Data and calls in Paris without breaking the bank?
October 28, 2011 7:47 AM   Subscribe

My wife and I are visiting Paris over the week of US Thanksgiving - can you help us figure out the best way to get cell phone service and data while we're there?

My wife and I have traveled abroad before, but it was a while ago, and we both had cheapo cell phones that we bought over in Europe. Those cheapo phones, unfortunately, are long gone.

As of right now, here's what we have. My wife and I both have iPhone 3GSs - I've looked at the publicly available unlocking methods, and I'm pretty sure we can't get these unlocked (or at least, without losing some of the functionality). She also has a Kindle 3G (2nd gen) that has an awful web browser but is supposed to work overseas. We'll also have one laptop with us.

The original idea (before I realized our iPhones wouldn't unlock) was to go over there, buy a cheap sim card, pop it in, and use our iPhones like normal. Now, since that doesn't seem to be an option, I'm not sure what to do.

We'd probably need to make a few calls while we're over there, as well as send a few texts. We're more concerned about being able to use data on the fly, especially as our senses of direction are rather poor, and having easy access to Google Maps is incredibly useful.

What's the solution? Although this is a single trip, we are considering more international travel, so a solution that we could use down the road would be useful as well. Buying a new smart phone? Not so much, unless a good argument can be made.

How do you deal with this? What's the best solution for our set of needs?
posted by SNWidget to Travel & Transportation around Paris, France (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Ah, I knew I forgot something - our iPhones are through AT&T.
posted by SNWidget at 7:50 AM on October 28, 2011

Well, you have the 3GS which means you have AT&T. They offer several international add-on plans which you can use for such a trip. They're pricey, but they work and it's the only official way to get your iPhone to work via AT&T.

The good news is that you can add them one month and then just dump the add-ons the next. No contract.
posted by inturnaround at 7:53 AM on October 28, 2011

International texting: $10 for 100 texts per phone line
If you add the their World Traveler plan for $3.99, you can get calls for .99 a minute instead of $1.39.

Data is the expensive one. $24.99 for 50MB of data per line up to $199 for 800MB per line. So try to be in Wifi areas.
posted by inturnaround at 8:00 AM on October 28, 2011

For data you can rent a European MiFi from XcomGlobal (not sure if there are other companies)...for $15/day.

Or you can buy an unlocked MiFi for about $100 on Amazon and buy a cheap data SIM in France.

That gets you data, but not voice/text - not sure how well something like Skype would would work over 3G data, but you could give it a shot and this will be a hell of a lot cheaper than paying ATT's international rates!
posted by alaijmw at 8:08 AM on October 28, 2011

For the data, you may want to consider using the Wifi and accessing Paris hotspots. There's decent free wifi in many areas of Paris, and you can buy fairly cheap access to other networks (like Orange) on the fly. That worked for me for most of my stay in Paris with an iPhone.
posted by kimdog at 8:09 AM on October 28, 2011

The Kindle 3G 2nd Gen - I have one and it will work with no problems in Europe (no fees either).
posted by zippy at 8:14 AM on October 28, 2011

I bought a cheap pay-as-you-go phone from Orange for phone calls and used free wifi on my iPhone for internet. The city of Paris has free wifi sites all over town plus many hotels and cafes do as well. I've kept the cheapie phone and use it for every trip now, all I have to do is recharge it upon arrival and Orange stores are everywhere.
posted by shoesietart at 8:21 AM on October 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

If your only use case for off-the-wifi-grid data is for finding yourselves when you get lost, I suggest getting one of the offline map apps (there are several, and hopefully the reviews will steer you well) and relying on the iPhone's GPS function, which you can use without turning data roaming on. I've done that successfully in Oslo, Antwerp and Hanover (and possibly other places that I've forgotten about).

I've had two problems with the approach.

First problem: you generally can't plot routes unless you're connected to wifi. But with a map in front of you, and knowing where you are and where you were trying to get to, you have all the information you need to find the route yourself.

Second problem: I have a bad habit of wandering out of the area I downloaded detailed maps for. "Oh dear, I'm lost. iPhone to the rescue! Let's see, I'm in... Germany somewhere. Oh, great." Solution: download more detailed maps than you think you'll need; you can always delete them to free up the space after you get back.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 8:51 AM on October 28, 2011

Thanks for the all of the suggestions.

We'd looked at AT&T International Plans, but we were definitely looking into something a little less pricey. I wasn't sure about the availability of WiFi - it's good to know that we should have access. I think this'll probably be our best bet.

Thanks for letting me know the Kindle will work - we might be able to use that for general info browsing (as a last resort) if we get out of the WiFi coverage range.

If anyone else has more suggestions, I'd love to hear them as well.
posted by SNWidget at 11:27 AM on October 28, 2011

Just an update - I went, I saw, it was awesome!

I tried getting wifi in the parks, and it was sketchy as hell. Very unreliable. I ended up using mostly offline apps. I even had trouble getting GPS location without the data on, which I thought would have been easier.

Next time, I'd probably snag a cheapo phone with SIM card for calling/texts, and then figure out another data option.

Thanks for all of the advice!
posted by SNWidget at 4:35 PM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

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