Offline Travel - A Guide To Using Your iPhone Internationally Without A Data Plan
When we first decided to go to Spain for a month I knew using my iPhone to the fullest would be an issue. I love my iPhone 3G and use it continually for directions, podcasts, twitter, weather, etc., etc., etc. After some brief research I found that international data plans through AT&T are a complete rip-off. They give you 20-50 MB to use for an entire month. Wow, thanks for that option AT&T, but I’ll keep my money and find other ways to use my phone without your help. Here are the ways I found to do just that.
First, you’ll need to remove the SIM card from your iPhone. This isn’t an absolute necessity, but it ensures that your phone won’t rack up any unexpected charges while out of the country. I popped my SIM card out before our plane to Spain left Atlanta and didn’t put it back in until we arrived back in Atlanta a month later. With your SIM card removed you’re now ready to figure out how to access valuable data in other ways.
My biggest concern about using my iPhone in Spain without a data plan was the lack of maps/directions. I use the built in mapping application all the time in the US and felt like I’d be wasting an awesome feature of the iPhone if I didn’t use it overseas (when I need it the most). I did some research and found out that the GPS receiver in the iPhone works just fine without a SIM card, you just won’t be able to see the map since it relies on Google to pull the images. With this in mind, I started searching for iPhone apps that had map information built-in that would take advantage of the GPS signal. I found two promising looking apps that had maps of Spain built-in:
1. Navmii GPS Live Spain - $4.99 (http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/navmii-gps-live-spain/id366487155?mt=8)
2. Navv Iberia - $24.99 (http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/navv-iberia/id389764871?mt=8)
I couldn’t really test these apps out until I got to Spain, so I bought both in the hopes that one would work well. After using both for a month I have to say that they are far from perfect, but both proved useful at different times. Both suffer from confusing interfaces. If you’re used to using the built-in mapping application on the iPhone, then you’ll be very frustrated with the unintuitive interface in both of these apps. With that said, they saved our butts a few times when our other directions fell apart.
Our normal navigation technique while driving was to first get directions from Google while we had wi-fi in our hotel. Then, email those directions to myself and get them pulled up via email on my iPhone. That would give us a nice portable way to view them while in the car. We didn’t have access to a printer, so this was the best option. Unfortunately, these directions would often fall apart quickly after missing a turn on a roundabout, leaving us completely clueless in the middle of Spain. This is when we’d resort to the unintuitive interface of these mapping applications. I think Navv Iberia was the one we’d normally try first. Once we figured out how to use the app, it got us back on our route without too much trouble. It includes a turn-by-turn direction feature, which worked pretty well for us.
Quick tip: remember that GPS requires a clear path to the satellite to receive a signal, so using it in a big city is often difficult. The tall buildings will block the GPS signal, so be careful not to rely on it too much.
Obviously the main way you’ll access the Internet without a data plan on your iPhone is via the built-in wi-fi. I found that my iPhone 3G had a weaker wi-fi card than my laptop. Often I’d be able to get a decent wi-fi signal on my Macbook while my iPhone wouldn’t be able to see the network. I wish I would have brought my Airport Express to strengthen wi-fi signals in situations like this.
The apartments/hotels we stayed in had unpredictable wi-fi access, so I downloaded Jiwire’s “Wi-Fi Finder” iPhone app (http://www.jiwire.com/iphone) to help find hotspots. This came in handy a few times when we needed access. Just be sure to download the offline database of hotspots while you do have wi-fi. This option is built into the app and is handy for obvious reasons when you don’t have wi-fi.
Quick tip: try to find iPhone apps that store information locally. This way, you can load up with data when you do have wi-fi access (load your twitter timeline, RSS feeds, email, etc.) and read the content later when you have more time to spare.
We were lucky enough to stay within walking distance from Retiro Park in Madrid. This is a huge park with a nice running track around it. I use RunKeeper on iPhone to track my runs and hoped that I could use this without a SIM card. Sure enough, it worked fine with just the GPS signal. It would store my runs in the app and then I could upload them to the http://runkeeper.com website when I had access to wi-fi later. Worked perfectly.
Runkeeper Free (http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/runkeeper-free/id300226023?mt=8)
The thing I missed most about my data plan while in Spain was the ability to look up information about the places we would visit. My first instinct when looking at a 2000 year old Roman aqueduct is to read about it on Wikipedia. The first week or two I would often pull out my phone to do just that before realizing that I didn’t have access to the Internet. I thought there must be a way to get access to all of Wikipedia offline since they publish their raw database for anyone to use. Sure enough, there was an iPhone app with all of Wikipedia pre-loaded:
Wikipedia Offline - $8.99 (http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/wikipedia-offline/id378348813?mt=8)
This app compresses the database down so it only takes up a few gigs of room on your iPhone. The downside of this is that it makes searching incredibly slow. It honestly would take over a minute at times for search results to show up. I accepted this downside and embraced the fact that I had all of wikipedia on my phone. It worked very well for me. The one big issue with this app was that parts of some entries were just missing. It was frustrating at times, but again, I was just happy to have all of this info on my phone.
Another crucial app that we used was a Spanish-English dictionary. Obviously there are plenty of paper books that would work for this as well, but we didn’t want to lug around books if we didn’t have to. So we went with this one:
Spanish-English Dictionary from Accio - $1.99 (http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/spanish-english-dictionary/id331233703?mt=8)
It worked well for us.
We didn’t have to worry about making/receiving calls on the iPhone because we took a seperate, unlocked Motorola PEBL to use for this purpose. We bought a SIM card from a local phone store and used that phone exclusively for calling. I know you can unlock the iPhone for this purpose as well, but I didn’t want to go through all the required steps. I already had the unlocked Motorola, so I just went with it.
Also, we used Google Video Chat quite a bit to keep in touch with family, allowing us to eliminate quite a few phone calls. Had we really wanted to use the iPhone for calls we could have just used the Skype app.
We didn’t text at all while in Spain, so we didn’t have to worry about finding a solution for this. Had we wanted to text we could have used any of the free texting apps in the iPhone App Store, including the recently release Google Voice app.
Our trip to Spain was awesome:
I’d highly recommend you go for yourself if you ever get the chance. I think if I had to do it again I’d still go without a data plan. My only suggestion would be to make sure the places you stay have RELIABLE wi-fi. Many places we stayed CLAIMED to have wi-fi, but upon checking-in we found that it didn’t work reliably. With a bit of good wi-fi here and there you can make an extended overseas trip into a very enjoyable, well-connected vacation. Enjoy!
Do you have any other tips for traveling overseas without data?