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Cruising (or planning on cruising) and not sure what kind of phone you’ll need? A good smartphone can make your trip much easier. In this post, we’ll share the best smartphones for cruisers, and our tips on what to look for when choosing the right phone for you.
Wanna know right now what we use?
THE SMARTPHONE WE USE
Melody and I both use the 2020 iPhone SE. It comes with Apple’s latest and fastest chip (A13). Though not future-proof, it should be able to handle all necessary software updates for the next few years. We also liked that it’s a brand new iPhone without the usual Apple thousand-dollar(ish) price tag. It uses the smaller body, which we prefer, and it has the best single-lens camera Apple ever produced at 12 megapixels, so we can still take great photos.
Our phones connect us to family and friends while we’re on the water. They help us navigate local streets and waterways. And for folks like us, they enable us to earn a living. We may be cruisers but we’re still working.
We use our phones for almost everything:
- Booking travel
- Restaurant recommendations
- Getting directions
- Grocery lists / to dos
- Language translation
- Shopping online
- Taking (and storing) photos and video
- Lifeline to family and friends
- Backup to the backup navigation device
- Client calls
- Social Media
- Research for this blog post
But which smartphone do you choose?
FUN FACTDid you know that modern smartphones have 100,000 times the processing power of the Apollo 11’s lunar landing guidance computer? The latest smartphones are not only faster than the fastest supercomputers in the 80s, they’re faster than most of our laptop computers. In fact, your current smartphone’s processor is faster than the one NASA used onboard the Orion spaceship. Yes… the one that went to Mars.
Here are some things we think are important when choosing the best smartphone for cruising.
Your brand choice comes down to basically two major players: Apple and Android.
And just like Coke vs. Pepsi, Ford vs. Chevy, and those two dudes from that vampire movie I never saw, it’ll continue to be a debate for the ages.
(Sidenote, Mel just whispered something about Team Edward… whatever that means.)
Whichever brand you choose is fine. Both platforms have been around for over a decade now. They’ve each got thousands of apps, and there’s very little that one can do that the other cannot.
It comes down to your personal preference. And personal preference is a big thing.
For us, price is a major factor. We’d much rather spend our dollars on experiences than on a phone. That’s one reason we chose the newest iPhone SE. It cost us $399 (less if you buy a refurbished one).
Plus, if you do drop it overboard (Davie Jones thanks you) or it gets stolen, $399 hurts a little less than $1,000 — just sayin’. These are realities when you’re traveling by boat.
Jay Leno once asked famous photographer Annie Leibovitz what her favorite camera was. She said, “My iPhone.”
As a cruising sailor, you are going to take a lot of photos. Like, a lot lot.
Every time you see a beautiful sunset or a dolphin, you’ll be whipping out your phone to take a photo. Trust me on this. So do yourself a favor and get a phone with a good camera and thank us later. Especially if you’re going to be blogging or sharing on Instagram.
Smartphone cameras across the board have taken their photog game to a new level. The iPhone SE has a 12 megapixel camera. More than adequate for our needs.
Before Mel upgraded to the SE last year, she had an old refurbished iPhone 6s that she bought on Amazon that took really great photos, too, even by today’s standards. So you don’t have to get something brand new.
Many top-of-the-line options offer various wide, ultra-wide and telephoto lens configurations. Let’s not forget the video specs either.
Speaking of photos, you want a phone that’s going to have the capacity to store all those sunsets. I recommend 128GB because now as apps get better, they require more space to run them.
There have been times with our older phones when we wanted to take a photo then realized we were out of space. This isn’t ideal, especially when trying to capture one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments, like the perfect whale breach. Having ample storage reduces the chance you’ll miss those special shots.
Mel takes way more photos than I do, so she also purchased the iCloud 50GB storage plan for 99 cents a month. This is great for saving more space on your phone. Just be careful that you have it set to sync when your phone is on wifi so you don’t get hit with extra data charges if you’re out of the country and on a data usage-based plan or you could use your data up quickly.
Another thing to consider is the physical size of your phone.
Some of the newer phones are so big, they don’t easily fit safely within a pocket (see note above about dropping it in the water). Mel has small hands and doesn’t like the larger sized options. However, you might need that bigger screen size.
We like that our SEs are identical in size to our old iPhones, so we were able to reuse the cases from our previous phones. They also fit in our pockets easily.
Carrier & Service Plans
The service plan you choose greatly affects how you use your phone if you’re planning on traveling internationally. You never really think about those pesky international roaming fees until you get the bill!
There are many reliable carriers these days, so before you end your current contract (if you have one), ask your carrier if they offer international and unlimited options.
We chose T-Mobile because there’s no contract so we can walk away at any time.
We also chose them because of their generous international plan — no data-roaming charges, and it works in 210+ countries & destinations. You don’t have to set any alerts or change any settings, either. The minute we sailed into Mexico, we got a text that read, Welcome to Mexico. Your T-Mobile device is ready to go.
For those who want to set-it and forget-it, this might be a good option.
We’ve had our plan for so long that ours looks a little different, but the basic features are pretty similar. Here’s what ours looks like:
- Unlimited talk and text
- Unlimited data
- Unlimited hotspot data (at 3G speed)
- Free Netflix subscription
- Unlimited video streaming
There may be other carriers and plans that we don’t know about, but we’ve been very happy with T-Mobile and have had little to no coverage issues.
Get an Unlocked Phone
What’s an unlocked phone? In short, it’s a phone that isn’t locked to only one carrier. Unlocked phones allow you to purchase and use local SIM Cards wherever you land.
Even if you have a carrier with an international plan, being able to use local SIM cards can be useful. For instance, when we were cruising the Western Caribbean, Mel would purchase a very inexpensive “pay as you go” SIM card, turning her phone into a local phone, with a local number.
This allowed us to use that for communicating easily with locals we met, and included data on the local network, which was sometimes more reliable than T-Mobile.
Obvious, right? Cruising = water. Water and electronics don’t play well together. Luckily, most modern smartphones offer some water resistance, and some are down-right waterproof to a certain depth for a designated amount of time.
It bears repeating, when traveling in another country, your phone can be your lifeline. A lot of important information is stored there. Lose the phone, lose all of your info.
Common smartphones and their waterproof ratings:
- Apple iPhone 12 Pro Max: Waterproof to 20 feet or 6 meters for 20 minutes
- Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra: Waterproof to 5 feet MAX for 30 minutes
- Apple iPhone SE: Waterproof to 3 feet for 30 minutes
Battery life is getting better on most phones, but still worth keeping in mind when making your choice. It can vary.
For instance, the latest iPhone actually lost battery efficiency at 8:53 when compared to the Galaxy’s 11:20 minutes of operating time.
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Future-proof (or as close as possible)
Melody and I used our old iPhone 5s for almost 5 years. They got us through Cuba, Belize, Mexico, and Guatemala. We wrung every bit of life out of those things and waited to upgrade until the processors couldn’t really keep up with the latest features and large updates.
We decided on the iPhone SE because it was cheaper (when have you ever seen the word cheaper in a sentence associated with an Apple product? Never.) and it had the A13 chip. That should mean we’re good for a few years.
Lastly, what accessories are available for the phone and how much do they cost? Does the phone have an earphone jack? Can you charge it wirelessly? If so, how much does that add to the overall cost of the phone?
Don’t forget a nice case. Modern phones look more like modern art. You’ll want to protect them with something like an Otterbox or something similar.
So there you have it, the smartphone. They can be the bain of our existence and, for us cruisers, they can also be our saving grace.
Whichever device you choose, you now have more information to help you in your search for the best smartphone for your cruising adventure.