Buying A Burner Smarthphone For A Week In London
July 18, 2015 7:23 AM   Subscribe

Spending a week in London soon. Here at home in the US, my wife and I are quite used to using Google Maps on our smartphones to help us get around in unfamiliar places on vacation, but we know we won't be able to use our regular phones when out and about in London. We've been thinking about buying an inexpensive Android phone once in the UK entirely for the purpose of using Google Maps to help us get around. is this a good idea, and, if you think so, where would you go to get one?

Some additional info: we will also be bringing our existing Android phones with us for using with hotel/public WiFi, taking photos, etc. So this burner phone can be pretty minimal as long as it will work with Google Maps.

My wife has already downloaded an app that will plot step-by-step directions in London and apparently does so without needing to be online, so we will have that, but would still like to be able to know our current location.

I'd also consider just buying a single-purpose GPS/SatNav device suitable for pedestrians if that seems like a better alternative.

I think we'd rather buy this once we get to London than buy something here unless there's a significant price difference.
posted by briank to Travel & Transportation around London, England (28 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: in japan recently we hired a portable wifi hotspot. it was a small box, similar to a phone, but thicker, that connected to the cell system and provided us with wifi over that link. then we could use our own phones, via wifi, to connect to google maps. some large amount of data came in the hire price.

it worked just fine, but i have no idea if it's common or possible elsewhere in the world. if it is, that would be another option.
posted by andrewcooke at 7:29 AM on July 18, 2015

Best answer: You could get a mobile "mifi" style data-only 4G device, get a PAYG SIM, and then connect to it from your phones using Wifi - I used this technique in Japan and it worked well. It's a lot easier to get a PAYG SIM in the UK.
posted by BinaryApe at 7:30 AM on July 18, 2015

How do you feel about losing your phone numbers for a week? The two times I've gone to London I just bought a SIM card and stuck it in my unlocked phone and paid something like ₤15 to have 2GB of data for the week (you can pay for minutes but I got a data only card or something that has almost no minutes but a decent amount of data). You can buy these at the airport or at any little quickie mart (Carphone Warehouse is the place I used) around town. There are a bunch of different companies but basically it's a thing that is a regular normal thing to do in London (as opposed to the US). I also have to put in a plug for the CityMapper app. When I was in London I could just go wandering knowing that it could get me back quickly and easily.

So my process was

- land in airport, use wifi at Heathrow to check in with people etc
- go to hotel, unpack, use wifi to locate carphone warehouse
- go to carphone warehouse, get SIM card, guy will set it up for you
- have my own phone/apps for the week just have a new number

This is also helpful if you have local friends you want to call/text
posted by jessamyn at 7:32 AM on July 18, 2015 [8 favorites]

And get an external USB battery too, if you plan to walk around using Google Maps all day.
posted by BinaryApe at 7:33 AM on July 18, 2015

Response by poster: I hadn't considered a MiFi, but that's a good suggestion. Can anyone suggest which ones to buy (or avoid) in the UK?
posted by briank at 7:34 AM on July 18, 2015

Response by poster: (all set with the USB chargers, thanks for thinking of that, too BinaryApe)
posted by briank at 7:35 AM on July 18, 2015

Last time I was in the UK I did what jessamyn suggests above. If you go this route, I suggest the United Kingdom page from the Prepaid Data SIM Card Wiki for an overview of the options. When you pick a carrier, double check the deal details on their own web site.

Last year I found that EE had the best deal and they had bought frequencies which meant that some day my Canadian Moto X XT1058 would someday work with EE LTE but not yet. The frequencies used in Europe for LTE usually do not work for U.S. LTE phones, but 3G can often work. Check the frequencies used by your phone and the network you want in advance.
posted by grouse at 7:41 AM on July 18, 2015

Also, I strongly recommend using Google Maps's Download an offline map feature before you go so you will have a map that works even when you don't have service. Even if you have a local SIM you might not have service in some areas, or underground, or might want a map before you get it. There are some limitations but has got me out of some jams nonetheless. I do this on every trip.
posted by grouse at 7:43 AM on July 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

There's an app called The Cloud the tells you where to find wifi in London. When we were there two years ago we did three things:

1. Added overseas service to one of our phones for the ten days we were there. We are on AT&T, so it was just a matter of changing it online and changing back when we returned. My husband used it only as needed for business calls and the cost was still only about $75 total, IIRC.

