From burning through data in the US (and various unpleasant quirks of their pre-paid plans) to accessing in-flight wi-fi, our writer finds out the practical details of travelling abroad
It was a bright and sunny day when I stepped off the plane in Lisbon, Portugal. With an 8-hour layover until my next flight, I decided to head out into the city. There was a chill in the early morning air, but the sky was clear with virtually zero pollution. It was mid-September, and I was planning a three-week trip to Washington DC with London as a stopover on my journey back to India. I quickly went through three-to-four travel websites and zeroed in on Air India as it was one of the cheapest and most convenient flights.
Having been back in New Delhi for over two weeks now, I had some time to mull over the various discoveries I made during my trip. Here are some tips and observations on how to navigate post-pandemic travel.
Procurring a SIM in the USA may be painless but it weighs on your wallet
I was going to be in Washington DC for just over two weeks, and it seemed like a good idea to get a SIM card. Whether or not to do so (the other option being getting international roaming on your India number) has always been a point of contention among travellers, and it seems that nothing has changed post-pandemic. The process of getting a SIM may be fairly easy, but keeping it for multiple trips is a strain on your wallet. Just walk into a store that offers prepaid SIMs (like T-Mobile or AT&T), select a plan and voila, you’re done. Or so I thought.
I went to T-Mobile (one of the biggest national carriers in North America). A big chunk of the “plan” I got was the cost of the SIM card. I paid $38 (roughly ₹3,000) for 6GB of data for a month (there were no weekly plans). The plan itself was $25 with the rest of the cost being the SIM card ($10 or roughly ₹800). I could now talk, text and browse the internet anywhere in the country! Great, right? But wait. The T-Mobile plan has some quirks that’ll shock you if you’ve ever used a prepaid SIM in India. Yes, you can use your phone as a hotspot, but the speeds are severely throttled. If you want to use full speeds on the hotspot, you have to get a “higher costing” plan and “additional hotspot data”. In India, it comes with whatever plan you pick and at no extra charge.
You’ve exhausted your data. Now what, you ask? Well, you’re out of luck. The speeds aren’t just throttled to 3G like they are in India, but you get zero mobile data after you’ve used up all your allowance. Worse, you can’t buy additional data until the month is over! At least with T-Mobile, that was the case.
Say you have this SIM card with you and you’re returning to the USA in a couple of months. The best option would be to safely keep the SIM card and use it on your next trip, right? Well, that’s what you would think. To keep the SIM active, and make use of the SIM card on your next trip, you have to pay a monthly fee (around $15 per month)! Otherwise, the SIM will be deactivated, and you’ll have to start the process from scratch on your next trip! Even if it isn’t about the money, what about the e-waste then?
Last but not least, even if you do pay the $15 per month to keep the phone number alive, you can’t do anything with it unless you’re physically in the USA. You can’t even receive incoming text messages like you can with an Indian SIM card anywhere in the world.
No wonder some people are beginning to complain that everything in the US is broken and that a third-world country like India is suddenly appearing to be more efficient and effective in managing daily life! Maybe it’s our daily jugaad practice that gets things done faster and more cheaply.
5G: It’s there but also not there
It was in 2020 when Apple made a huge deal about 5G connectivity on their smartphones during the launch of the iPhone 12 series. During my time in the US, while using a T-Mobile SIM in 2022, I noticed a consistent 5G connection but very inconsistent speeds. The shop where I bought my SIM card still couldn’t receive a 5G signal.
Even at its fastest, it was nowhere near what was being advertised by the telecom companies. I did many 5G speed tests and sometimes found the speed to be way slower than a 4G LTE signal. I was also in Washington DC in 2021, for five months, and barely got any 5G signal, so I guess this is somewhat of an improvement.
India may be late to the 5G game, but from what I’ve seen, they’re doing quite a good job of the rollout, unlike American telecom companies, which are still struggling two years later.
Where are the Chinese smartphones?
Some of the most innovative, exciting and value-for-money smartphones (read Vivo and Xiaomi) come from Chinese manufacturers. Their presence in the USA is nonexistent and this is a country that is supposed to top in choice in everything It’s a shame, really, as the American public has to stick to the conventional (and more expensive) options from Samsung, Apple and Google when it comes to Android devices. I saw way too many iPhones, Galaxy devices and Pixel smartphones while I was there. We Indians are spoilt for choice, methinks.
Onward to Europe
Having booked a one-way ticket to the USA, I now needed to figure out my options for getting to London. After the arduous task of searching for cheap tickets, I finally managed to pay for a flight to London’s Gatwick Airport via an eight-hour layover in Lisbon, Portugal. I was choosing between TAP Portugal and Icelandair, two of the cheapest options, and I ended up choosing the former. Finally, a good decision, as I was to discover.
Free messaging plans onboard!
Indians don’t have the luxury of texting their dear friends while 35,000 feet up in the air and they’re missing out big time. I boarded my plane from Dulles International Airport in Washington DC, on my way to London’s Gatwick Airport via a long layover in Lisbon, Portugal and noticed something I hadn’t before. Everyone thinks Wi-Fi plans onboard international flights are expensive, but there’s a ‘free’ plan that has since changed the game. It’s a ‘messaging only’ plan. This means that you can send a message to anyone on WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal or any other similar app free of charge and free for the entire duration of the flight. You may not be able to stream the latest season of The Crown, but you can ask your best friend about the Indian cricket team’s score the next time you’re 35,000 feet in the air on a TAP Portugal flight.
And they aren’t the only ones. Alaska Air and many other airlines have started offering this plan to their customers. Truly a game-changer. Vistara (a joint venture of Tata Sons Private Limited and Singapore Airlines Limited (SIA)) is the only airline in India to offer in-flight Wi-Fi. They offer it only on a select number of international flights though.
