Why I Always Travel with a Cellphone

TELUS asked me if I’d consider writing about my experiences abroad with cell phones. I said sure! So, this post was sponsored by TELUS, but the opinions and experiences are mine

Returning to Canada after three and a half years abroad – everywhere from Southeast Asia and Europe’s Balkans to Northern Africa and Central Mexico – conjures many things to me, but two stand out – freedom and space. I have a whole new appreciation for the immensity of this beautiful nation. And, as I make my way east to my new home in Ottawa through mountains, prairies, and river valleys, I find myself marveling at the strength and speed of our wireless networks, which keep me safely and continuously connected, regardless of where I am. 

Europe, where I lived in 17 different countries for between four to nine weeks each over my travels, has 44 nations crammed into its borders. Among the countries belonging to the European Union (EU), residents enjoy the freedom to physically roam across borders. People often literally live in one country and work in the other, and their commute is an hour: the same as living in Chilliwack and working in Burnaby, or driving from Kitchener to Toronto. In fact, I met a Swiss woman who’d fly to Lisbon for her haircut every two months, because the flight, cut, and a hotel stay cost the same then as getting styled in Zurich!

international SIM cards

Some of the SIM cards I’ve collected during my travels. I only bought one in my last 10 months, thanks to the new roam-free law in the EU.

Mobile service is so integral to the European experience that, in 2017, the EU banned roaming fees. That’s why, after racking up 20 or so SIM cards in my first 2.5 years as a nomad, just one SIM covered 11 of the final 12 countries in my journey.

Coverage by the Numbers

I’ll miss the price over there, since the population density in Europe leads to cheaper mobile service. Europe averages more than 370 people per square-kilometre versus Canada’s “almost four people,” making Europe’s system much easier and more cost-effective for carriers to implement, which is passed on to Europeans.

Mobile service is also a lifeline in much of Europe, where life is hard and compromises are frequent – like in the Balkans, where I spent a year. There, places like Bulgaria, Albania, and Romania may have cheap service, but the average income is around $700 a month, while minimum wage in somewhere like Albania is $300 monthly. A “cheap” plan for us is costly for them. For the Balkans, mobile service and smart phones can be equalizers, allowing everyone online access at a reasonable price based on their national average income.

And being cheaper elsewhere in the EU doesn’t mean better service either, as some countries have old infrastructure.

I learned the hard way that “fast” internet at home is truly subjective. I struggle to remember all the times I’d turn my phone’s WiFi off just to get online, because it happened so frequently in my 17-country European experience.

That’s why mobile service is so critical in struggling countries like those in the Balkans, where “WiFi-assist” is a necessity. Here in Canada, I have to turn off Apple’s WiFi-Assist, lest I unnecessarily drain my data package, since free WiFi is widely available, like with Telus’ 20,000+ free hotspots across the nation.

Public networks in Canada are great, but I was apprehensive about relying on them in places like Bulgaria, Turkey, Albania, and Thailand, where privacy threats come from both authoritarian governments and tech-savvy criminal underworlds. Despite keeping my phone constantly updated and a VPN powered up abroad, I was always anxious about hacking, so it’s nice to be home, where I’m less alarmed about security.

man playing violin in Rome

This was the night I wished more than ever that I wasn’t travelling alone, because I knew I’d never be able to turn to someone and say “Remember that night in Rome?” The sunset that followed this is one of the most spectacular I’ve ever seen. It was a good night to be able to share content with friends back home, to take the sting of loneliness out.

Enhancing Travel with Mobile Phones

I’ve often been chastised for being mobile-dependent in my travels, especially by travellers who boast about doing a “digital detox” to be “present” during their journey.

I’m baffled by people not using phones abroad, or even stateside. For short trips, mobile providers have fairly affordable packages for uninterrupted coverage. For longer trips, it’s easy to buy SIMs with tourist packages – often well-priced, and I’d say indispensable. This incredible site includes information on mobile options in every country, perfect for nomads and intrepid travellers.

I stayed in around 75 AirBNBs as a nomad. Guess how many had phone lines? None. Zero. Zilch.

What if the WiFi went out, then what? Powerlines in foreign countries like Albania and Mexico are a marvel – a plethora of cables strung hodge-podge from every direction, tied and knotted, drooping and looping, all connected to a single pole. Of course there are frequent outages. Of course there are! Good luck using WiFi at home then.

But what about languages? And learning about all the amazing spots on your travels? And food! Sure, lots of restaurants in tourist hubs have English on their menus, but you know what restaurants you should avoid when travelling? The ones with English! Enter Google Translate to the rescue.

pizza in naples, italy

When you have two nights in Naples, Italy, and all the food is INCREDIBLE, you need to do your research. My research served me well. This is Pizzeria da Attilio’s ricotta-stuffed crust. Amazing. AH-MAZ-ING.

Most of my fondest memories abroad include food, and I depended on Google Maps and other resources to seek great meals. One such memory comes from Split, Croatia.

Open my wallet and you’ll spot a paperclip on a credit card slot and, behind it, a little yellow envelope holding those SIM cards used through 25 countries. The paperclip rescued me after 90 minutes of trying to find something, anything, to open my SIM card tray in Split, Croatia. Eventually, a pharmacist saved me.

