Using your iPhone when Traveling Abroad (Data and Voice)

Tips and Tricks for using your cell phone abroad

Over Thanksgiving, I was able to see a lot of my family, including a 19-year-old cousin of mine who is going to France over college winter break. She’s traveled before as an exchange student, but this time though, she wanted to be able to use her iPhone using data instead of just relying on WiFi.

I was pretty proud of myself!  Offering technology help to a 19-year-old girl! I thought kids would be much more ahead of the curve than I am.


Tips and Tricks for using your cell phone abroad

Anyway, as I started to explain to her and her mother what some of the options were, and what to do to ensure you don’t use excess data while abroad, I realized I’d have to compile everything into an email, complete with screenshots, for it to really make sense.

I realize that for seasoned travelers, this may be common knowledge, but since it became apparent to me that it’s not clear to everybody, I thought I’d share my tips with you all!


Signing Up for an International Data (and voice) Plan

First, you’ll want to research the international data and voice plans offered by your carrier.**  We use AT&T, and they have different plans available, and pricing usually varies based on your travel destination. For instance, Canada, Mexico, and Western Europe have less expensive data rates, while data rates in Asian countries are more expensive.  Here’s a good overview of the plans through AT&T.

Sign up for the plan that you want right before you leave on your trip.  When we went to Russia in February, I had signed up for the 120MB plan.  Unfortunately I went over that 150MB of data within the first week, so I had to upgrade to the 300MB plan.  No big deal.

When you get to your destination, you MUST enable data roaming for your international data to work.  Simply because you signed up for an international data plan does not mean that your data is going to magically work abroad.  On your iPhone, go to Settings > Cellular.  Then toggle the “Data Roaming” switch so that it is green.  

Enabling Data Roaming on an IPhone to use your phone while abroad
If you ever want to ensure that you don’t transmit ANY data while you’re abroad, you can always turn data roaming back off.  For instance, if I’m hooked up to WiFi (like in the hotel for the night), sometimes I’ll turn off data roaming.  But keep in mind that only iMessage will be able to transmit if you turn off data roaming (meaning no regular text messages if you have friends/family that don’t use iMessage/don’t have iPhones).  


Tips to Avoid Excess Data Usage while Abroad

  • Right before you depart, it will be a good idea to reset your data usage statistics.  That way you can keep track of how much data you have used while on your trip.  For instance, if you signed up for the 300MB data plan, you can see if you’re approaching the 300MB.  To reset your data statistics, again, go to Settings > Cellular.  Then scroll all the way to the bottom, and it will say “Reset Statistics.”  After you reset the statistics and you scroll back up, your “current period” Cellular Data Usage statistics will say 0 bytes.  I usually check these statistics about once a day when traveling, especially to make sure I’m not using data faster than expected.

Reset data usage statistics on iPhone to Track how Much Data you've used

Viewing current data and voice usage on iPhone


  • To make sure that apps don’t start using phantom data (in other words, continuing to use data in the background, even if you aren’t actively using the app), you can disable apps to prevent them from using any data. For instance, I might leave Mail and Facebook enabled, but I certainly don’t need any games enabled that I keep on my phone for my niece and nephew, or the weather app, etc.  You can disable those in Settings>Cellular. Pretty much every app on your phone will be listed on that page.  Any app that is toggled on (with green), just toggle it off, and it won’t use any cellular data. If you have a lot of apps, it’s kind of annoying to turn them all off, but it should go quickly.  And, if you need to use a specific app while you’re abroad, you can always just go back into this screen and re-enable the option for that app to use cellular data.

Disable data for certain apps on iPhone when traveling abroad


  • Make sure that you disable the setting to have app updates update automatically in the background, or any music or podcasts that might download automatically. This way none of your apps will automatically download an update if one is available.  That’s under Settings > iTunes & App Store.  Make sure all the switches are toggled to gray instead of green.

Disable automatic app update downloads on iPhone


  • Finally, review your apps to disable any data hogging elements.  For instance, make sure you disable Facebook’s “auto play” feature for videos. This option is in the Facebook app directly. Click on More > settings > videos and photos > turn auto play to off.  You’ll still be able to watch a video on Facebook if you want, you’ll just have to click on it directly.  Instagram does the same thing.  For that, go to Instagram settings (accessible from your profile page), then scroll down to where it says “Video.”  Change it from “Always” to “Only on WiFi.”

disable facebook auto play for videos - save data when using phone abroad


Disable video preload in Instagram to avoid excessive data charges



There you have it!  All my tips for using your iPhone abroad, and how to ensure that you don’t use excess data.  Hopefully this goes without saying, but if you are trying to keep your data usage very low, limit things like picture uploading until you are back on a WiFi connection.