Portugal: Wired earphones live on!
The flight landed way too early in the morning but I was determined to make full use of my layover and I made my way to the city centre. As I got out of the airport and boarded the first metro of the day, I was reminded of the Delhi metro. On-time and efficient. It was around 6:30 AM, but as the day progressed, and the crowds started pouring onto the streets and in the cafes, I noticed something peculiar.
Wired earphones/headphones still lived on in the coastal capital city of Portugal. I counted, not one, not two, but at least a dozen people wearing earphones with a wire (and, of course, getting entangled on more than one occasion). Some connected them with an adapter (meaning that their smartphone had no 3.5mm headphone jack anymore) but some of them carried older smartphones with a headphone jack.
Smartphones sans a case
What I noticed during my metro/bus rides in Lisbon, London, and to an extent in the USA, was that nobody spent money on any protective cases for their smartphones. They were all ready to ride their luck and show off their smartphones bare-naked. I talked to a few people my age, and they all said that they wanted to show off the product in the best way possible. They didn’t want to cover up their “gorgeous” or “eye-catching” smartphones. I guess they believed in the ads from these smartphone companies about how “durable” their smartphones are.
Most of them had an iPhone but some were flaunting the latest foldable devices from Samsung. The only folks that had a case on were either gifted them or were using one of those clear plastic cases that came in the box.
I was sitting at a cafe in London with an architect friend of mine whom I first met while being stranded on a plane back to India several years ago, and we were discussing how everyone in London (ages 35 and under) had no money to save. Yet, they go to cafes, effortlessly spend 5 pounds on a coffee and flaunt the latest smartphones. It’s precisely the reason these smartphones lie naked. They don’t care about protecting their expensive purchases as they just move on to the next one within 12-15 months. Any wonder they don’t have money to save!
Want to make a WhatsApp call in London? No bueno!
I was in London for just under a week and hence I didn’t want to spend money on a SIM card (even though it was cheaper than in the USA). I was staying with a friend, whom I mostly hung out with during my time in London, and I’d be connected to Wi-Fi for the most part. I didn’t think a SIM card was necessary. I was kind of proven wrong.
Every cafe and even a lot of the retail shops had Wi-Fi networks (either public, with a password, or where you just had to accept the terms and conditions to sign on) that were pretty speedy. This, in itself, is a huge jump from a couple of years ago.
We all live on WhatsApp (or similar apps) these days for communicating daily and hence I thought I could get by. Two out of the five cafes I visited and all three of the retail shops where I used the Wi-Fi peculiarly blocked WhatsApp calls from being made! I tried researching why but came up empty. Messages went through absolutely fine. Only calls couldn’t be made. I connected to the hotspot via my friend’s phone and made WhatsApp calls with relative ease. Strange, ain’t it? You think it’s a government order blocking WhatsApp calls. It could be any number of reasons.
The Great British Pound
We all know by now that the currency notes had to be replaced once the Queen passed away and King Charles III took over. With the process taking a couple of years, I wanted to see banknotes (and potentially keep one as a souvenir) with the Queen’s face on it one last time (who knows when I’ll next be in London). To my dismay, I didn’t see even one such banknote during my entire London stay.
Most people living in London don’t have any banknotes on them. They simply just tap and pay. ‘Tap and Go’ as they call it is a wonderful concept that hasn’t been fully implemented in India as of now. Whether it is from their smartphone, smartwatch or by pulling out a debit or credit card. Everything is just so simple and the transactions happen in mere seconds. The only time I used any physical currency was when I took a few coins next door to buy some milk.
In India, of course, we have UPI. In Delhi, at least, I hardly carry cash these days. From restaurants to cabs and from supermarkets to entry for monuments, one can pay for everything with just a simple tap on their phone these days.
Bahrain and its network of Wi-Fi hotspots
Yet again, in my quest to save money, I booked what was one of the cheapest flights from London to New Delhi. It was on Gulf Air and had a nine-hour layover. My layover was in Muharraq Island, adjacent to the capital of Manama. Having no SIM card (and hence no data), but confident of finding my way back, I paid the visa-on-arrival fair and headed off to visit some roasteries and just walk around and see what was near the airport.
The airport had a speedy and reliable Wi-Fi connection and so I was able to look up where I wanted to go. Once I got on the bus, I realised that it also had free Wi-Fi connectivity. This made it so much easier to track my route, get off at the right stop, and have walking directions ready upon disembarking.
The cafes and a lot of public buildings had public Wi-Fi networks where you could text, call and even stream 4K YouTube videos without it buffering. Oh, the joy!
The international airport in New Delhi still isn’t 5G-ready
To my dismay, as I entered the immigration zone of Delhi airport, I saw that my phone could only connect to a 4G LTE network and not 5G as it should have. The airport still isn’t 5G ready it seems. Before leaving for my to the US, I had written a piece titled, “Chasing 5G across the national capital” and found that 5G was limited in the coverage area.
Let me reassure you that it is not the case anymore. While the airport may not still have a 5G signal, I got a constant 5G connection right after exiting the airport up until my house in South Delhi. And the speeds were pretty fast as well. In the days since getting back to smog-filled New Delhi, I’ve noticed the 5G signal popping up a lot more (props to Airtel for a good rollout) and speeds have been faster than what we all anticipated. With Reliance Jio having opened up its beta enrollment in Delhi, maybe the airport is also now 5G enabled.
It was three weeks well spent in Washington DC, Lisbon, London and Bahrain and though my findings are just from what I noticed, and not with any extensive research, I think they might interest some readers interested in all things travel and tech.