As our time in Europe comes to a close–we leave after nine months on May 26!–it behooves me to make an attempt at giving some advice–or perhaps just SOME guidelines–about the complexities of the cellular world on the continent. I have no claim whatsoever to knowing what system is correct, or if in our visits to 12 different countries, we did the phone/internet hookups the most efficient way, but I will recount our experiences, so you can all laugh at how silly we have been!
First of all, we realized that using our American cell phone plan wouldn’t work for such a long trip. We hadn’t yet realized that we would be able to make international phone calls for free with either Skype or Gmail’s Hangouts, so we really didn’t have to worry about the cost of international phone calls, but we did know that we would want to have some internet access on our phone while traveling, and sticking to our home phone plan would have cost enormous amounts in roaming fees. Everyone advised us to get a SIM card for the phone when we got to Europe, and buy a prepaid subscription for the amount of time we were in that country. OK! So when we got to London–our first long-term stop–we went and bought a cheap phone for George, and got a SIM card to install in my Android phone. Cool–we could call each other to know where we were, and could also get internet hookup in places that had WiFi.
But guess what? EACH COUNTRY, whether in the EU or not, has different services, different rates, and really requires a different SIM card to get any kind of efficient service! Otherwise you have the same problem as depending on your home plan, with big roaming charges. So began our rapid accumulation of SIM cards from every country we visited. In many cases, the plan sold to us required topping up when the initial card ran out by buying another card; sometimes there was a way to top up online, but in countries where we didn’t understand the language and the plan didn’t include an English translation, we were at a loss about how to do it. In some places, we could go in to the shop where we bought the original plan and have them top it up for us, but sometimes that wasn’t possible. Most of the plans did have phone helplines where people spoke English, but often, they weren’t very good at helping with complicated questions.
And here I must make a comment about the problems of depending on using GPS/Google Maps while driving in a foreign country. We did this once, from Berlin to Poland, using our German phone internet service (which was, by the way, the worst, least helpful, of the many phone services we used!). First of all we ate up our €30 of phone service within 100 miles into the country, and of course, the phone also ran out of juice, so there we were, with out a map in a country whose language we didn’t understand. We had to stop at a gas station and buy a real road map! (Google Maps does give impressive and comprehensive travel information in each country we visited, however, from Poland to Greece to Croatia.) My advice, then: use Google Maps to map out your route and print it out, and always have a hard-copy map with you as well!
Since we were in Vienna for a long period, and the apartment didn’t have WiFi attached, we had to find a service provider for internet as well as get a SIM card for the phone. After struggling with mediocre WiFi hookups, we finally gave up and paid €100 for a 3A Cube–essentially, a router–and then paid a monthly amount for internet access. We also bought a portable WiFi device (TP-Link), which ALSO required a SIM card, and which we found very useful in places such as Greece and Croatia, where our WiFi hookups were not always reliable. The Cube stays in Vienna, however, since we couldn’t use it in other countries!
When our phones were stolen in the Great Robbery of Barcelona, we had to buy new phones and new services there. That is easily, and relatively cheaply, done in The Phone Store (where nobody spoke English, but we had enough Spanish to communicate, and by this time we kind of understood what the process entailed). This pattern of buying a new SIM card and plan was repeated in every country we visited. In Greece, because of the financial strictures, we had to have our friend sign as the responsible party before we could buy the plan–don’t ask me why. To re-charge the subscription they accepted George’s passport. While most of these plans would have relatively cheap overseas rates, it was still more economical to buy new plans everywhere. Right now we are still using the Slovenian plan and hope it will see us through Germany and on to the plane in Frankfurt!
Isn’t this just ridiculous? If membership in the EU can’t provide a single unified mobile phone plan that makes it possible to use your phone throughout the EU, then what is it good for? Apparently legislation is in the works that is supposed to address this issue and be in play by next year, so perhaps these issues will be resolved before we return.
If you are trying to save every penny while traveling in several countries, then there are probably much more efficient ways to do this. But for us, we just wanted internet service that worked, and we wanted it everywhere. The phone became essentially a vehicle for accessing the internet (and taking photos sometimes). WiFi was available in nearly every cafe we found, and if our phones didn’t work we took our laptops with us.
And thank God for the innovation of Skype and other video call systems! When I think of how complicated and expensive it was to make international calls when I first came to Europe (in 1966!), I am just amazed. We had to go to the Post Office, wait until a booth was open, and have the operator dial the number for us. Now we have only to turn on the computer, and bring up the video call device, and for NO COST, we call home! I don’t think we could have stood being here so long while our first grandchild was arriving if it hadn’t been possible to see him and even talk to all the family so easily. And so I leave you with a totally gratuitous little video of our grandbaby, eating the toy that we just sent him from Barcelona!