I have to say, after 20-plus hours in transit, it’s nice to arrive in another country and already have one less thing to worry about. My travel plans had me going from Kentucky to Latvia, via Chicago and Stockholm, just before Christmas. Within just two hours of arrival, someone from UPS showed up with a preloaded cell phone and MiFi (a personal WiFi hotspot) courtesy of SIMsmart Prepaid and Cellhire. This turned out to be a bigger relief than I had imagined it would be for two reasons: It was barely double digits Fahrenheit in Riga, and my gloves were in my checked bag, which was still somewhere in Sweden.
Normally, getting a European phone goes like this for me: I bring with me, or buy on arrival, a burner — an old, unlocked phone I wouldn’t care if I lost — and get a pay-as-you-go SIM card that usually costs me less than 15 euros per month.
But I also stay in some places for months at a time. This method is probably too much of a hassle for anyone traveling around, say, the Mediterranean coast for two weeks. This person would need service that could roam across borders fairly cheaply (which, by the way, is probably not whatever international plan your American carrier offers).
As for a WiFi connection, I am usually at the mercy of the hostel/hotel/apartment where I am staying, plus whatever cafes I can find. Internet connections can be spotty when traveling.
All that said, let me break down my experiences after spending a week with the phone and MiFi I received from SIMsmart and Cellhire, respectively.
Prepaid Cell Phone
The phone I received was an older soapbar-style Samsung 1080i with a UK three-prong charger and $50 prepaid credit. I went through about half of that credit in a week of normal usage. That’s not bad considering I called and texted to the US a few times, sent a week’s worth of the unnecessary texts I normally send out to whoever I’m hanging out with (“Hey, you here yet?”), hassled the airport about my missing luggage and sent get-well greetings to my grandma.
And Latvia has more expensive rates than Germany, France, the UK or Spain does. If you don’t go crazy, $50 should buy you all the airtime you need for two weeks of European travel. Note that the phone costs between $10 and $20, delivery costs at least $10, and an adapter for converting UK to EU standard plugs is $3 extra.
Yes, those charges do start to add up. The flip side is that you don’t waste precious vacation time looking for cheap SIM cards, and you can leave that iPhone 5 you got for Christmas at home and out of reach of some pickpocket in Barcelona.
The MiFi mobile internet hotspot I received was made by ZTE, was about the size of a smartphone, came with 1 GB of credit and included the EU adapter.
Honestly, I had never given a thought to using any kind of mobile internet hardware before. So, if you are new to this technology, too, a MiFi simply routes a 3G connection to WiFi-enabled devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops. The device can fit into your pocket and, if the battery is charged, is totally wireless.
I found that a MiFi connection would be redundant in many of the places I would normally need an internet connection — a cafe, a hotel lobby — but I think this would be a life-saver on long train rides or if I had to spend any meaningful amount of time in an airport terminal. That six-hour train route between Berlin and Amsterdam suddenly becomes an opportunity to clear your inbox. That three-hour delay in Charleroi is all the excuse you need to do some Facebook stalking.
The downside here is the cost. The Europe-wide 1 GB/month bundle will set you back $114. (Note: The country-specific plans for France, Germany, the UK and Spain are at least three times cheaper per gigabyte, but they are only useful if you stay in that country.)
You can use the Cellhire and SIMsmart sites to match the best device and service bundle with your travel plans. Even if you are with a group of 20 going so far off the grid that only satellite communications can reach you, it appears they have you covered.
Or, if you are like me and need nothing more than to catch up on sleep after a transatlantic flight, you can have a normal prepaid phone waiting for you when you arrive. Just unbox the thing, set its alarm, and turn out the lights.
Written by Eric Barrier for EuropeUpClose.com