10 Ways the iPhone Transformed My Last Trip (and Smartphone #Travel #Tips)


Traveling with an iPhone (or another smartphone) can enhance your travels in many ways. Until my last trip, I had traveled with no phone, I’d bought a local phone (and got a SIM card) and two trips ago, used my iPhone just to share when in wifi zones.

My last trip, to Indonesia, was the first time I went all the way with it–meaning that I unlocked the phone, used a local SIM and had an Internet plan.

My iPhone 4 home screen

Based on my experiences, I believe that one’s phone can make minor and major differences when traveling, depending on how far you take it. You could 1) use your phone as a basic device (like an iPod Touch) or 2) unlock it, get a local SIM card and use it as an actual telephone…

OR 3) you could do the above AND get an Internet plan. Go all the way with it, as I did. This can certainly open up the possibilities and improve your trip in a number of ways.

Here are 9 ways the iPhone 4S enhanced my time in Indonesia and tips re: how any smartphone might do the same for you. (Note: The apps I mention are for iPhones only.)

As an iPod Touch (Keeping phone locked)

1. Quick sharing of photos with locals

My Experience

At a certain point, whether in a village or elsewhere, people would ask about my family and friends. Often, it was challenging to provide an explanation (due to various divorces, etc) for many reasons (mostly the language barrier). It was much easier to just show photos. Because I had the phone, I could access many photo from home, which meant my new friends and I could easily view them together.

Family I met while taking a morning walk; thanks to my iPhone, I was able to share family photos and communicate with them using Google Translator.

App I Used

I used Camera +, which is a great app for many reasons, including the fact that it stores the photos in a film strip of sorts, which makes it easy to find what you’re looking for. PS: It’s only 99 cents.

My Recommendation

Chances are that you already have a good photo app on your phone. Make sure that before you travel, you’ve got plenty of photos of friends and family on it. Then, when you meet locals, pull out the phone and share. They’ll love it!

2. Unobtrusive video recording of people and events

My Experience

There were times when pulling out a full-sized camera to videotape something seemed like too much—whether in big cities or small towns. I often found it less obtrusive to use the phone’s video camera.

App I Used


This is a decent app that allows you to zoom while taking video. I think it was $.99. I got it because the video recorder on the iPhone doesn’t zoom. Anyway, it works pretty well—although it’s sometimes tricky remembering which videos you shot (the unrendered ones) because of how they’re displayed. Sometimes they begin to look the same. Still, I do recommend this app.

My Recommendation

Find an app that records video and allows you to do so the way you want to. Practice at home–before your trip–so that you know how to use it and how to render, store and transfer the files to your computer.

3. Recording Audio Only

My Experience

At one point, when I experiencing culture shock, I realized that some of it was from the different sounds I was hearing–not just the sights I was seeing. I got an idea, to record those particular sounds (birds, motorbikes, people talking, kids playing, etc.). I wanted them a) to remember what it felt like to be there (believe me–it’s amazing to listen to these clips now) and b) to possibly create a cool podcast made up of those sounds.

To do this, I just hit a button, recorded what I wanted, then renamed the file. At one point, unfortunately, the app jammed. Fortunately, I was able to download the recordings to my desktop and not lose any of the files.


App I Used

I used iRecorder, which is a free download. I’m sure there are many others to choose from.

My Recommendation

As is the case with the video camera, practice at home and understand how you manage the files. Also, back up every day or two so that you don’t lose anything.

As a Phone (Unlocking)

4. Calls and Texts–to Friends and Hotels for Rooms

My Experience

Now this might seem basic and something that we take it for granted at home, but it can really come in handy when away. If you’ve ever traveled to another country without a phone, you know what I mean.

I can’t recall how many times I used my phone…as a phone…in Indonesia. As soon as I got it set up (which was the first night), I was able to make calls to the person I was going to be staying with and later on, to hotels and other friends I was planning to meet up with. Texting made life easier, too, of course.

My Recommendation

I say that if you can, unlock your phone, get a local SIM and get a prepaid plan. You’ll love it! If not, then maybe just buy a cheap local phone. There are often special promotions that make it super affordable. And sometimes your phone will work in the country next door; just get that country’s SIM.

Also…be sure to call your phone company well in advance of your trip so that you’re clear regarding the unlocking process, etc.

With a Phone AND Internet Plan–Going All the Way

5. Google translation

My Experience

There were times, especially when I stayed in a village (Payakumbuh) and on a tiny island (Gili Meno), when I met locals who didn’t speak more than a few words of English. They were sweet and wanted to communicate with me and vice versa. Because I had Internet 24/7, I was able to use Google Translator.

