Tuesday, February 12, 2013

6 Reasons to Have a Smartphone in Spain

Before leaving the United States for Spain, I had only ever used a super-basic cellphone that could send and receive calls and texts and take pictures that you could transfer to your computer over Bluetooth. It was enough for my needs, and this type of phone suited me fine for six years.

Fast forward to about five months ago and I was on a plane headed to Europe. I decided to let my parents recycle my two-year-old slider phone and cancel my cellphone number, so I was taking the plunge into the world of Spanish cellphones…which thankfully aren’t too different from American ones. I knew I wanted to get a cheap Android phone because with one, I would have access to important apps like a decent web browser and an all-knowing GPS app.

Smartphone in Spain
New phone by John Watson on Flickr
So far, my cellphone has made adjusting to life abroad much easier than it might have been without one. Here are six reasons I think you should invest in one if you’re moving abroad as well.

1) WhatsApp

Most Spaniards don’t text each other, if at all, because they either have pay-as-you-go plans or their contracts don’t offer unlimited texting. The bare-bones plan I have with Orange gives me 50 messages per week, so one text is 2% of my weekly quota! So instead of using up precious texts with “hi :)” or the like, they use a program called WhatsApp that bypasses SMS altogether and reroutes messages over the data plan. Most conversations will probably only require a dozen or so kilobytes to send, which is nothing, for example, on a 100Mb-a-week restriction like I’ve got. WhatsApp is only available on Android, Blackberry, iPhone, Nokia, and Windows Phone—not your basic phones that send and receive calls and texts.

2) GPS

I don’t know where I would be in Spain without the GPS on my cellphone. Okay, I probably wouldn’t be lost…just somewhere with my head in a map, forced to actually talk to locals about where things are. I survived in France just fine with no cellphone service, but still. I know, I know, it’s really more of a convenience than anything else, but it sure was handy when I was perpetually lost in Córdoba’s judería (Jewish quarter).

I’ve used it to find ATMs, figure out where a hostel or bus station is located, and help people on the street get where they’re going. When traveling, I usually keep a paper map folded up in my back pocket—it’s usually faster and easier to read—but if I don’t have a clue where in a city I am at the moment, the GPS locator on the Google Maps app is often a godsend.

3) Google Translate

Do I even need to elaborate on how useful this little app is while living in a non-English-speaking country? This has saved my butt many, many times…mainly in the grocery store when I don’t know what the Spanish equivalent of, say, basil is (it’s albahaca, by the way).

4) The Internet

Oh, the Internet. How you’ve changed our lives so much. Although having Internet access on your phone probably isn’t good if you’re trying to cut back on Facebook or Twitter addictions, it can be extremely helpful when trying to pack lightly or trying to keep in touch with friends and family back home. For example, when I missed my night train from Barcelona to Paris, all I had on me was my phone—no laptop. Thankfully, I was able to hit up Booking.com from the train station and reserve a 7 € bed in a hostel within minutes. Had I not had Internet access, I would have had to wander around Barcelona in the dark, hoping to find a cheap option…somewhere.

5) Instagram

This goes hand-in-hand with keeping in touch; friends and family back home want to know what’s going on, and being able to upload a picture of daily life or travels every few days really makes a difference in letting them know you’re still okay, even if it’s filtered (pun intended) through Instagram’s often rose-colored glasses. I use Instagram mainly because it makes the raw pictures taken by my phone’s crappy camera into something halfway decent.

6) Skype

I found out about this option on Christmas Day while in Paris, sans Skype-able laptop. I had brought my cellphone with me to use as a daily point-and-shoot camera in France, but didn’t realize I could use it for Skype until I tried (and failed) to call my family on Christmas from a payphone. Safe to say…it was a disaster; a five-minute transatlantic collect call was going to be something like $30 and then $5 a minute after that. Gross.

After panicking for half an hour, I realized I could just download the Skype app to my Android phone, connect to the Internet via my hostel’s wifi, and do a Skype call (device to physical phone) instead—costing 50 cents for half an hour. I’m sure this would be even easier if I had a front-facing camera, à la FaceTime.

Do you use a smartphone abroad or at home? Why or why not? Talk about it below!
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