I have a great guest post from Debbie Lee for you today. Debbie is the community manager at Trippy.com, a really fun travel site that I frequent. She was headed to Germany just after HolidayPhone asked me to review their product. Since I didn’t have any upcoming travel plans, I asked Debbie to write this HolidayPhone prepaid SIM card review. She has some great observations and also took all the photos in this post. Enjoy! -Justin
For someone who’s traveled extensively and is pretty tech-savvy, one thing has remained a mystery to me since the advent of smartphones: how to access data affordably on my iPhone while traveling internationally. I already have enough trouble doing that at home, much less overseas in a foreign land.
When I’m staying in one country for longer than a week, I just buy a local SIM card for my unlocked iPhone. There’s a slight bit of hassle in doing this because you have to research which wireless provider works best, which plan makes the most economical sense, and then you actually have to find a store that carries that SIM card and possibly attempt to buy it without knowing the local language (usually not a problem at the airport for English speakers, but possibly an issue at stores outside of the airport). Once you get the SIM card, though, it’s typically smooth sailing from there.
Last summer when I visited Europe, though, I was staying in Italy for 4 days, then Switzerland for another 6. Since I was country-hopping, it didn’t seem worth it to buy local SIM cards for such short periods of time, so I just called up my wireless provider to put me on an international plan. When I got home and looked at my phone bill, it was the most horrible thing ever. And the worst part was that the data speed was never fast, so I vowed to never do that again if I could help it.
This past month, I found myself in the same boat, where I’d be country-hopping in Europe, and I was determined not to end up with a huge phone bill and to get my phone situation squared before I left home. So I posted a question asking what the best SIM card to use across Europe would be on Trippy.com (I’m the community manager there!), to which Wandering Justin reached out to me about the opportunity to write a HolidayPhone prepaid SIM card review. Despite the mixed reviews that I had read online about them, I decided to give it a shot.
Prior to leaving for Europe, and even when I first got there, I wasn’t exactly sure what countries I would be visiting (I like being able to be spontaneous!). I just knew that I would be flying in and out of Münster in Westphalia, Germany. Other countries I thought I might be visiting were the Netherlands, France, Great Britain and Poland, so I had wanted to find a SIM card that worked for all, or most of those countries.
First Look at the HolidayPhone Package
After informing HolidayPhone about my possible travel plans, I was sent a tracking code; a few days later, I received my HolidayPhone package, which included SIM cards for Germany, the UK, and the Netherlands, and even a mobile hotspot device so that friends could tether off of it. They mailed it to me in San Francisco all the way from Sweden. I was super excited to test them out!
When I landed at the Frankfurt Airport for a layover, I took the opportunity to test out my Germany SIM card from Blau Mobilfunk, a presumably smaller wireless provider that I wasn’t familiar with. No matter how many times I entered in the PIN number and subsequently PUK code provided on the card, though, it just would not work. Through the airport wifi, I emailed Melina, the HolidayPhone rep whose business card was included in my package, about my issue. She and another colleague, Daniel, attempted to help me troubleshoot, but to no avail. Then randomly when I was on the tarmac to head to my next destination, my entering of the PIN number finally worked. Perhaps it just didn’t work in the airport? We’ll never know. But the SIM card did start to work outside of the airport.
By the way, I do have to give Melina and Daniel extra kudos here — this was Christmas day when I emailed them and they got back to me within hours. Seeing that it was Christmas, I would’ve understood if they had gotten back to me the next day, so that’s great customer service right there.
I wish that the actual Blau Mobilfunk SIM card was as good as their customer service, though. I ended up not going to any other countries, but decided to do a cross country road trip through Germany instead, so I only used the Blau Mobilfunk SIM card.
My home base was in the little farming town of Greven, which is pretty rural. I occasionally connected to a 3G network out there, which felt like I was using dial up internet. That was something I could tolerate as I understood the limitations of living on a farm. Unfortunately, most of the time, the connected network was E or GPRS and sometimes there was No Service, rendering data transmission impossible on my phone, so Blau Mobilfunk was pretty much unusable where I was staying. I thought it was due to me living on a farm, but when local friends came to visit, the data on their T-Mobile and Vodafone networks worked just fine. Those are two wireless providers I’ve actually heard of, which makes me wonder why HolidayPhone chose Blau Mobilfunk over them.
When I went on my cross country road trip, I got 3G data in the heart of the major cities, like Munster, Hamburg and Berlin, which was about as fast as dial-up Internet. Unfortunately, when I was actually on the road on the major highways and freeways, it was back on E, GPRS, and occasionally No Service, meaning that we couldn’t research anything on the road, stream music or get addresses and directions (we had in-dash navigation, but there were a few instances where it was incorrect and we needed Google Maps). I wasn’t sure if this was a Germany thing, or if it was a Blau Mobilfunk thing, though after comparing with my local friends’ phone connectivity, I’m pretty sure it was the latter.
Then there was the mobile hotspot device — the ZTE MF65 Mobile WiFi Router. When I was in places where I had 3G connection, I would pop my unlocked SIM card into the device; but despite me following all the directions that were provided to me, it continually said that there was no SIM card or that it was unrecognizable. I was just testing it out for the sake of testing it out because they sent it to me, but fortunately, I was able to tether my other wireless devices directly off of my iPhone with the Blau Mobilfunk SIM card in it … when I had 3G connection, of course.
Wrapping up the HolidayPhone Prepaid SIM Card Review
The SIM card that I received was data-only, and I got 1 GB of data at 3G speeds that would be valid for 30 days. I felt like I had barely used the data (most of it was spent waiting for pages to load, or loading to “Please connect to the Internet” and “Server could not be reach” pages) before I received a text that said my 1 GB at 3G speeds was up just four days into my trip. This package is supposed to be $43.90, which I definitely would not have paid for such unreliable service. To add on the mobile hotspot device was another $79.99, which, as I mentioned earlier, didn’t even work.
This is all unfortunate because I really wanted to love HolidayPhone and was hoping that they were the answer to my prayers. I think that they’re really onto something here with their service and that the concept is great. I’m willing to pay a little extra money to have a local SIM card already on me when I arrive at a destination. It definitely takes the hassle out of things and is one less thing to worry about when there are so many other things going on during international travel. Unfortunately, their choice in wireless providers was not up to par with my fairly reasonable expectations; I had simply expected them to send me something that, for the most part, worked and was reliable.
The next time I travel overseas, I may just sign up for a T-Mobile month-to-month account at home as they seem to have decent international plans. People keep telling me that it gets slow after a certain point (as explained on the T-Mobile site), but after this experience, I can deal with slow data, so long as it’s reliable.
If anyone has any suggestions for what I or anyone who’s country-hopping should check out, please do comment!