T-Mobile is your friend traveling abroad; in the US, not so much

Two years ago I switch from AT&T to T-Mobile and in that time I’ve done a fair bit of traveling in the US and abroad. If you travel abroad and aren’t on T-Mobile, you might want to reconsider.

Traveling abroad

If you’re traveling abroad, particularly to anywhere in Europe, T-Mobile is awesome. If you’re on a T-Mobile US plan, you likely get free unlimited data roaming out of the country. It’s limited to 3G speeds, but it’s vastly better than no data whatsoever. In the past 18 months I’ve traveled to Australia, Spain, Canada, Germany, Czech Republic, and Austria and in every country I’ve had unlimited data access and excellent coverage.

As someone who has traveled internationally a decent amount in the past 15 years, let me tell you that traveling with data access drastically changes how you travel for the better. Instead of researching and printing out maps before you get there, you can bring up Google Maps and get directions in situ. Prior, I would have never gotten on a bus in a foreign city for fear of not knowing where to get off. With data, however, you can bring up Google Maps1 and catch a bus (or trolley or tram or U-bahn) without pre-planning. Wanting food recommendations? Yelp away. Can’t wait to share that photo with friends? Post it right after you take it.

With data readily available on your mobile device2, you aren’t locked into staying places that have WiFi. Or hanging out at coffee shops with free WiFi just to get that email out to a loved one or look up dinner options. Other providers offer data plans overseas, but they aren’t unlimited and have to be set up ahead of time — and you have to pay extra for them. Then, when you’re using them, you’re rationing your data usage like you were living a decade ago. With T-Mobile it’s all automatic and included in your usual T-Mobile monthly charge. I’ve found this to significantly reduce travel friction.

In addition to unlimited data, you also have unlimited texting with T-Mobile overseas. Need to text a travelling companion to coordinate when and where to meet? Text away without worrying about getting charged for each one.

Keep in mind that you still have to pay for voice calls when travelling, so if you expect to do a lot of phone calls that aren’t over WiFi, unlimited data won’t help you much. Still, the per-minute rates are reasonable for the one-off calls to your hotel to confirm or change a reservation.

With T-Mobile’s Simple Choice plans, as long as you have a supported phone, you can enroll in one of their plans on a month-to-month basis with no long-term commitments. Depending on when and where you’re traveling it may be cost effective (in dollars and/or stress) to get a T-Mobile SIM card just for the duration of your travel.

Travel in the US

Unlike traveling abroad, traveling in the US with T-Mobile is a mixed bag. T-Mobile’s headquarters are in Bellevue, just outside of Seattle, so their coverage in and around the Seattle metro area is excellent. They have a strong presence elsewhere in the US, primarily centered in large metro areas. If your US travel has you most often in big cities you’re likely good to go with high-speed data.

In some states in the US heartland (also known as the fly-over states) there is no T-Mobile service whatsoever and you’re roaming. This was particularly apparent when driving from St. Paul, Minnesota to Seattle, Washington last year.

T-Mobile provides data roaming in their plans, but it isn’t unlimited. In fact, the amount of data you have varies depending on your plan and after you hit it, you’re cut off, not throttled — something we found out the hard way in the aforementioned cross-country drive. This was quite a shock after having traveled abroad prior with unlimited data. So while we almost always had voice coverage on the trip, we had either no or rationed data. If you are on T-Mobile, I recommend calling them and asking how much US roaming data is included in your plan before heading out for that cross-country road trip.

If you expect to do a lot of traveling across the US, other providers like AT&T or Verizon might have better coverage. With AT&T’s contract-less plans, it might even be cost effective to get an AT&T SIM card depending on your needs.

1 While Google Maps is great, it isn’t necessarily the best for public transit in every city. We used Google Maps to take busses and trains in Sydney without a problem, but it didn’t know anything about Melbourne’s public transit. There was, however, an app from a local transit authority which¬†got us everywhere we needed to go on the trams. For trains in Europe, the Deutche Bahn mobile app is better than Google Maps even outside Germany.

2 Overseas data does not include tethering. Or, more accurately, it doesn’t allow port 80 access over tethering in Australia. I set up an SSH SOCKS proxy over a different port and got web traffic¬†to work for me over a tether.

Planes, trains, and automobiles

Daniel and I are on our last day in Europe before we fly home tomorrow. It's interesting to think about all the modes of transportation we've taken since we left our house over 3 weeks ago while visiting 3 countries:

  • Bus (Seattle & Nuremberg)
  • Lightrail (Seattle)
  • Plane (Seattle <–> Frankfurt, Vienna -> Frankfurt)
  • Trains of all types (everywhere)
    • S-Bahn
    • U-Bahn
    • Inter-City Express (ICE)
    • EuroCity (EC)
    • EuroNight
    • Regional Express (RE)
    • Mittelrheinbahn (MRB)
    • TGV
    • and the cute yellow putt-putt in Kunta Hora
  • Boat (middle-Rhine valley)
  • Ferry (middle-Rhine valley)
  • Car (on the Autobahn with Jodi!)
  • Tram (Vienna)

No bikes, no scooters, no segways, and sadly: no zeppelins.

