s a simple matter of recalling your tickets and getting them scanned or checked wherever you are, even without having data or WiFi.

I also use Google Drive to move photos and documents between my phone and my computer.

Google Translate

Google Translate app (how I use my phone when I travel)

If you’re travelling in a country where you don’t speak the language, Google Translate can be a life saver. You can ask for what you need (by typing or talking) and listen to/read the translated response. The translations are not always perfect, but generally good enough to get your point across.

I also find Google Translate useful to practice a new language. You can speak into the app using words in the foreign language, and see if your pronunciation is correct by looking at the translation into your own language.


I often use Booking.com to book accommodation and it gives me peace of mind to be able to see all my current bookings, along with addresses, phone numbers, prices and other details on my mobile. This way, when I arrive at the hotel, I can quickly pull out my reservation, if they have any trouble finding it. It also helps me make sure they are charging me the correct price.

Of course you can also use this app to make reservations on Booking.com. I always get a little nervous entering credit card numbers and password online when I travel though, so I tend to make payments and check my balances only from my laptop, and only from password-protected WiFi networks. Recently, I’ve learned that even this might not be totally safe, which brings me to VPNs.

What is a VPN and why use one?

A VPN is software that you install on your phone, tablet, or computer to encrypt your internet traffic in order to improve online privacy and security. There are several providers, and subscriptions cost only a few dollars a month. (Some are even free but probably not as good as the paying versions.)

The main purpose of a VPN is to keep your data safe from hackers when using public WiFi (or even from WiFi operators who collect and then sell your data!) A VPN can also access sites censored by governments or organizations (think Facebook in China).

It even gives you access to streaming services in other countries. So you could be in Peru or Thailand but watching your Netflix shows in your home country. Basically, connecting to a VPN server in a given country makes it look like you’re actually there. How cool is that?

How I travel with my phone

Accessing WiFi in public places is a security risk

To learn more about what a VPN is and how it works, check out this non-technical beginner’s guide to Virtual Private Networks.

I don’t use a VPN right now, but am seriously considering signing up for one in preparation for my upcoming trips. Not only won’t I need to feel nervous paying my credit cards online or checking my bank balances, but I should be able to watch episodes of my favourite TV show: Murdoch Mysteries. The episodes, uploaded to CBC.ca the day after they air, are normally not available outside of Canada.

Charger and adapters

By the way, I hate stating the obvious, but if you’re taking your phone on a trip, don’t forget to pack your charger, and (if needed) an adapter that matches the electrical outlets of the countries you’re travelling to.

Actually, better make this two adapters. Don’t do what I did in Turkey, and forget your only adapter in a wall outlet. Duh!

(Note: This post contains affiliate links.)

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