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Travel Smart: Using Your Smartphone Abroad

Here's a short and useful primer for maximizing your phone's utility when crossing borders.
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One of my favorite travel maxims - as I'm bolting out the door to catch a flight - comes from the brilliant ladies of Absolutely Fabulous: "Tickets! Money! Passport!" I used to say the same, but for the last few years I've added a fourth, equally vital item: Smartphone.

Most folks who frequently travel abroad know their Android or iOS device can be their most valuable companion - and not just for communication. For the rest of us, though, here's a short and useful primer for maximizing your phone's utility when crossing borders. And if I missed any apps that you find helpful, please add them in the comments!

Step 1: Get service abroad

There's two ways to do this. First is to contact your carrier and ask them to activate your phone for international use. This will add an extra charge to your monthly bill for placing calls, exchanging texts and using data in another country - usually between $50 and $100 per month.

If your phone is unlocked (which is explicitly allowed by U.S. law), you can also choose to replace your phone's SIM card with one activated for the country you're visiting. This is often cheaper than going through your carrier (usually from $5 to $50 per month) and offers a bigger chunk of data. Ahead of your trip, research which is the most reliable carrier in the country you're visiting, or just ask the locals. You can buy SIM cards at airports, newsstands, or standalone stores - and normally the clerk will help you install it in your device.

Note that most SIM cards will only work in the country where you bought them, so if you're crossing from Spain into France, you're going to need a new SIM for use in France. In all cases, opt for the plan that gives you the most data for your dollar; when traveling abroad, this is the most crucial piece.

Please note that some countries - notably China, Japan, and South Korea - use different frequencies and systems, which many foreign phones are unable to access. Also keep in mind that most airports have free terminal-wide WiFi or hotspots. Seek these out upon landing for sending that all-important "I made it safe and sound" message to your loved ones. And speaking of sending messages...

Step 2: Keeping in touch

Keeping in touch with family and friends is something most folks enjoy while traveling. It's great sending or posting the requisite photos of yourself pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa or kissing the Blarney Stone. Naturally Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and e-mail are all great for this, but here's a few more to consider.

Skype is a great tool for keeping in touch - and not just with video. You can add money to your account and use it to make phone calls from overseas at much better rates than most any calling card you'd buy. You can also exchange text messages and, of course, video chat - just be careful not to burn through your data too fast.

Whatsapp, a messaging app that Facebook snapped-up last year for $19 billion, is the gold standard for most international travelers. It has a dead simple interface for swapping messages, photos, video, audio clips and voice calls with fellow users. Especially for extended trips abroad, encourage your family and friends to download the app to stay in touch with you - it will be your lifeline.

Facebook's standalone Messenger app is also useful for keeping in touch while traveling. Though I find it a bit clunkier than Whatsapp, it's more popular in the States and more of your contacts are likely to be using it, so you may find it more convenient. It can also be used to send photos, video and make voice calls.

Along with the usual host of social networking apps, Periscope is a fun addition to a traveler's arsenal. The Twitter-owned app lets you livestream video from anywhere you've got a connection, letting the world (or just your family and friends) see what you see in real-time. They can also send you comments and questions along the way. The videos are, by default, archived for 24 hours so anyone who's missed your broadcast can log-on and check it out afterwards.

Be advised that some countries - like China - block Facebook, Gmail, YouTube and a host of other popular apps and websites, so it's wise to set up alternatives (like a Yahoo e-mail account) to use instead. Now you're connected with your peeps - and it's finally time to get out on the town!

Step 3: Getting around

Google Maps! Google Maps! Google Maps! I can't stress this enough. Intuitive, reliable, and consistently updated, it always gets you where you want to go by foot, vehicle or mass transit. When driving in foreign countries, its voice feature has also never steered me wrong - though it occasionally decides to take the scenic route.

The Google Translate app is as close as we've come (so far) to Star Trek's "universal translator" and a must-have for most international travelers. The app lets you quickly and easily translate between dozens of languages from Afrikaans to Zulu. It also has some snazzy features. You can take a photo of a printed word and translate it - helpful for street signs, etc. You can write a word on the screen with your finger (even in cursive) and the app will translate it. You can even speak a word or phrase into the phone and the app's digital voice will speak the translation out loud (super cool).

Finally, always remember to turn off your mobile data when you're not using it and take advantage of free WiFi hotspots wherever possible to make the most of those precious megabytes. Happy trails!

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