Cell Phone: Google Project Fi
Prior to getting Google Fi-enabled phones, we'd always ask that annoying question before departing for every international trip: "Well, how are we going to be able to stay connected while we're away from home?"
The answer used to vary. Sometimes we'd look for a SIM card once we arrived in the country or, depending on our carrier, we could pay a fee beforehand (ranging from very nominal to highly unreasonable) to get our phones activated for international use. Heaven forbid we were planning to cross national borders, too, or we'd expect to hassle with our provider on a long and frustrating pre-trip phone call. And after all that, it was entirely possible our phones wouldn't work at all once we'd finally arrived.
Thankfully, those days are long gone.
When we lived in San Francisco, a brilliant friend who works for Google (shout out to Patrick!) told us about the company's Project Fi service. Still relatively small (they don't market in the way Verizon or AT&T blanket your airwaves), Project Fi is basically the international traveler's dream - and it's a pretty amazing option even if you spend most of your time stateside.
Here's how it works: for those living in the United States, unlimited voice and texting costs $20/month (we have a group plan, so two phones gets a discount at $35/month). For data, you pay for every GB of data used at a rate of $10/GB, so if you used 2.1 GB of data during the previous month's billing cycle, you would pay exactly $21 for data. The plan is geared towards people who don't use massive amounts of data each month, although you can read a few tips below about how we keep our data usage down to astronomically low levels. In an average month we spend $55 for phone service ($35 for voice/texting and $20 for 2GB of data). Yes, you read that correctly - we spend less than $30/person each month for awesome phone service.
The kicker, however, is how well the phone is set up for international use. It works in 135+ countries and doesn't require ANY additional work on your part. Simply get off the plane and boom - your phone has a pop-up message welcoming you to the new country. The only difference for overseas service is pricing for voice calls; there's a per/minute rate of roughly 20 cents. However, that's easily avoided if you wait to make phone calls when you're on wi-fi in your hotel or hostel, where you can use a service like WhatsApp, Google Hangouts, or Skype for free.
I could go on forever about the service, but to summarize, it's an amazingly versatile option for those who love to travel - and individuals who like great phone service at a low price point. A few key things to know include:
- Phone make/model: One limitation of the plan is that only a few phone models work with it - see them here. That said, the benefits of this set-up are plentiful. First, one of those options is the Google Pixel phone, which is winning just about every critic's vote as the best phone on the market today. Additionally, not only are all Google Fi phones unlocked (meaning you can use them elsewhere if you ever choose to leave the service), but there are low cost phone options for those who are more budget conscious. We both have the LG Nexus 5x phone and love it; the camera is good (albeit not Pixel-esque) and the battery life could use some improvement, but it's hard to beat the price here.
- Keeping costs down: Our phone bill is so low each month because we've become ultra-disciplined about our use of wi-fi. We do our best to avoid doing unnecessary tasks over data, opting instead to wait until we're in a cafe, restaurant, hotel, or hotel room to use their wireless internet. Pro tip: the use of apps like Google Maps for directions can consume a lot of data. Consider taking a screenshot of those directions prior to departing, avoiding the need to run the app for long periods of time - and ultimately keeping you bill down.
- Amazing customer service: We've had very few issues with Google Fi. The few times we called and talked to a customer service representative were like chatting with an old, wise, helpful friend. Google has really gone above-and-beyond here.
- Easy user interface: Google Fi has an easy-to-use app that comes pre-downloaded on your phone. It's simple and straightforward; use it to monitor your data usage, get help with your plan, etc. The web version is just as useful, too. We've included a screenshot in this article as an example.
- Getting a discount: Use this link and you'll get a $20 credit towards your Google Project Fi service.