2. Used the Citymapper app to get around. It has step by step instructions and worked great.

3. Used the Cloud app to find Wifi, which was never more than half a block away, I think we had to walk that far only once the whole time we were there.

Those steps worked great and we never had to bother with another phone. We had four adults, so the rest of us just switched our phones to wifi only and could always text each other when needed.
posted by raisingsand at 7:48 AM on July 18, 2015

Following up on grouse's answer, there are other GPS apps as well that allow you to download maps and use them offline. GPS Essentials is my favorite. If all you want is to know where you are, you don't need a SIM card or a burner phone.
posted by bleston hamilton station at 7:58 AM on July 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Do you know whether your current phone is a GSM phone? If you tell us your cellular phone company, we can probably tell you. For example, AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM phones.

If you have a GSM phone (and if it is unlocked), then you can just get another SIM card (super inexpensive) and proceed from there. Bonus: fewer phones manufactured in the world, and you already know your way around your current phone. Plus you can store information on your phone (restaurant lists, tourism apps) before you leave.
posted by amtho at 8:03 AM on July 18, 2015

Response by poster: We have Samsung Galaxy S3 phones through Virgin Mobile. They are GSM, but they are locked.
posted by briank at 8:10 AM on July 18, 2015

I suggest that you as much as possible not try to purchase a phone at the airport. EE has the best coverage in the UK and you can get a gig of data for £10/$15.60. Calls are expensive though so you really need to find a package that includes minutes. There is 500 meg pack with 150 minutes for £7.50. The best cheap Android is probably Alcatel. They used to make the worst cheap blackberry knockoff on the market but they have learned that lesson and the phones do okay. You could also look at or their retail unit, CEX, which are everywhere in London and in towns and cities. They sell used phones at about 10-40% off. They usually have networked and unlocked phones. They also have a lot of 3 & 4G phablets. They do sell the wireless dongles but mainly from underperforming networks, like Three and TalkTalk.
posted by parmanparman at 8:12 AM on July 18, 2015

You could order a pay as you go dongle or phone and have it shipped to where you are staying. Carphone Warehouse and amazon would do that.
posted by parmanparman at 8:14 AM on July 18, 2015

I've been using Here Maps for a while now, which I don't need a data connection for. The maps are downloaded and all searching for destinations and routes is done offline. I've been huddled in my car at the base of a Welsh mountain with no phone signal at all and it's still managed to pick up my location and direct me all the way home.

A bonus is that you can download it now and try it out at home, just to get a feel for it. Just download the relevant maps for your area and away you go.
posted by Solomon at 8:24 AM on July 18, 2015 [4 favorites]

I just got back from Scotland and I used the app on my android CDMA (Sprint) phone with no problems. Download the country map before you go. Put the phone in Airplane mode the whole time, turn on the GPS (called "Location" on my phone) and away you go. can find you on the map, and it can give you directions from your location to many businesses and landmarks. I had a bit of trouble using it for random street addresses, but it worked great for known things.
posted by CathyG at 8:35 AM on July 18, 2015

You can unlock your phones for free or cheap and then get a cheap SIM card for data. Search for free options or pay someone on eBay for a code. This will be cheaper than a cheap phone.

Alternately, just unlock one phone and get one SIM, then share the connection via wifi.
posted by ssg at 8:51 AM on July 18, 2015

A few things...

Have you looked into getting your phone(s) unlocked? I don't know if it is the same as the UK, but here you just ask your provider, pay them a small fee, and hey presto - open and free phone. It can take a couple of weeks to come through. Worth doing the research.

Once you are here, all tube stations in London offer wifi now - from Virgin Media. I am sure there is a way to signup to that without having an account. It's very quick and reliable.

You know you can sync Google maps to your phone now? Open up google maps, search for London. Then zoomout to the required amount of map you want and search for 'ok maps.' It will ask if you want to save the map, say yes (obviously). So now... you can't do very good searches using the synced map alone, BUT when you do have a wifi connection you do your search and it will be saved along with your map and route, and it won't screw up when you take it walking around. GPS works fine.