Despite being home for the long haul now, my paperclip remains as a reminder of the resourcefulness and inventiveness I often needed through my adventures. But it’ll also remind me of trying to navigate the maze of Split’s 1,500-year-old Diocletian’s Palace,  the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in which people still live.

Surrounded there by restaurants, I turned to Google Maps for ratings, and it led to the greatest bowl of pasta I’ve ever eaten, a simple Bolognese that reduced me to tears as I finished my meal. (I will spend next winter trying to perfect that recipe.)

Mobile Abroad Can Save (or Change) Your Life

The gloriousness of food aside, the most I ever truly needed a smartphone was in Albania, where I had an emergency hysterectomy. The hospital had no WiFi! Imagine being alone after major surgery 10,000 kilometres from home, waking groggily in a foreign hospital, and trying to communicate with nursing staff who don’t speak English. Luckily, I’m pragmatic, so I doubled my data pack before surgery, ensuring I’d also be covered during frequent power outages while “home” recovering. It proved critical in hospital, where Google Translate became invaluable, as I could understand their after-care instructions and went home less scared about fending for myself with just drop-in hired help, who also never spoke the language. Google Translate helped me to understand the doctor’s Mediterranean take on the “right recovery foods” to eat, integral for avoiding a return to hospital later. (Plenty of olive oil and Albanian yogurt, doctor’s orders!)

smiling Thai men

These old men were always lounging a block from my rural Thai home on the Mekong River, where no one spoke English. I used a bit of Translate to help me with these guys sometimes. They’ll never know how sad I was to leave them behind. Beautiful people.

Sometimes, using data led to transformative moments, like emerging from Revolucija Café in Sarajevo, Bosnia, to discover a red resin splatter on the sidewalk. The splatter was a “Sarajevo Rose” – a marker of mass casualties in the Bosnian War. I searched the web for names on the plaque above the rose and learned 22 people died there, standing in line to buy bread, when mortar attacks slaughtered them for Bosnia’s first mass death in the war.

Then I unearthed the story of heartbroken cellist Vedran Smailovic who, lamenting his comrades’ deaths, took his cello there to play a concert daily for 22 days, commemorating each victim.

The story goes that a reporter later asked, “Aren’t you a little crazy to be playing cello with a war going on around you?” To which he replied, “I think they’re a little crazy to be warring while I play my cello.”

We see so much when travelling that it’s easy to later forget to Google a spot or a thing we saw, when we get back to WiFi somewhere. I feel it’s so much more impactful to learn then and there about a place, like with that Sarajevo Rose, and having data allows that.

Moments like that changed me. After weeks of blissful ignorance working in that café, I learned unimaginable loss and pain had happened right there. It’s a lesson that everything changes, time doesn’t stand still. Some places reinvent themselves while paying homage to their past horrors. Like us humans, I guess.

spring snow in Sarajevo Bosnia

So much about Sarajevo, Bosnia, captivated me. There’s so much history in so many places, that having a cell plan for research-on-the-go can make so much difference to the experience. I highly recommend visiting Bosnia.

Take a Different Path with Cell Phones

Having a constant smartphone connection allowed me to travel my way. It’s the joy of being a blue dot on a map and always having information handy about where I was, not just geographically, but culturally too.

Travel books can be great because they’re written by local experts, but they lead to bottlenecking, an overload of visitors and lots of lines for same-same-but-different experiences. A phone, a translating app, and value-added rich mapping like Google Maps (or Maps.me) means discovering interesting places that are visited less frequently. Plus, apps like Moovit empower you to ride transit internationally and explore more while staying budget-friendly.

And now, here I am, back in Canada, moving to Ottawa so I can explore and learn in a place steeped in maple-flavoured history, the birthplace of this nation. I look forward to roaming Boston and Vermont, New York and Quebec, the autumn colours of Prince Edward County, and so much more in the next two years.

Some may love to demonize smartphones, claiming they prevent people from “being present,” but that’s the fault of the operator, not of the equipment. Used right, a smartphone while travelling can put you in a place like nothing else can. It helps preserve memories, track experiences, and can be that light in the dark when travel gets tough and things get scary. Using technology better, for an enhanced travel experience, is up to you.

horsedrawn cart in Bulgaria

Men play backgammon and drink coffee in the background. Horsedrawn carts are a reality in rural Bulgaria, and thanks to a data plan, I could use Waze for driving instructions and avoiding radar traps.

Showing 5 comments
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    Julie H. Ferguson

    Excellent! Was wondering how this would turn out.

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    What an adventure. I feel that way as well. Having a data card while in the EU made us feel confident in traveling around and was a wealth of information right at our fingertips. Your adventure sounds amazing. I hope you write more about it.

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    Loved how you collected all your sim cards – I’ve started to do the same. 🙂

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    Thank you for sharing your experiences. Traveling alone can be freeing, but then you have special moments you wish you could share with someone.

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    Thank you.Your work & your life journey is inspiring, and I assume not at all boring, Been on my ass depressed and time to shake it off. I’m not a nut, just a gal approaching a certain age trying to figure out a self directed & financially sustainable path to fight the ageism I’m encountering. Give a shout out if/when you’re in NYC and would like to have a coffee.

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