How to Travel Abroad Without a Data Plan

Wi-Fi is so abundant in most places nowadays that I have never really been able to justify the expense for an international data plan when it’s so easy to get along without it! Here are the only tools I’ve found I needed when I don’t have access to Internet while abroad.

Your Phone’s GPS – While I can’t speak for other smartphones, GPS on iPhones does not require a data connection. If your phone is in Airplane Mode like mine usually is when I’m abroad, all you have to do is enable Wi-Fi (even if you aren’t connected to a network!) and GPS will be able to pinpoint your location. Knowing this opens  up a treasure trove of ways to get around without internet, IF you have the right tools…

Using Google Maps to map your walking route.

Once you pull up directions on Google Maps, you can leave this window open and leave Wi-Fi. GPS will guide your blue dot so you’ll know if you’re still on track to your destination.

Google Maps – This app is the kingpin of all travel apps. There are many useful functions, and the good people at Google add to this list constantly so I highly recommend you learn to use it. If you pull up directions while you’re on wi-fi and do not close the app, GPS will guide your blue dot over the map so you can still track where you are going even if you lose Internet!

Pro Tip: The first time I went to Berlin, I touched down late at night when the train station near the airport was deserted and all help stations had shut down. Exhausted and unable to figure out the train schedules, I climbed into a cab, gave the cabbie the address, and relaxed into my seat grateful to be on my way again, even giving the guy a generous tip afterwards for picking me up so late at night.

I found out the next morning that the hostel was a 20 minute walk away from the train station, and there was no reason the cab had to jump on the freeway to take me there. I had been driven in circles intentionally, a dirty trick to take me for an additional 30 euros! Now whenever I travel to an area I’m unfamiliar with, I make sure to have directions pulled up before I leave the airport, and a saved map of the area I’ll be traveling through so I can keep an eye on our route just in case.

Offline Maps – Even if GPS knows where you are, it doesn’t help if your phone can’t show you where that is, or how to get where you’re going. Luckily, Google Maps allows you to download areas of the map to your phone to use even when you’re not connected to the Internet. (See Google’s guide on how to save offline maps here). While you can’t use search functions without internet, if you are in an area that the app has downloaded information, it will populate the screen so you can see what streets are around you, and any Saved places that are nearby.

The best use I’ve found for offline maps is being able to take public transportation from the airport wherever I go, because that alone can save you $20-40 off the bat in a major city. I’d look up how to get to airport to where I’m staying on Google Maps, and just save the area from the train station to my destination so I have all the street names I need to figure out where I am. If you are nervous about taking the subway in a new city and especially somewhere you don’t know the language, read our guide to taking public transportation anywhere in the world.

CityMapper – While Google Maps has pretty good coverage around the world, especially for driving or walking directions, it has sometimes been stumped by public transportation. I’ve only used CityMapper in a handful of cities, but where Google Maps is reliable for its breadth, CM is the master of depth. For example, you can:

  • Check the status of your train (whether there will be planned service, or is currently delayed, etc.)
  • Save a home location (I suggest your hotel!) and use the “Get Me Home” button to instantly get directions there from wherever you are
  • Share a “Meet Me Somewhere” location with your friends (even if they don’t have CityMapper)
Cities covered by CityMapper.

CityMapper goes for depth, not breadth!

Triposo – I like this app’s simple interface, and the fact that it can have you on your way within a couple minutes without a lot of complicated steps. You can save places (restaurants, attractions, museums, etc.) and choose a handful (at least 3) to create “City Walks” which maps out the most efficient way to hit all the locations you’ve chosen, and even loops the route back to a starting point, like your hotel.

Using the Triposo app to save places you want to visit.

Once you’ve downloaded the map of an area, you can star places you want to visit and GPS will show you where you are on the map!

The app is designed to be useful even offline (although not fully useable). Like Google Maps, you can save areas for offline use, but you must choose to download all the data for a specific region (e.g. all of France, or only Paris, etc.) not just the map. Most of this extra data is useful, for example, a currency converter for the region that works offline! However, one drawback is that you are only able to save spots that are in their system, a list which is pretty sparse (you won’t be able to find most restaurants, for example) so that is where Google Maps has the upper hand.

Screenshots – Simple, but effective. I take screenshots of everything I can anticipate needing: maps, boarding passes, tickets, even pictures of my ID which won’t be enough to get you on a plane but could be useful if you find yourself in a pinch without your other possessions. On iPhones, you take screenshots but pressing the Home and the Sleep/Wake buttons simultaneously.

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