I have found that if you need to call AT&T from your cell phone for assistance, they have always waived the voice minutes.  Of course, your situation could vary, but we’ve never had a problem.

When you return to the United States, you must call to cancel all your international services.  It’s billed monthly whether you’re using the international data or not, so it’s up to you to cancel everything!


** Some folks will swap out their SIM card with a SIM card from a local cellular company as a less expensive option. I have never tried this because A) I want to be able to use my phone the moment the plane lands.  I don’t want to have to worry about finding a cell phone store, B) I really don’t find my carrier’s data plans to be overly expensive, and C) It’s just really convenient.



Travel Insurance: To Purchase or Not to Purchase?

I’ve only purchased travel insurance once in my relatively well-traveled life. The reason I almost never purchase it is mainly because I rarely book non-refundable hotels, and much of my air travel these days is on award tickets.

Four years ago, Ken and I traveled to Spain for a week, and then took a week-long cruise out of Barcelona. I did book travel insurance on the airfare (since it was a nonrefundable, expensive, paid ticket … back before I learned about points and miles beyond the basics!), but that was it.

Two years ago, we were planning a trip to Belize (which we had to subsequently cancel.  I talked about that briefly here), and since many of those hotels were going to require non-refundable deposits, I was going to purchase travel insurance.  But, we never got that far in the trip planning process.

We’re taking an Alaskan cruise this summer, and I’ve started to think extensively about purchasing travel insurance for it. There have been a few life experiences that have brought this more to the forefront of my mind.  Beyond things like getting refunded for having to unexpectedly cancel your plans, or having your luggage lost, I’m considering travel insurance mainly for the medical emergency aspect.  For instance, thanks to things like Ken’s ankle incident in Spain, my kidney stones last year (and Ken’s kidney stones in 2012), and my emergency gallbladder surgery in 2005, I just am very concerned about experiencing a medical emergency while away from home.  Particularly in the middle of nowhere. Like at sea, on a cruise ship.

Luckily ailments like a sprained ankle, kidney stones and an infected gallbladder (and maybe even appendicitis) are probably easily diagnosed by a ship doctor and manageable until you get to the next port-of-call.  But God forbid we had some sort of truly life threatening emergency while at sea.  Heck, Jeff Bezos had himself med-evac’ed from the Galapagos after he had kidney stones.  Considering kidney stones literally make you feel like you might be dying (especially if you’ve never had them before and don’t know what is wrong), I’m not surprised.

There are other factors contributing to my decision.  My parents were in a car accident in 2012 when they were traveling.  We were unable to transfer my dad to a hospital closer to his home because his normal health insurance wouldn’t cover it.   How would we cover emergency evacuation costs if we had to be transferred from the ship?  My dad’s air evacuation from the scene of his accident to the nearest trauma center was TWENTY THREE THOUSAND DOLLARS.  I can only imagine what it would be to evacuate somebody from a cruise ship to the nearest hospital.

Okay, is that enough paranoia and depressing text for one post?  Probably.

Bottom line, I’m going to get travel insurance for the Alaska cruise, and probably consider purchasing more frequently in the future.  But, I’m not sure where to start.  I can’t seem to find any “brand” name company that seems reputable?  AAA recommends Allianz, and I’ve seen them mentioned on other sites.  Specifically, when I booked some American Airlines tickets the other day, I was offered travel insurance through Allianz. It appears that some travel bloggers have had to use their travel insurance, and even had good experiences with it. But news articles like this make me think twice.


What are your thoughts on travel insurance?  Have you ever purchased it and had to make a claim?  How did it work for you?

Foreign Coin Display

So, you guys, I still have a box of Russia trip memorabilia that is just collecting dust. I’ve been on a quest FOREVER for ways to integrate memorabilia into easily displayed / accessible mediums, but I’ve never been able to decide on anything.

For instance, I love the idea of mini-albums (like here and here), but I shudder at the thought of punching holes or using glue on my memorabilia. I also like the idea of displaying memorabilia in jars or boxes, but I kind of wanted something that would be easier for houseguests to “leaf through.” You know, because I’m sure that’s what all our houseguests would want to do … spend time looking at our old ticket stubs (end sarcasm). But, you get the idea! Indecisiveness. Analysis Paralysis. Whatever first world problem you want to call it.

Anyway, even if I can’t decide on a method of displaying memorabilia, one thing I decided on several years ago was a way of displaying my foreign coins. (And, I do feel pretty proud that I had this idea before Pinterest was around). I’ll be making room for my Russian coins soon!