I just typed in what I wanted to say and pressed enter—a few seconds later, my words/sentences were translated into Bahasa. Sometimes, the people I spoke with did the same.

Although it wasn’t perfect, it was quite good. I was able to express myself and, often, to confirm what others were saying. This reduced awkwardness and misunderstanding. It allow allowed me to make friends with others. This was wonderful.


If you can, unlock your phone and get an Internet plan. Have direct links to Google Translator (or whichever app you might use) on your main screen so you can get to the site quickly when you need to.

6. Google Maps

My Experience

As awesome as this is at home, it was 10 times as amazing while in Asia. It was so nice to know where the heck I was, especially when approaching a city for the first time. It was really fun to see it on a map to track my movement while en route.

'Plaatsbepaling' Oude Singel Leiden

My Recommendation

Make sure your phone is fully charged before leaving for the day or moving on to another destination. That way, your phone will have the power it needs for maps, which tend to drain the phone’s energy.

7. Finding or double checking room while en route

My Experience

Sometimes, I needed time to google rooms I’d read about in my travel guide. Because I had Internet, I could do this while on a bus to a destination. Sure I did this with my computer when in wifi environments, but sometimes the wifi wasn’t good or even available.

Because I had Internet on my phone, I was able to get information about rooms whenever I wanted to. This was great because I was able to read reviews on the go. Sometimes, I made a last-minute change to my plans, which was a good thing.

A crappy room I rented in London

My Recommendation

I think it’s good to do some of this in advance (on your phone or computer in a wifi environment), if possible, so you can conserve battery power and not leave things to the last minute. However it is you choose rooms, I say just use the phone as you need to!

8. Finding your way when lost

My Experience

This was a lifesaver when I got terribly lost one day. I was able to call and text the friend I was staying with in a village to let her know what had happened. More importantly, I was able to go in to Google Maps and pinpoint my exact location. This helped tremendously. It gave me piece of mind to see the streets on a real live map and also to see what I was going. As you may know, the maps track your exact location and this can help you see if you’re headed in the right direction.

My Recommendation

Check your paper map against the one on Google before you leave or return to a destination. Then, you’ll have a clear idea re: where you’re going and you won’t get as panicked as I did. Maybe you won’t even get lost in the first place!

9. Feeling connected when sick or having an intense moment

My Experience

I had some very intense culture shock my first few weeks in Indonesia. I was somewhat unplugged in terms of high-speed Internet–and that was, in many ways, a good thing. Having said this, it was also pretty damn incredible to have Internet on my phone (pretty much) anytime I wanted it.

I remember a few nights where it was raining hard and the power went out and I was a bit nervous. I went on to Facebook and connected with some friends at home. This was reassuring during these moments.

Facebook Places

My Recommendation

Make sure you have plenty of credit on your Internet plan so that you don’t run out of it. Also, find out how to check your remaining credit. In Indonesia, I noticed that my Internet speed slowed down at one point even though I allegedly had an unlimited plan. Sure enough, there were some limits to it and I actually needed more ‘pulsa’ (credit). I learned the hard way. You don’t have to.

10. Having light when the electricity went out

Believe me, this was something I really needed more often than I thought I would. Sometimes, for whatever reason, I couldn’t find my flashlight when the power was out. No worries, though, since I had a ‘flashlight’ app on my phone. I loved it because it was as powerful as a small flashlight and was, in many ways, better than a candle.


Your Thoughts/Experiences?

Do you unlock your smartphone when you travel? Do you just get a SIM card to make calls or do you get an actual Internet plan, too? How does the phone help you? Any tips you’d like to share with me/my readers?

If you don’t use your phone (or any phone for that matter), why not? Do you feel that you’d rather be more in the moment while traveling and that the temptation to be over-connected would be hard to resist?

Here are more tips to make your travel experiences the best they can be!

PS: It’s also fun to take photos of yourself and the locals you meet, then to friend them on Facebook (on the spot) and share the photos instantly. They love it!

30 Responses to 10 Ways the iPhone Transformed My Last Trip (and Smartphone #Travel #Tips)
  1. nicole | the wondernuts
    March 26, 2013 | 7:18 pm

    I love my iphone on our travels. I use it as a camera. I use it find wifi in places that freely offer wifi (starbucks and mcdonalds usually do this outside the states). I upload our travels to instagram. I use it for maps. But my new favorite way to use my iPhone (thanks to my husband teaching me this…he’s a lot more savvy): the passbook to save paper and time during the airplane boarding time. It’s much easier and keeps everything organized. =)
    nicole | the wondernuts recently posted..Living Life at the Sacre CoeurMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      March 26, 2013 | 9:42 pm

      Hi, Nicole! Yes, as a camera, the iPhone is awesome. I love it. Instagram is very cool.

