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Travel tech expert Angel Castellanos  | Frommer's travnikovstudio / Shutterstock

How to Protect Your Phone from Hackers (And Other Bad Stuff) When You Travel

We asked a travel tech expert for the lowdown on the apps to download and security features to enable so that your favorite carry-on device stays useful—and safe from prying eyes—while you're on the road.

Cell phones have become as indispensable during travel as they are everywhere else—whether you need directions in an unfamiliar city or simply want to keep in touch with the folks back home. But according to travel tech expert Angel Castellanos, many of us aren't doing all we could do to keep our beloved devices secure and useful while we're on the road. Pauline Frommer sat down with Castellanos to get the lowdown on the downloads you need to prep your cell phone for travel. A transcript of their conversation—edited for length and clarity—follows.  

Pauline Frommer: It seems like we are married to our cell phones, but a lot of people don’t really prepare their phones correctly for travel.

Angel Castellanos: Yeah, there are a couple of things that we all should be doing to prepare our phones. First, I like to update the operating system and make sure that everything on my phone is working correctly and that all of the apps are updated as well.

Frommer: Why is it important to update the operating system?

Castellanos: The last thing you want to do is get to a country where the Wi-Fi connection may be slow and you have to do a large update, which can take just ever so long. You want to make sure your phone is in tip-top shape so that when you’re in whichever country you’re traveling to it’s going to be working to the best of its ability. Go to your settings and check for updates for the latest operating system. You can also go to the apps page and it’ll tell you which apps need to be updated.

Frommer: So that’s number one. What’s the second thing?

Castellanos: Enable all of the security features on the device. I like not only to have the passcode enabled on my phone, but also the touch ID security feature so that you can only open your device with your fingerprint. Other features include Find My Phone, which enables you to completely erase your phone remotely if it’s ever lost or stolen.

Frommer: I’ve heard that phones are the most likely thing to be stolen now—more so than your wallet.

Castellanos: Speaking of thieves, that brings us to our next point, which is installing a virtual private network (VPN) app on your phone. It’ll mask your identity when you’re surfing a public Wi-Fi network, and for those thieves who are phishing for your passcode and all of your personal and sensitive information, they won’t be able to see you on that public network. The one that I use is called TunnelBear; it works well with Apple devices. For Android users, CyberGhost is a very popular one. You can install these on laptops, your iPad, tablets, and phones.

Frommer: My big bugaboo is how much it’s going to cost me to use my phone abroad. What are some tips to cut those rates?

Castellanos: The last thing people want to come home to is a nasty phone bill. I don’t pay for an additional plan—they vary in prices, but I just think there isn’t much value there for what the phone companies are using. Instead, I rely on public Wi-Fi networks that allow me to communicate, send emails, use my web browser, and even send text messages when I’m connected to those networks.

Frommer: I use T-Mobile, which I think has lousy coverage here in the U.S. but usually has no charges abroad.

Castellanos: They’re the only ones who offer free international data roaming in about 120 countries. It’s really data roaming that will make people’s phone bills go sky high. You can eliminate the use of that by simply setting your device to airplane mode and leaving it there for the rest of the trip, then take advantage of Wi-Fi.

But let’s say you’re in one particular destination for a solid amount of time. If your phone is unlocked, then you can take advantage of a local SIM card and have a local phone number. The key there is not to purchase one at the airport because it’ll cost you an arm and a leg. Purchase it in town and it should include some kind of a data plan with far more reach than any kind of plan you can usually buy here in the United States.

Frommer: I know that you’re a fan of a lot of apps for travel. Which one do you think is indispensable?

Castellanos: Well, there are a couple of them that just make life so much easier on the road. I think XE Currency Converter makes life so much easier. TripIt is one that all travelers should consider because once you’ve registered, you forward any confirmation email that you receive from a hotel, a car rental agency, or airline, and it makes a nice, neat itinerary directly onto your phone. It also gives you some valuable information like confirmation numbers and 800 numbers in case anything happens.

Another app that works best offline for navigation is called Maps.Me. What that allows you to do is download maps for whichever region you’re traveling to and use them when you’re traveling offline. So once you leave that Wi-Fi connection you have a very valuable map directly on your device.

Frommer: Do the maps work for nature areas too, or are they mostly urban based?

Castellanos: Mostly urban based.

Frommer: So you’re not going to be taking them out on trails. You could get lost that way.

Castellanos: No, but there are other apps that you can get for trails. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) allows you to download certain trails for the United States.

Frommer: Now what about airline apps—the kind the airlines give you for free. I know you like those. Why is that?

Castellanos: It’s the most basic type of information that travelers should have on their phones. For instance, you get instant information when you arrive at an airport whether there’s been a gate change. So instead of having to bother to find one of the television screens with all of the updated flight information, you get that directly onto your device. And even small information like a terminal map, that’ll be included in the app as well, in addition to your digital boarding pass.

Frommer: Finally, I think you and I disagree on this one. You’re a fan of Waze for getting around.

Castellanos: I used it recently while I was driving my mom and my wife through Tuscany and Umbria. 

Frommer: And it’s basically a GPS-enabled app that gives you directions, correct?

Castellanos: Correct. You can download it on your phone and it uses crowdsourcing. So it’ll tell you straight away, if everybody is reporting an accident, which way to deviate or which road to avoid.

Frommer: The reason I don’t like it is I’m always in the wrong lane when it tells me to turn. I feel like it doesn’t give me enough notice.

Castellanos: That is definitely true and it frustrates my wife sometimes when she’s in charge of navigating and has Waze on. It can be indecisive.

Frommer: I still use my Garmin. I like its voice.

This interview was broadcast on the Frommer's Travel Show, which airs on radio stations across the country on Sundays and can be streamed anytime here.

To follow Angel Castellanos's journeys throughout the world, visit his website, The Travel Ambassador.

And for more on travel technology, check out our roundup of new gadgets designed to improve your life on the road.