Foreign Coin Display Idea

For years, (No, seriously, YEARS! As in more than a decade) I had coins from previous international trips sitting in envelopes in a drawer. Like trips to Europe in the mid 1990’s when each European country still had its own currency and wasn’t on the Euro. I had Greek Drachma, Italian Lira, and French Francs. I also had Japanese Yen, South African Rand, and Brazilian Reals. And lots more. And those beautiful, amazing coins just sat, unappreciated, in a drawer.

So, I set out to make a display of them. Even though it was pre-Pinterest days, a couple of Google search results inspired me to make magnets out of the coins. But I didn’t want to put them on the fridge, I wanted to make some sort of display.

Currently, I have two shadowbox frames displaying the coins. I’ll provide the details and how-to after the pictures.

Shadowbox displaying foreign coins from travels Another shadowbox displaying different foreign coins

And here is one of the shadowboxes with the front “door” open, in attempt to minimize the glare.

Foreign Coin Display Foreign Coin Display

If you look closely, I clustered the coins around magnet maps of the respective country. So for instance, the French Francs surround a map of France, the British pounds surround a map of England, etc.

Closeup of foreign coin display and map magnets Map magnet of England and a display of British Pound coins Foreign coin display

I wanted the maps displayed so that people would be able to tell easily where the coins were from. In many cases, it’s not immediately clear from looking at the coin. In case you’re interested, I ordered the map magnets from XOHandworks on Etsy.

Like I mentioned, this project is from several years ago, so I don’t have any photos detailing the steps I took to complete the project. But, it was very straightforward, so hopefully some text-based instructions will work just fine!

1) I purchased a 12×12 shadowbox from Michael’s. It opened in the front, but that’s not completely necessary. 12×12 shadowboxes are plentiful because that is a pretty standard size for scrapbook paper.

2) I purchased this 12×12 piece of sheet metal from Home Depot.

3) I spraypainted the sheet metal using matte black (or it might have been satin black) spraypaint. I used two coats, allowing it to dry completely.

4) Next, it was time to figure out how to make the coins into magnets. Some of the coins are ferrous, meaning that a magnet will stick to them directly. For those coins, I just put a small neodymium magnet on the coin directly. For those coins that were not ferrous, I put a tiny dab of silicone glue on the back of each coin, and then pressed the neodymium magnet into the glob of glue, and allowed it to dry completely.

**Please note that I am not a coin preservation expert! I have no idea what the long term harm might come to your coin if you use silicone glue on it. However, from my rudimentary research, silicone glue was the best option for the coins because it holds well, is non damaging, and can scrape off easily. Considering my coins are not rare, and in many cases I had multiples of each (which still sit in a drawer!), I was not concerned about this method.

5) Finally, I put the sheet metal in the shadowbox, and then started putting the coin magnets and map magnets on the sheet metal, moving them around until I was pleased with the arrangement.

6) Hang on wall or put on shelf! Enjoy your coins now on display!

There you have it! How have you displayed your foreign coins?

Hitting the Bottle (Testing the Best Travel Size Bottles)

When I hear about folks that fly 150,000+ miles every year, I realize that I am low-man-on-the-totem-pole when it comes to being a “frequent flyer.” I find myself in the seat of an airplane about once every six weeks or so.

Even so, over the years, I have tried to streamline my travel preparation and packing routines to make travel easier. Plus, on multiple occasions in the past 18 months, I’ve had to pack in a very short amount of time due to one family emergency or another.  So, one packing-related element I have been streamlining over the past few years is the way I pack my cosmetic and toiletry bags.

The Best Travel Size Bottles for Toiletry and Cosmetic Bags

The Past

In the past, for cosmetics, such as foundation, primer, and lipstick, I used to just pack my full size bottles, since all of my bottles were 3.4 ounces or smaller, and all of them fit inside the standard quart-size baggie as mandated by TSA.

For shower-related toiletries, I used to use small “trial” size bottles of things like shampoo and conditioner.  These also fit in my quart-size baggie.

On the morning of any travel day, as I would do my makeup, I’d just put liquid cosmetics in a quart baggie, and the rest of my cosmetics (including brushes), in a separate cosmetic bag. I’d put those two things in my carry-on and I’d be on my way.

Room for Improvement

There were three things that made me reconsider my cosmetic and toiletry packing technique.

  1. The desire to pack less weight and volume. Although an individual glass bottle of foundation or a bottle of moisturizer doesn’t weigh much, put together it does add up in both size and the volume it takes up in my bag. Even normal “trial” size bottles or other travel bottles were typically way too large for what I needed. My entire tube of moisturizer is 1.4 ounces. What on earth good does a 2 oz travel bottle do for that?
  2. The desire to have a “go bag” of cosmetics that I could just grab and throw in my suitcase, leaving my mirrored makeup table intact at home.