      What is the ‘passbook’? Is that an app that stores your boarding pass on the phone and allows you to scan it somehow? Sounds interesting…

  2. Dyanne@TravelnLass
    March 27, 2013 | 5:21 am

    Oh goodness, yes! I’ve long had an iPod Touch (just like the phone but only wifi) and even that was the very HANDIEST item I packed when traveling. But I’ve recently bit bullet and bought an unlocked iPhone3 (traded in my Touch + $70, here in Vietnam – not bad).

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention a currency exchange app – I use mine near constantly to check local prices where I’m traveling against Vietnamese dong (where I presently live) and/or US$

    And EverNote – probably the best app on the Planet these days – I can drop all manner of websites, page clips, etc. into it on my laptop during my pre-trip research, and it’s all synced to the app on my phone.

    Furthermore – now that my beloved Kindle has bit the dust, I have the Kindle app on my phone and – surprisingly, I’m beginning to like it even better for holding/reading books on buses, etc. I’ve even been known to watch a movie on my phone.
    Dyanne@TravelnLass recently posted..Wordless Wednesday: Denali – Changes in LatitudeMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      March 28, 2013 | 3:24 pm

      Hi, Dyanne. iPod Touch girl, huh? :) I never had that. I had the iPad, then the phone. Once I got the phone, I got rid of the Pad.

      I didn’t mention a currency exchange app because I don’t use one. I think I would, however, if I took on several countries in a row. But if I’m in just one, I get used to the exchange rate fast and just use the built-in calculator on the phone. I sometimes use Evernote–definitely a good app for storing all kinds of goodies!

      Interesting re: the Kindle. I have a feeling many people are starting to read on their phones instead now. Wild, isn’t it?

      Thanks for sharing your experiences with this!

  3. Barbara Weibel
    March 27, 2013 | 2:41 pm

    You don’t elaborate on how to unlock the phone. There was a recent court case that now makes it illegal to unlock the iPhone if you have a current contract (you can do so if you have completed your contract and are on a month-to-month basis, or if you purchased your iPhone for full price, outside of a contract. Would love to hear any info you have on this.
    Barbara Weibel recently posted..Marseille – The Other French City You Must SeeMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      March 28, 2013 | 3:21 pm

      Hi, Barbara. Thanks for bringing this up. I made a couple of calls to today (to Verizon only) and got some information about it. Before I share that, I’ll tell you what I did to unlock my phone (the 4S) last year. I called Verizon and told them I wanted to and they said OK. They explained that when I got to Indonesia and got the local SIM, that I’d have to activate the phone in a wifi environment. Then, a message would come up that says ‘unbricking.’ There was no charge for me to do this.

      I did exactly that and it worked fine. When I returned to the U.S., I put the old SIM back in and called Verizon for free on the phone (*611) and had them reactivate my local service. It went smoothly, too.

      Re: your other question, it’s a good one. Seems there’s a lot of confusion re: the new law, etc. I can only speak for Verizon and the iPhones (no time to look into AT&T/other providers or other phones). What I learned is the following…

      iPhone 4–can’t be unlocked for use of international SIMs (it’s not designed for it).
      iPhone 4S–can still be unlocked (as mine was) for free. If you got another phone, you’d have to wait 10 months from the purchase of that phone to unlock it. Once an iPhone 4S is unlocked, it stays that way. For my next trip, I won’t need to unlock it a second time.
      iPhone 5–comes unlocked. You can go to the country you’d like to visit and simply get the SIM there and do what you need.

      Where there’s an issue is with switching carriers in the U.S. If I wanted to switch to AT&T, for example, I’d have a problem. They (Verizon) said they can’t guarantee it will work. And if it doesn’t, they won’t help you. You’d have to get help from AT&T.

      The woman I spoke to at Global Support (800 711 8300) said that none of this is illegal. Nor do they charge exorbitant amounts for phones.

      I was surprised because of what I’d been reading (after your comment came in). However, when I looked closely, I saw that what you said is true in certain cases, including the info re: the contracts and purchase price. I think it has to do with unlocking the phone without the carrier’s permission–’jailbreaking’ a phone–and then trying to switch to another carrier (here in the U.S.). I think one does fine if they call the carrier and get them to unlock it and then use the phone internationally. If you jailbreak it, then try to switch to another U.S. carrier, then you may be ‘breaking the law’ (as silly as that sounds.)

      Anyway, that’s my current understanding of this situation. I hope it’s somewhat useful. Maybe I should turn this comment into a post? LOL It got sort of long… :)

      • Barbara Weibel
        March 28, 2013 | 4:14 pm

        Ah, yes. I forgot that you may have been a different carrier than I am. I have AT&T and have the 4s, so I will have to call them to see if they’re willing to unlock it. I’ll be surprised if they agree.

        As for whether or not your phone will work with AT&T, if you have the 4s it will work. Since Apple had an exclusive contract with AT&T for the first three years, the original iPhones (3 and 3Gs) were built with only GSM capability, as that is the technology that AT&T (and T-Mobile) uses. GSM also happens to be the technology that has been embraced by most of the rest of the world, with notable exceptions of Canada, which has multiple technology choices like the US, and Japan, where phones use CDMA. In the US, Verizon and Sprint use CDMA, so when Apple ended their exclusive contract with AT&T they had to build phones that would work on CDMA networks. The iPhone 4 was thus built in two different models, one for CDMA and one for GSM. When Apple built the 4s, it was a dual-antenna equipped “world phone” that supports both GSM and CDMA networks and the iPhone 5 is also a world phone. However, ALL iPhones sold by AT&T are still sold locked, and the court case dealt with the unlocking of those phones, which were sold much cheaper ($199) because the purchaser signs a 2 year contract with the carrier. These are the ones that are now deemed illegal to unlock. If you bought the iPhone direct from an Apple store for $600 and activated it at AT&T, or if you have satisfied your current contract, you can legally unlock it.

        Another thing I want to mention is that unlocking and jailbreaking are two different things. Jailbreaking simply means you can get access to apps that are not included in the approved Apple library. This the courts have determined is not illegal. Unlocking refers to removing the restriction that prevents you from popping in a sim card in foreign countries, but again it only applies to phones that are currently under a contract, meaning AT&T only, since the other carriers don’t seem to have a problem unlocking for everyone. Clear as mud, right?
        Barbara Weibel recently posted..PHOTO: Giant Carved Heads at Bayon Temple in Angkor Wat, Cambodia Were Positioned So as to be Visible From Every Door and Window in the CityMy Profile

        • CB Driver
          March 28, 2013 | 4:56 pm

          Wow, Barbara–you’re amazing! You know more than most people, including some of those who wrote articles I was checking before. Thanks for sharing all of this!

          My phone is still under contract, but I’ll be free the end of this year. I’ll probably stay with Verizon, however, since I don’t get dropped calls as often as my friends with AT&T and T Mobile. As long as I can use the phone with SIMs in other countries, I’m happy.

          Meanwhile, thanks for clarifying ‘jailbreaking’ vs ‘unlocking.’ Now I finally understand.

          Clear as mud? Yup. LOL.

          Thanks again!

  4. Debbie@Traveling Well For Less
    March 27, 2013 | 11:19 pm

    Perfect timing. I’ve been considering unlocking my iPhone for my Rio trip but wasn’t sure if it was worth. After reading your post, I’ve reconsidered.
    Debbie@Traveling Well For Less recently posted..Best Bars in San Diego Gaslamp DistrictMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      March 28, 2013 | 3:05 pm

      Hi, Debbie. Glad to hear it! Which plan do you have–Verizon or AT&T? My phone is from Verizon and it was easy. Not sure how it works with other carriers.

      If you do unlock it, hope all goes well and you have a fantastic trip!

      • Debbie@Traveling Well For Less
        March 28, 2013 | 3:35 pm

        Hi Lisa,

        I’m Verizon too, but since I’m 4 vs 4s, it won’t work. Darn CDMA technology. :(

        Back to the drawing board for other options…
        Debbie@Traveling Well For Less recently posted..Andaz San Diego ReviewMy Profile

        • CB Driver
          March 28, 2013 | 3:41 pm

          Darn!! Or Damn!! :(

          You could pick up a cheap phone in Brazil and hope they have a deal on a local plan. Maybe get a 1-month plan. Or, if you have an old phone you bought in another country, it might (slim chance) work there.

          • Debbie@Traveling Well For Less
            March 28, 2013 | 3:54 pm

            I was thinking of buying a cheap Mobal world phone that way I could use it in other countries but haven’t seen any reviews on them since 2011.

            I have an old BB I could use if push came to shove…
            Debbie@Traveling Well For Less recently posted..Andaz San Diego ReviewMy Profile

          • CB Driver
            March 28, 2013 | 4:52 pm

            BB? What’s that?