I love how easy it is to get around cities and entire countries in Europe without a car or plane. This lack of really good public transit is one of America's great failings.

Rome to Seattle, an adventure in the making

The trip back was an adventure in unto itself. The last night we asked the concierge at our B&B how much time we should give ourselves. He said 3 hours at the airport and about an hour to get to the airport. Yikes! The forecast was for rain the next day which apparently makes taxis harder to come by so we opted for a private car for only EUR10 more.

The private car was nice and picked us up promptly at 7a. The ride through Rome to the airport highway was like a roller coaster. The streets were virtually empty and the driver was very liberal about the use of lanes. Shortly after we were on a major road out of the city, the driver takes an exit and we find ourselves on a dirt road through a junkyard. Jonobie and I looked at each other with the “surely the B&B wouldn’t have given us a serial killer as a private driver — they’d get horrible ratings” look (which made perfect sense at the time in our sleep-deprived state, less so now). Apparently it was a shortcut as just a moment later we were back on a major road.

We got to the airport with 2.25 hours until our plane boarded which is just as well seeing as it took 1.75 of that just to check in and go through security.

Unlike the flight to Rome, the flight back to the states was less than ideal. Mostly due to the screaming child seated four rows up that cried through most of the 9 hour flight. Add to that crazy sinus pressure due to my allergies and it was a miserable trip. And for the record, while Rome has tons of water fountains, most of which date back to Roman times and some still fed via the aquaduct, the Leonardo di Vinci airport has none.

The excitement didn’t begin in ernest until we got to JFK. Our flight out of Rome was delayed by about an hour, so our 3 hour layover turned into 2 hours. We whittled away an hour of it waiting for our luggage so we could go through customs. Jonobie’s luggage appeared at the very end and mine was nowhere to be found. With only 45 minutes until our flight boarded and a terminal transfer plus security still left to go – I sent Jonobie on to catch the flight while I figured out my luggage. This way at least one of us made the flight.

I went and found someone from Alitalia who directed me to their desk outside security. The gentleman there said I should file a claim form at my final destination, so I sprinted to the next terminal in an attempt to catch my flight. When I arrived at the next terminal, Jonobie was nowhere to be found at the security line. I sweettalked the woman guarding the priority boarding to let me in that shorter security line and waited as the minutes ticked down to my flight’s boarding time. Jonobie texts me that she’s on a train to the terminal. Apparently there are two ways to the terminal and we’d taken different routes. At this point we’re not certain if one, both, or neither of us are going to make it to our flight. I get through security and run flat out to get to my gate about 100 yards away. I turn the corner to my gate and there’s Jonobie walking towards me. Our flight hadn’t yet started boarding.

We dashed through Burger King to grab something before the 5 hour flight to Seattle and made it as one of the last people to board our plane. Needless to say we were a bit punchy that we made it on the plane, even sans one bag.

This is being posted from the plane’s wifi connection, so there’s still the chance that there’s More Adventure To Come until we arrive at our respective homes!

Update: As luck would have it, my luggage somehow magically bypassed customs and made it onto the flight from JFK to Seattle! When I went to file a claim in Seattle, the agent was happy to inform me that it would be showing up on the baggage carousel momentarily!

Frequent Flyer

In the month of August, I slept in my own bed here in Denver a total of 14 days. It feels like a lot less than that however, likely because my extensive travel started even prior to August arriving.

My travel schedule for the past 7 weeks looked something like this:

  • Jul 23-30 – San Jose, CA visiting Meg
  • Aug 06-15 – Reston, VA visiting Renee, Robert, and Rebagrace
  • Aug 19-23 – Seattle, WA visiting Jeff and Jonobie
  • Aug 26-30 – Austin, TX visiting Kelly, Nicole, Kooper, my new niece Isabelle, Leslie, Andy, and Alexandra
  • Sep 01-05 – Milwaukee, WI helping a customer for work

Benjamin had his own set of travel during that time (the Reston and Austin trips we did together). He flies in later this afternoon only to start school again tomorrow.

I had a blast during my visits all over the country but man am I glad to be home for a while. Benjamin has some more travel planned later this month for a wedding but otherwise I think we’re sitting tight until the holidays roll around. Tentative plans have us in Austin for Thanksgiving during which we hope to visit both sets of family to free us up for a travel-free Christmas. But who knows – as SINKs we have a decent amount of flexibility and DINKhood is just 9 months away!