Travel And SIM Card Tips For Tech Travellers

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Davies at the Colosseum.

For our regular blog readers you’ll have noticed that I haven’t been active for the past couple weeks.  After being invited to speak at SMX London I extended my trip and took my family around a few parts of Europe.  There were many ins-and-outs of the trip from a “keeping in touch with the office” perspective and just a few traveling tips that I thought I’d share to perhaps help you avoid some of the pitfalls I encountered and take advantage of a few of the things I learned along the way.  I’m not going to get into “be sure to see this or that” as you’ll decide what you want to see and do but there were a few transportation and technology choices made that worked well once I had them figured out.  So here’s what I learned:

Wales & The UK

Our plane landed in London and we took off from there across into Wales.  Apart from driving a car we didn’t know on the “wrong” side of the road I didn’t anticipate any major issues.  That lasted about 15 minutes into getting lost on our way out of London.  It’s amazing how addicted one gets to little conveniences like Google Maps and without a roaming data plan I was at a loss.  I didn’t get a roaming plan as I knew I was going to use high data and was going to get SIM card while abroad.  A decision I would make again.

In the UK there are a number of options for your providers.  After getting lost I picked up a SIM card from a Tesco we ended up at for directions (for those who don’t know a Tesco is like  mini-Walmart).  There are a huge array of providers in the UK.  I opted for Virgin based on brand knowledge.  All the cards were 99p (about $1.60 US) with nothing on them.  You can simply add credits to them and use them as you will.  I put on 10 pounds (about $16US) knowing I was going to have WiFi where I was staying and this did me for the trip.  To go back in time I would have avoided getting lost in the first place and picked up a SIM card at the airport.  There were available in vending machine with credits already on them.  Unfortunately I didn’t know if my phone was unlocked (something to find out in advance) or what I needed exactly – this information was available at the Tesco.  But now you know. 🙂

This worked well for my traveling through the UK.

The Internet speed there is good as is the WiFi data speed.  Public transportation through London is exceptional and we got rid of our car after we were done in Wales and would do so again.


We were only in France for a couple days and everything I had read before getting there was that it takes a couple days to secure a SIM card and having WiFi at our apartment it wasn’t going to be a big deal but the can be ordered in advance and to travel again, I would invest.  If you’re traveling to France and want data for the trip – search online and you’ll find providers who will set you up with a SIM card and ship it to you before you even leave.  I did find that my Virgin credits (from my UK leg) worked albeit at a higher rate when I went to France so that’s also an option if you’re just there for a short stay after being in the UK.


After France I headed down to Venice and Rome.  Here’s where it got sticky.  If you’re traveling to Venice – something to be very aware of is that mobile data is horrible in many areas simply because the building are high, solidly constructed, and with narrow streets.  I was on the bottom floor of a 4 story apartment and so I had to hang out the window to get any reception at all.  This is unique to Venice however.  Once outside the city the data speeds were, if anything, superior to what I have come to expect in North America.

A major disadvantage I had in determining my provider while in Italy was having no grasp on the language (certainly not enough to explain what I wanted to use Internet for) and so I signed up for a Vodafone  package that included 350 minutes, 350 texts and 1GB of data.  What I didn’t know was that the data would only work on my phone and didn’t allow me to tether.  Great for quick emails and maps but useless for work.  After a couple days I figured out that I could add credit to the plan (thanks to the SMS translate function of Google Translate’s Android App) and was back online.  There are a lot of coffee shops with WiFi but don’t rely on those for serious work as they’re not going to like it if you try to sit there nursing a coffee for more than 30 or 40 minutes. 🙂

To go back in time I would have selected TIM as the provider for Italy as they had far more locations to stop in to.  Other than in Venice I didn’t see a Vodafone shop anywhere and so couldn’t get proper support.  I’d have sorted out the issues much faster had I been using TIM.  You’ll also need a piece of ID.  Italian law requires that all phone number be assigned to a person and they will copy your ID with the SIM card you’re being given for records.


So – here are the takeaways:

  1. In the UK getting a SIM card and funding it is VERY easy.  While I wasn’t able to add money over the phone with their support as my credit card was foreign, you can go to almost any shop and buy a credit to apply to your phone.
  2. In France you need to get the SIM card in advance.
  3. In Italy you should go with TIM (at least in Rome) and if you can arrange your card in advance you’ll be better off.  Don’t expect their tech support to be fluent in English.  And heck, I’m in their country so why should they be?
  4. If you can, order your cards in advance – especially if you’ll be traveling between countries.  This will give you the best prices on data in the various regions as you’ll be able to switch out as you cross borders.
  5. Verify the availability of WiFi in your apartment or hotel.  A couple times I had gotten a place that listed WiFi and didn’t have it.  This can be (and was) a HUGE problem and it happened twice.
  6. Install Google Translate and download the language package for where you’ll be in advance.  Google Translate only works with data however if you get the language packs in advance you’ll always have it working.  A perk is, with data you can take a picture of a sign (or menu, etc.) and Google with translate it for you.  Very helpful.
  7. Install Yelp or Foursquare.  You’ll have no idea where to eat or what’s good so having these apps can help filter out the bad.  I found that the best restaurants were those with the highest ratings and for which I couldn’t read the reviews without a translation tool.  Essentially – these were the restaurants rated well by locals.
  8. Trains are great for getting between cities but aren’t great to sleep on (at least the Thello between Paris and Venice).  Don’t count on a good night’s sleep but it’s very affordable if you order in advance.
  9. Order all tickets online if possible.  Standing in line isn’t fun and fortunately I only had to do it once as I’d planned ahead.  The prices are pretty much the same and the worst of it is the nasty looks you get from others as you walk past the line and walk right in to venues.

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