I had read that many frequent travelers just create a replica of their normal toiletries and keep one set ready to pack and the other set at home. But heck, it takes me 3 months to go through a single bottle of foundation. Having one dedicated $30 bottle of foundation for a trip every 4–6 weeks seemed kind of silly. Plus, that didn’t address my desire to pack less weight and volume. If I was buying a second set of all the same full size products, I’d still be packing the same amount of stuff.

The longest vacation we go on these days is around two weeks. But more often, we’re just traveling for a week, or some sort of long weekend. If it takes me 3 months to go through 1 Fluid Ounce of foundation, imagine the tiny amount I’d need for just a week-long trip.

Best Options for Travel Size Bottles

So, here’s my current approach that fits both my criteria.

  • Pump bottles.** I filled three of these bottles about ¾ of the way full for my foundation, moisturizer, and primer. I was a little leary because they’re actually called “spray” bottles, and since I’m not using them for “spraying” anything, I was worried that they wouldn’t work with liquids as thick as moisturizer or foundation, but they work great! I used these for the first time on my two-week trip to Russia, and I still had plenty left in each bottle.
  • Tiny 5 gram jars. In these, I put my liquid concealer, nighttime moisturizer, and eye cream. I use such a small amount of eye cream that even this tiny container is too big for what I need, but it still works great than my heavy, overly designed jar of eye cream.

When Travel-Size Bottles Don’t Make Sense

There are some things that just don’t make sense to put in it a separate container. Like this already very small (0.35 ounce) squeeze tube of eyeshadow primer.

Plus, things like blush don’t really come in “travel” sizes. Although I have considered using these tutorials to how to fix a broken blush or eyeshadow, but just put it back in a smaller container for travel purposes.

So, after using these products like the eyeshadow primer and blush for a while as part of my normal day-to-day routine, I actually stopped using them when they were about halfway empty, and then relegated them to my dedicated travel toiletry bag. Then I just bought new, full products to replace them with for my normal routine. That way I still have those products in my travel bag, but they’re not taking up as much weight as the full versions.

Too pricey for travel versions?

There are a few things I haven’t figured out a good solution for to integrate into my ready-to-pack cosmetic and toiletry bags.

For instance — makeup brushes.  I love my makeup brushes. Only one problem, they’re pretty darn expensive, and I seem to have a mental block on buying an entire second set just to keep them in a travel cosmetic bag. I tried a smaller, less expensive travel size brush set, but I didn’t like the brushes nearly as much.

Next are my eyeshadows. I own about 30 different eyeshadow colors, but usually don’t travel with any more than 10 or 12. But, at 11 bucks a pop, I am not in any hurry to have a dedicated “eyeshadow” travel kit either.

So currently, the only two items I have to put in my cosmetic bag – Makeup brushes and eyeshadow.  Hopefully I figure out a better way for these items in the near future.

Toiletry Bag

Separate from my cosmetics, I have a toiletry bag that I have for shower and washing-related things. Items like shampoo, conditioner, facial wash, and exfoliator.

I only wash my hair twice a week, but I use a ton of shampoo and conditioner when I do. So I pack larger toiletry bottles. I used to use these GoToob bottles, but I thought that the opening was too large, allowing too much product to come out. I switched to another pump. I use these 1 oz Clear Cylinder Round Plastic Bottle, with the Pump Top.

I used to pack liquid Dove soap (instead of a bar of soap), and that pump would’ve been perfect for liquid soap too.

For other items I only need a tiny bit of, like exfoliator, I use these 8mL dropper bottles. The opening is super tiny, so you have a lot of control over how much product comes out. Plus, 8mL is so small (about a quarter ounce), you don’t have to worry about adding hardly any weight or space to your toiletry bag.

That’s it.  In the future, I’ll do a dedicated post on the rest of the items I keep in my toiletry and cosmetic bags.  How do you store your cosmetics for travel?  Do you have a dedicated kit?

** Don’t ever google the term “pump bottles.” All I got was an unwanted lesson in breastfeeding.

Being Prepared for an Emergency when Abroad

A little more than three years ago, Ken and I were vacationing in Europe for two weeks. We spent a week in Spain, followed by a Mediterranean cruise out of Barcelona that took us to France and Italy.

On our third full day, we were touring in Seville, a beautiful city in Spain. After a full morning and early afternoon of sightseeing, our tour bus took us back to our hotel. Ken used the exit in the middle of the bus, while I used the exit in the front of the bus, because I thought the middle exit steps were too steep for my klutzy self.