When I go abroad now I get a simcard or data and use my phone on the go for lots of things, but if you are only using it to do maps, and you are relying on London tube transport anyway, then you don't really need a simcard. The tips above will be enough.
posted by 0bvious at 8:52 AM on July 18, 2015

Best answer: For all those suggesting that you unlock your phone: this is not possible with US Virgin Mobile phones.

But I suggest that you buy a cheap phone right now, and a cheap sim in the UK, and then return/trade in your burner when you get home.
posted by mskyle at 9:05 AM on July 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

I am confused about your phone. Virgin USA operates on the Sprint network and the S3 available through them shouldn't have GSM at all. (Their unlock policy says that the S3 can only be unlocked for CDMA use.) If you're certain it does though (maybe brought your own device?), I would call Virgin and see if they can unlock it at least for international GSM use. I vaguely recall other carriers would do this (before unlocking was something most people cared about) if you called and told them you were going overseas. Never hurts to try!

One other option to consider is an tablet that takes a SIM card. It probably won't be cheaper than a burner phone, but if you wanted a tablet anyways, it might be cheaper than buying two separate devices.

Also just to be clear, if you download maps for offline use in Google maps as mentioned above, the GPS does not need cell service to show you where you are.
posted by yeahlikethat at 9:54 AM on July 18, 2015

Oh also, if you do in the end decide to get another phone, cheap unlocked phones for travel are A Thing. Here is a list from PCmag, here is another list published last year so the prices may be even better.

Buy it before you leave so you can 1. research and not buy under pressure, 2. have it in hand when you arrive, 3) avoid paying UK prices and/or trying to get VAT back, and 4. avoid paying foreign transaction fees.
posted by yeahlikethat at 10:24 AM on July 18, 2015

Just download Google maps offline to your phone. GPS works anyway even if your phone is on aeroplane mode - I don't really understand why you'd bother getting a smartphone just to visit London.
posted by tavegyl at 1:45 PM on July 18, 2015

Similar to other people, I've been using an offline map application when I'm in countries where I don't have data access. My favorite has been City Maps 2Go.
posted by StrawberryPie at 5:58 PM on July 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

I also use CityMaps2Go: I've used London, Edinburgh, Toronto, Ottawa, etc. No data access needed, very convenient.
posted by jb at 8:03 PM on July 18, 2015

Definitely go with offline map programs. Important caveat: Google maps likes to randomly decide that your offline maps all need a "critical update", without warning, and won't open them until you have internet to update you can't rely on it all the time, making it totally useless.... after this happening several times on my recent month-long trip I ended up ditching it and downloading the app instead, which was fantastic. Never failed to load, shows banks, stores etc in the map, and even lets you search for things like " nearest grocery store" while offline. Highly recommended.
posted by randomnity at 9:00 AM on July 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Just to add in case it wasn't clear, offline maps programs work with your phone's GPS without needing internet, so you'll still be able to see where you are on the map. Some even include directions, if the map+gps isn't enough.
posted by randomnity at 9:05 AM on July 19, 2015

randomnity is exactly right: using an offline map app like City Maps 2Go, you can turn off your data and cellular network connections and it can still use the GPS receiver in your phone to get your location without network access.

You will need to download maps ahead of time for cities you're visiting, but you're better off doing that over wifi anyway, and you only do it once for a whole city or region and it stores them for the future.

City Maps 2Go maps also often include interesting points in a city, restaurants, and other info, though it's not always up to date. (Translation: don't volunteer to lead a group to a restaurant one evening, only to discover the restaurant isn't there anymore. How do I know this? Well ...)
posted by StrawberryPie at 8:20 AM on July 21, 2015

I'm sure you've returned now, but in case anyone finds this through search, it's worth having a think about buying the EE Rook for £50 to get a tolerable Android phone (the reviews say the weak point is the screen, the same resolution as the Galaxy S2), plus £10 to get 1GB of data for it (plus some local calls). You can also set it up as a personal hotspot for your other phones if you'd prefer that, and then you get a phone to take back with you.
posted by ambrosen at 1:40 PM on August 17, 2015

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