When I stepped off the plane in Mexico I got that sinking feeling. My iPhone wasn't going to work.
I mean it was, but, you know, it's expensive to use a cell phone abroad. It's even more expensive to use a smartphone abroad. A few years ago, I took a work trip to Paris and did a dumb thing. Long story short, I get off the plane, forget that both my voice and data plans are standard and end up with a four-figure phone bill. AT&T was actually really great about getting the number down to around $50, but they told me very clearly that this was my one get out of jail free card.
I've not been back to jail. Every year, at least once a year, I try to leave the country. I like traveling and have spent a decent amount of time living abroad. So when I go now, I still don't get the data plan. I either forget or can't be bothered. This is more or less what happened when I went to Mexico. It was a hastily planned trip, and I was on my own. I was even thinking about quitting the Internet the whole time I was there. "You're just gonna wanna lay on the beach and read books made of paper," my friends said. My friends were wrong. I love technology*.
So after one expensive phone call to sort out a rental car situation (Pro tip: Don't buy the insurance, through Kayak. It's a ripoff.), the iPhone went into airplane mode. It was the only time I used my data plan, and I didn't miss it one bit.
My first survival instinct was also probably the most obvious: I basically spent every free minute I had hunting down Wi-Fi hotspots. Luckily and quite surprisingly, the tiny beach town where I was vacationing was pretty damn wired. So Internet wasn't hard to find, and it was almost always free.
It was not, though, available on the beach, or in my rustic little cabana. But that's where a little ingenuity—and a few handy apps—came in.
I developed a nice little routine of using Wi-Fi at the bar and loading up things to do offline when I went wandering. If I really needed to call someone, I would take the phone off airplane mode and try to talk fast. If I really needed to check my email, I couldn't because my carrier is Sprint (don't ask) and Sprint is horrible. Data wouldn't work at all.
So when I was out of Wi-Fi zones, my life was full of offline playlists and preloaded longreads. Spotify is buggy lately, but it's still the best music app, in my humble opinion. Pocket, my go-to save for later app, fixes everything you find frustrating about Instapaper. And it's free.
There are obviously other apps that work great offline.
If you're going to a city, you're definitely going to want a map, especially one that includes public transit. (Google Maps doesn't work very well abroad, even if you have a data plan, and Apple Maps, well, don't get me started.) Try the iTrans family for transit maps. There's a handy offline app for most major American cities, and they cost between $0.99 and $3.99 each.
If you like words—who doesn't!—download Dictionary.com's fantastic app. It's handy if you'll be somewhere that you don't know the language (you can get a translation upgrade for a buck), but dictionaries also make for surprisingly entertaining beach reading. If you need a straight-up translator, go with Jibbigo. It's slick, and ten times better than the lame Lonely Planet translator apps that cost $7.99. Jibbigo is free free free.
If you're going abroad, you'll also want a currency convertor. Get XE Currency. It comes in a free version and an ad-free pro version. Don't waste your money on the pro version unless you really really hate ads, in which case, you should probably not have an iPhone.
If you get all of these apps, there's really no need to buy and expensive data plan. I met a couple from Los Angeles, while I was down in Mexico and one of them had gotten the data plan and the other hadn't. We had a fun debate about the perks and perils of staying totally connected while on vacation. Basically what we ended up agreeing on was that it depends on your personality. The man was a total surfer and said he like unplugging because, well, it is really relaxing. The woman used to work in the media, so she liked to be able to keep up with what was going on. In a way it would've been more stressful for her not to have a phone. (I'm the same way.) If you plan ahead, it's not that expensive either.
Oh and one last thing. Get Star Walk. Whether you're picnicking in Paris or lying down on the powdered sugar sand in Tulúm, stars are still amazing, and it's really such a blast to use. It's best on a retina iPad, but the iPhone version is excellent.
When I stepped of the plane at JFK, it was raining. I flipped the Airplane mode off, dropped my phone into my pocket laughed as it rattled with all the missed calls and texts that I didn't let myself see while I was away. It felt good.