Overseas cell service is amazing — if you need it. 

Last week, I wrote about T Mobile’s summer deal to provide high speed data at no additional cost for customers traveling overseas. It’s a pretty good deal if you have T Mobile, or for people who travel overseas often and who are considering switching carriers.

But it raises a larger question: Do you actually need your phone while traveling overseas?

It’s a deceptively complex question, because it’s not just about checking Facebook and staying connected; rather, technology is increasingly essential for basic travel services. So here are a few questions to help determine if you actually need cell service overseas.

1. Will you use Airbnb during your trip?


If you’re planning on using Airbnb at any point, you will definitely benefit from having a connected cell phone. Most importantly, it’ll be useful for calling your host when you arrive, as most (all?) Airbnb’s lack formal receptions.

I’ve stayed in many Airbnbs before, and while it’s possible to do without a phone, it’s vastly easier and more considerate if you can stay in touch with your host.

2. Will you be using Uber?

Uber, obviously, can only be used with a cell phone, so if you ever plan to use it overseas you’ll need to get connected. And here’s the thing, you should use Uber overseas. It’s cheaper and easier than a taxi, and you’ll end up meeting a local with some area of expertise other than driving. If you have the Uber app, and your phone connects overseas, you don’t need to do anything different while traveling; just open it up and it’ll work the same way it does back home.

3. Are you familiar with the destination and/or will you need a map?

IMG_8845If you think you might ever need a map while traveling, opt for making sure your phone is connected. This came in handy for me earlier this year, when I arrived in Istanbul without directions to my hotel and used Google Maps to navigate the historic core in a snow storm. It was easier and faster than using a paper map, and wouldn’t have been possible without cell data. (Google Maps can be used offline, but in that mode you can’t locate yourself on the map or get directions.)

This is doubly true if you’ll be driving; during our trip to Germany last year we didn’t have cell data. As a result, when we rented a car and drove through Bavaria we ended up paying for a GPS. It was a clunky, marginally effective device that probably cost us the same amount we would’ve paid for international service to our phones. Don’t make the same mistake we did.

4. Are you traveling last minute or without much planning?

IMG_9307We’re big fans of traveling last minute and not booking in advance. But if you do travel that way, it’s extremely useful to be able to call hotels and check flights or trains for availability. If you’re traveling outside of historic European city cores where everything is walkable, it’s all but essential to be able to call ahead.

5. Are you planning on Istagramming, Facebooking, or using social media generally?

This is what a lot of us think of first when we consider connecting to the internet while traveling. And it’s important! I love posting photos and video for my friends and followers to see.

But if this is all you’re going to use your phone for — which applies to a lot of travelers who don’t need new tech services like Airbnb and Uber — you can probably get by without paying for coverage or switching carriers.

Related reading:

This is what it feels like to drive on the Autobahn

High speed overseas data is free for the summer

Six tips for booking hotels last minute

— Jim Dalrymple II


Written by Jim Dalrymple II

Urbanism and travel writer. Also a journalist covering the news.

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