When purchasing a new cell phone or smartphone for international travel, there are several essential and bonus features that can really enhance your travel experience.
While not essential, these features can really make or break your travel experience, or at least enhance it in a very positive way:
> Camera phones – Leave your point-and-shoot camera at home, because phone cameras have come a long way over the years
> Wi-Fi – Why use expensive data plans when many hotels, cafes and restaurants around the world offer free Wi-Fi access to tap into?
> Battery life – You can’t use your phone if the battery is dead, so be sure your phone has the batter life you need to last between charges
> GPS and mapping – Geo-locational services are one of the biggest benefits of traveling with a smartphone, and help you blend in without holding a big paper map
> Cache limits – Some smartphones let you save your web pages to your phone, and then access them later in areas where there is no data or Wi-Fi service
> Apps – There are literally thousands of apps out there to help you travel
> Flashlight – Unlike a regular flashlight, your phone can be re-charged, and having a flashlight on your phone is especially handy in countries that experience frequent power outages
> Extra batteries – If you are planning on leaving civilization for more than 24 hours, it is essential that you either have a solar charger or purchase a phone that allows you to exchange batteries
The cameras found on mobile phones now rival point-and-shoot cameras in terms of picture quality, convenience, and functionality.
If you love your high-tech multi-lens camera, but don’t like how it makes you a target for pickpockets and other thieves, you should consider using an inconspicuous camera phone instead. Save your high-tech camera for nature parks and quiet sunsets, slip out your camera phone for those un-expected moments that will be more available to you when you’re not hiding behind a big camera.
When buying a new smartphone or mobile phone, consider the following camera phone opportunities:
- Number of mega pixels (depending on your needs, anything above 5 mega pixels should be just fine. More mega pixels does not necessarily mean better, as picture files can become too large to easily upload)
- Available picture functions (for example, multiple file size options, multiple picture size options, picture styles, flash, low-light options, etc.)
- How picture files can be transferred to your computer or shared (bluetooth is convenient for sharing pictures with people around you, while cable connections are fastest for sharing pictures with your computer, but also consider compatibility with uploading directly to facebook or other social media through phone applications, and through your phone’s email, SMS, or MMS services)
- Does the camera has some reverse-picture support (for example, some BlackBerrys have a little mirror around the lens so that you can see if you’re in the frame when taking a picture of yourself, while some iPhones allow you to take pictures with either side of the phone, allowing you to see the screen)
- Compare photos taken by different camera phones by taking test pictures (everyone has their preferences, so give it a test run).
Tip: Don’t forget to turn off picture sound functions when you’re traveling, this will make you even more discreet.
With all the advances in VoIP services and travel apps, having Wi-Fi on your phone is almost becoming more important than actually making phone calls. And best part is you can often find free Wi-Fi connections, so the feature quickly pays for itself.
Smartphones, tablets, and mobile phones require energy to perform, and it can be tricky finding places to plug-in while traveling. You can buy an alternative-energy charger (like solar-powered), but an important item to compare when shopping for your smartphone or tablet is the battery life of the product, and whether or not the product has settings to automatically reduce battery consumption.
Your iPhone may have 200 hours of standby time, but only 6 hours of Internet use while using data service, but up to 9 hours of Internet use while using Wi-Fi.
Many smartphones have a setting which automatically optimizes your battery life in many different ways with just one click, while other phones require you to manually turn off each function one-by-one, such as data service, bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and send/receive email functions.
Tip: Don’t believe the manufacturers’ numbers on battery life as they do everything they can to make their handsets’ specs appear as good as they can. Search for mobile phone battery life comparisons for the latest independent tests.
- View our article on optimizing battery life for Android
- View our article on optimizing battery life on iPhone
GPS and mapping
Global Positioning Systems, or GPS, utilise satellites to determine your exact location, and then a data service is used to download a map to see where this location is relative to other areas.
This can be especially useful when traveling, because GPS is usually free to use all over the world. You can download offline maps or cache maps (save a map to your phone) while connected to free Wi-Fi.
Navigation units like TomToms provide free maps and do not require any data service to retrieve maps.
Older smartphones that do not have GPS capabilities may have a mobile service that triangulates your location based on nearby antenna towers, but these are much less reliable than GPS.
Make sure you compare the GPS functions of each smartphone and consider the following in terms of priorities for the type of travel you are looking for:
- Does the phone have GPS (90% of smartphones now have GPS functionality)
- What types of map services does the phone support? (example, Google maps may be more familiar to you than TomTom maps)
- Battery life of the phone when using GPS
- Hands-free accessories available for driving and seeing the map
- Voice-prompts for providing directions
- Functionality to cache / save maps and retrieve them later (example, Android phones can pre-download a map covering a 10-mile radius, and there are lots of apps that provide “off-line maps” so that you don’t spend a fortune on data service)
Tip: Look for a good GPS app before you go. Think about how much access you will have to inexpensive data service or free Wi-Fi and consider downloading an offline map before you go.
Application Software, commonly referred to as “apps”, are very popular all over the world and allow smartphone and tablet users to conveniently access specifically-tailored information through a separate piece of software rather than through your phone’s Internet browser.
There are apps to search train schedules, translation apps, weather apps, game apps, and apps to provide all sorts of other vital information when traveling. When choosing a new smartphone or tablet, it is essential that your device supports common apps, or if you have a specific app in mind, check that it is supported.
The most common platforms supported are Android, iPhone, and BlackBerry, but many popular apps are cross-platform compatible (check the cross-platform deployment of mobile applications).
It may seem surprisingly low-tech, but having a flashlight on your phone can be an indispensable travel accessory, especially when traveling in developing countries. A flashlight on your phone can help you find your way to the bathroom in the middle of the night when you wake up in an un-familiar environment, let you read when you’re suffering from jetlag, help find things at the bottom of your bag, and guide your way in an emergency or during a power outage. Since mobile phones can be re-charged, mobile phone flashlights can be handier than a normal flashlight that requires batteries.
Just like on your computer, smartphones and tablets have the ability to “cache” certain amounts of data, such as remembering websites that you previously visited, going “back” or “forward” instantly without having to re-load a page, or auto-filling data.
There is a wide range of capacity for storing cached data, and not all operating systems for smartphones and tablets are created equal in this regard.
Tip: If caching of websites is a priority, Android phones and tablets seem to be have the highest cache limits, and the most functionality in all areas of caching, according to a June 2010 analysis made by the Yahoo! User Interface Blog.
If you are traveling very long distances, in areas with no electricity for extended periods of time, or need to use battery-intensive features, it is important to consider which devices support carrying extra batteries.
iPhone batteries, for example, cannot be removed — they can only be replaced by Apple customer service agencies (at a cost of $79-$99 + shipping, depending on the device).
Many smartphones, including BlackBerrys and some Samsungs have easily removable batteries that can be replaced with fully-charged extra batteries during a trip.
There are also some accessories available to provide longer-life for your smartphone, such as the iPhone Battery Case, or the Samsung Galaxy Power Pack, and there is always the option to bring along devices that can utilise alternative power supplies such as solar-powered chargers.