  5. Debbie@Traveling Well For Less
    March 29, 2013 | 9:26 am

    Sorry, BB is a BlackBerry. :)
    Debbie@Traveling Well For Less recently posted..Friday Fun: Lost In TranslationMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      March 31, 2013 | 9:40 am

      LOL–I should have known that! :)

  6. Erik
    March 29, 2013 | 8:19 pm

    I just got an iphone 4s for my upcoming trip to Europe, and I can already see how useful it is going to be. Getting Sprint to unlock it was a pain, and so has been trying to figure out which SIM card to buy and estimating how much it’s going to cost me.

    Thanks for the app suggestions!
    Erik recently posted..New Zealand- Epilogue: Best Trip EverMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      March 31, 2013 | 9:40 am

      You have an iPhone 4S? That’s perfect. Unlocking with Sprint was a PITA, huh? That’s a shame. I wish I knew about the European SIM cards and could tell you something. I hope that it’s easy and that if you’re going to multiple countries, just one SIM will be enough. Let me know how that works out, OK? I may be going to Europe, too! :)

  7. Gray
    March 30, 2013 | 9:26 pm

    I have to admit that while I do bring my smartphone with me on my trips, I often don’t use its capabilities the way I could or should. I LOVE the idea of recording audio to remember sounds and remember the way it felt to be “in the moment”. Great idea! That’s got to help with your writing later on.
    Gray recently posted..Rick Steves Talks Europe…in VermontMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      March 31, 2013 | 9:38 am

      Hi, Gray. Yes, the audio recording is a very cool thing! It does help with writing and it’s fun to listen to. I love video, of course, but this is a unique media because it’s so radio-like. To really experience it, it’s best to close your eyes and listen. Simple yet powerful!

  8. Maria
    April 1, 2013 | 6:54 pm

    Love the iphone for camera, twitter, email, maps, and TRANSLATOR – you wouldn’t believe how many languages are in there and it offers an audio pronunciation guide so you or your intended “victim” of you poor language abilities can help more easily. :-) I even find it useful at home in the US as I live in an area with many non-English speakers.
    Maria recently posted..Super Sweet Blogging AwardMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      April 2, 2013 | 12:46 am

      The victim? Love that. So funny. Yes, one can easily destroy certain languages! So you use it in the US? Very cool. If you think about it, these phones are truly amazing. Remember when people had to carry calculators, etc?

  9. Naomi
    April 2, 2013 | 8:04 pm

    I use iTranslate (free app) which has written and voice translations for quite alot of languages, but not all :( I think it works off line.
    Trail Wallet is a great on the road budgeting tool, you put in what you spend in local money and it will convert to your home currency and you can track all your spending and keep within your budget – or at least know when you’re not!!
    I have about a hundred different photo taking and editing tools on my phone (ok I exaggerate!) but I love all the options available to be creative with photos without needing the laptop. Also Up and Bump for photo sharing.
    I have Passbook but haven’t had the chance to use it yet.
    Naomi recently posted..Damnation to bureaucracyMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      April 5, 2013 | 10:54 pm

      Voice translations? Very nice. I’ll have to check that out. Wow. Those other apps sound good, too, Naomi. I will keep them in mind when I travel next, which should be soon. Where am I going? Not sure yet. :)

  10. John
    April 6, 2013 | 3:06 pm

    Neat, I love Camera +, ! I used it on our trip too last summer. Thanks for sharing your experience with iphone :)

    • CB Driver
      April 9, 2013 | 1:35 pm

      Thanks, John. Camera + is great. I hope to find some more of these apps soon.

  11. Charu Suri (@Butterflydiary)
    April 10, 2013 | 10:48 am

    Really nice recommendations, Lisa! I use Evernote all the time for note taking, audio and visuals. Organizes everything in one place, chronologically. Have you used it?
    Charu Suri (@Butterflydiary) recently posted..Aruba Through Instagram (PHOTOS)My Profile

    • CB Driver
      April 10, 2013 | 6:07 pm

      Hi, Charu. Thanks! I do use Evernote, but more for certain projects I’m working on at home. I did use it when I went to the Dominican Republic, but not for Indo. Not sure why.

      In any case, it’s a great app and I should probably add it to the list since a few others have brought it up.

  12. flip
    April 19, 2013 | 3:33 pm

    I don’t have an iphone but I use an android phone and it saves me a lot of money from voice calls since I now call my friends and family using various free calls software over VOIP.
    flip recently posted..Top 15 Philippine Travel Blogs for 2013My Profile

    • CB Driver
      April 20, 2013 | 9:42 am

      I’ve never heard of VOIP. If you can save money, that’s great. Every once in a while, I think–hey, I’m spending a lot on this damn iPhone! :)

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