As I exited at the front of the bus, I saw there was a minor commotion near the middle of the bus. At the center of that commotion was Ken. He had fallen down the steps of the bus. He sunglasses, which had been clipped to his shirt, flew off and slid across the sidewalk. I saw him start to stand up, and then sit back down on the ground. Three or four folks we had met earlier on the bus, including the tour guide, were helping Ken gather some things that had fallen.

There was a small cafe with outdoor tables and chairs about 30 feet from the bus. I told Ken that the sidewalk was dirty, and to see if he could get up to sit on one of the cafe’s chairs. He got up, not saying much except that he hurt his ankle. He sat down on one of the cafe chairs, and I pulled up a chair to face him. I looked down at his foot, and told him to lift his leg so I could look at it.

He lifted his ankle and just dropped it back to the ground right away. I just kept looking at his foot, and kind of annoyed I said, “C’mon, let me see your foot!” And he didn’t move. And then I heard the folks from the bus who were still standing around start gasping, and one said, “Oh my god.”

I looked up at Ken’s face, and his normally flushed red face was emptied of color. His face appeared gray and ashen. His eyes were rolling in to the back of his head and he was completely unresponsive.

I immediately thought he must have also hit his head in the fall, even though he only mentioned his ankle. I started screaming at the top of my lungs for somebody to call an ambulance. In my high-school Spanish, I started yelling, “Necesitamos un doctor!!” “Ambulancia!” (Even though I had no idea if that was the word for ambulance in Spanish, but it seemed close enough). Nobody seemed to do anything, including our Spanish-speaking guide, so I started running into nearby storefronts, saying, “Llame ambulancia,” (call an ambulance) hoping I was making some sort of sense or even using the correct vocabulary.

I ran back to the table, and saw that Ken was conscious. A doctor who happened to be eating at a neighboring cafe heard the commotion and came over. Through our guide acting as translator, the doctor said that if Ken hit his head, he needed to go to a hospital right away. Ken insisted that he had not hit his head, that he must have just fainted from his ankle pain. (Ken had told me on prior occasions he has the propensity to faint, but I never actually witnessed it, so the fact that he might have fainted didn’t even cross my mind.)**

Ken’s ankle, about an hour after the fall.

To make an already long story short, Ken never did see a doctor while we were in Spain. Amazingly, despite an insane amount of swelling and blood pooling, he had very little pain. In fact it was most painful when he wasn’t moving, so the fact that we walked a lot during the rest of our vacation seemed to help.

Ken’s foot, five days after the fall.

Saving Host Country Emergency Contact Information

Okay, so why the story?

That incident made me very cognizant that I needed to be prepared for an emergency while abroad. Luckily Ken was just fine, but any serious situation can arise while on vacation. I had no idea how to call Spain’s equivalent of 911. Similarly, if there had been some sort of natural disaster or political unrest while we were traveling somewhere, I had no readily accessible way to contact the U.S. Embassy.

Given all of the fear mongering leading up to the Olympics in Sochi, I made sure that I had every phone number and address readily accessible.

On my phone, I simply created a single contact entry called “Russia Trip Contacts” on my iPhone. The iPhone, and probably most either smart phones, allow you to create multiple contact methods for a single entry. I just customized label for each phone number I entered in the “Russia Trip Contacts” contact.

preparing for a travel emergency

I added the phone numbers and addresses for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow (including the 24 hour emergency number), the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg, and the temporary American Citizen Services Unit that was being set up in Sochi. I also added the Russian equivalent of 911, which was 112. (The State Department provides a handy list of 911 equivalents here.

I also printed out a copy of these important numbers in case we didn’t have access to our cell phones.

There are many other things you can do, like checking expatriate forums to see what local hospitals are recommended, especially in countries where health care can vary so much. We also registered with the STEP program, so that the State Department knew how to reach us if an emergency occurred while abroad.

I think we all know that we should do things like leaving copies of our itineraries with friends or family, but it was Ken’s ankle incident that made me realize that we, as travelers, needed to be prepared ourselves for emergencies while abroad!

Have you ever had an emergency while abroad?  Ever been caught up in a natural disaster or political unrest, or had a medical emergency?  What do you do to plan for potential emergencies while you’re abroad?

**Ken seems perplexed why people freak out when he faints. He had a routine physical back in November, and he had to get bloodwork drawn. He did not tell the phlebotomist that he has a tendency to faint, and of course, he fainted while getting blood drawn. When Ken woke up, there were four people standing near him and he could hear someone saying, “He’s not responsive, he’s not responsive.” He was fine, and now it’s all over his medical charts that he has to lay down when getting bloodwork taken.