The last time I left London, after taking the Heathrow Express to the airport, I snagged my plastic Oyster card, which still contained a few pounds of credit.
When I returned to London for a family vacation earlier this month, I still had this card, along with a long-expired SIM card. I have these two essential items from the many countries I have visited over the years. Knowing a little about the technology made it possible to travel the world without breaking the roaming data bank. It also allowed me to occasionally use the metro with the same flair as a local.
But this month, those two long-used life hacks are gone. Instead of using prohibitively expensive roaming or being at the mercy of free public Wi-Fi, I used a clever thing called electronic SIM, or eSIM.
It’s a truly delightful tech upgrade that I’m discouraged by how few people know about. Unlike a regular physical car SIM – although now the size of a micro-sim – an eSIM is software-enabled. To set it up, you scan a QR code and add the extra “line” to a phone with eSIM capabilities. Most high-end smartphones purchased in recent years have this feature.
I use a great company called KnowRoaming.com – created by South African-born Gregory Gundelfinger. It has specific packages, depending on where you are traveling and for how long. For UK, I bought 5 gigabytes (GB) for 30 days for just $13 (R215).
Best of all, I activated it before I left and it was functional when I landed at Heathrow airport.
Unlike previous overseas trips which always involved finding a cell store (if you couldn’t at the airport which is always too expensive) and at least half an hour of schlepping and activation, it took maybe five minutes in total.
Having my own connectivity and not relying on the occasional free public Wi-Fi makes navigating a foreign city infinitely easier. You can check a map, call an Uber, video call your son during his dinner (like I’ve done on previous trips), and do all the other stuff you do on your phone at home.
If you are going to use public Wi-Fi, you should always use a VPN. This is essential as these free networks are known to be used to steal your login details. Cybercriminals hide there and can “sniff” your password and other things unless your data is encrypted. I use NordVPN, a large Lithuanian security company. I discovered this fact after using it for years. If anyone knows how to avoid eavesdropping, it’s a former Soviet state that still lives in the shadow of its aggressive neighbor.
Combine credit cards
For payments, I saved my credit cards to Apple Pay. It’s been my default way of paying for groceries, restaurants, and everything else for at least a year and a half. It also means I could just “tap” to access the tube or to catch one of those classic London red buses.
It’s a boon for convenience and also for quick access to important things, like tickets. A mobile wallet has become the most useful way to save and then redeem plane, train or ferry tickets – all of which have a QR code. Even the London Eye lets you add them to Apple Pay or Samsung Pay.
There’s another germaphobic reason to use a virtual credit card: tapping your smartphone also means you don’t have to touch a point-of-sale machine. For this, and pressing elevator buttons, I’ve been using a joint for a decade, having frequently caught a cold or the flu while traveling abroad. Never use your index finger to touch anything, because it’s the one you unconsciously use to touch your face or rub your nose.
Fortunately, the Gautrain now also offers such tap payments. But how do I withdraw all the money from my Gautrain Gold cards? I’ve asked billions of times, and no one can help me.
During this time I was never able to use my now obsolete Oyster travel card which will now become a bookmark.
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick