Smartphone in hand

The Best Budget Smartphones For Travellers

In Phones by Dave Dean3 Comments

First published May 2015, updated September 2016.

Back when starting this site in early 2012, I didn’t bother recommending any smartphones under around $400, for one simple reason: there weren’t any. Everything under that price was poorly-made, with terrible specifications and worse battery life. You’d almost have been better off having no phone at all than putting up with one of those devices.

Skip forward a few years, however, and it’s a very different story. Asian manufacturers in particular have been producing phones that, for a relatively small amount of money, provide most of the features a traveller needs.

No longer are washed-out screens, slow processors and horrible cameras the only option, even when you’re on a budget. These devices aren’t quite as good as a fancy flagship device that costs three times as much, but for many travellers, they’ll be good enough.

For the purposes of this roundup, a “budget smartphone” is one that costs under $250 USD, off-contract and unlocked for use with local SIM cards around the world.

They all run Android, simply because you can’t buy a new Apple phone for anything like this price. In late 2016, any phone not running one of these two operating systems isn’t worth buying.

I’ve included plenty of detail regarding specifications and the various pros and cons of each device, but when it comes down it, all of these phones have one thing in common. As a full-time traveller, I’d be happy to own and use them myself on a daily basis.

Motorola Moto G (4th Edition)

Moto G 4th gen

We’ve been recommending the Motorola Moto G ever since it first came out, and the latest model does nothing to change that. Although the price has risen slightly, you’ll still pay well under $250 for a solidly-performing phone from a well-known manufacturer.

As with any budget smartphone, compromises have been made. Some of those don’t matter much, while others are more frustrating. Unlike many other phones at this price, though, none will leave you regretting your purchase after a few days.

It’s about as close to a stock Android experience as you’ll find on a phone not made by Google. This means it receives updates earlier and comes with less useless pre-installed software (aka crapware).

The screen size has jumped from 5.0″ to 5.5″ with this model. If you like big phones, you’ll be happy. If, like me, you don’t — well, your options are decreasing by the month. At least it’s a quality HD display, bright and vibrant even when you’re outdoors.

Inside, the phone has 2GB of RAM and either 16 or 32GB of storage. You can save a few dollars by going for the smaller capacity, but seriously, don’t. For music, offline maps, photos and other travel essentials, 32GB is really the minimum. If you need to add more capacity later, there’s a micro-SD slot that lets you do just that.

The camera has improved noticeably from earlier models, and it needed to. Now it’s better than you’ll find on many budget smartphones, although it’s often quite slow, especially in HDR mode.

Battery life is good, and fast charging also makes a welcome appearance. The phone is water-resistant, which is great if you get caught in the rain. Don’t take it in the shower with you, though.


What We Like:

  • An SD card slot for extra storage
  • Dual SIM slots on the European model
  • Solid construction at a great price
  • Good specs for the money
What We Don’t Like:

  • No fingerprint scanner
  • No NFC chip, so you won’t be using Android Pay
  • The processor is starting to look dated

The Specs That Matter:
  • 5.5″ Full HD display with Gorilla Glass 3
  • Snapdragon 617 processor
  • 2GB RAM
  • 13MP rear camera / 5MP front camera
  • 3000 mAh battery and fast charging
  • 16GB or 32GB storage, microSD slot
  • Dual SIM slots (international version)
  • Android 6.0


Blu Life One X

Blu Life One X

Blu is one of those manufacturers that’s been quietly turning out decent, inexpensive smartphones for quite a while. The company hasn’t become a household name, but any time it comes out with a new model, we’re always keen to take a look.

The Blu Life One X continues that trend. It looks good, performs well and costs surprisingly little. For those happy to do without the brand name in return for a lower price, this is a great place to start.

The phone has an aluminium frame, and a bright 5.2″ HD display. If you’re on a budget and don’t want to tote around a giant device, that smaller screen could well make your purchasing decision for you.

The other specs aren’t going to turn too many heads, but they’re fine (or better) for the money. There’s 2GB of RAM, 16Gb of storage, LTE support and a good-sized battery. There’s no NFC or fast charging, unfortunately.

Unlike other cheap phones, there are some useful extras. The micro-SD slot will be invaluable, given the limited onboard storage. There are also dual SIM slots, and a surprising lack of crapware given the low price.

The camera is a weak point, although it’s still better than anything you’d find in a budget phone even a couple of years ago. You’ll get decent results when you’ve good lighting, but don’t expect miracles at other times.

The one major downside is the operating system version. The company promised an upgrade to Android 6.0 for this device earlier this year, but it hasn’t shown up. Given how much time has passed, it probably won’t, so bear that in mind before buying.

This is the cheapest smartphone in our roundup, but it’ll still do the job for most travellers. If you’d rather spend your travel funds on tours than technology, you won’t go wrong with the Blu Life One X.


What We Like:

  • A bright, crisp display
  • Great value
  • Micro-SD card slot for extra storage
  • Dual SIM slots
  • Lack of useless software
What We Don’t Like:

  • More internal storage would be nice
  • The camera won’t win any awards
  • No fast charging or NFC

The Specs That Matter:

  • 5.2″ Full HD IPS display with Gorilla Glass 3
  • MediaTek MT6753 processor
  • 2GB RAM
  • 13MP rear camera, 5MP front camera
  • 2900 mAh battery
  • 16GB storage, micro-SD slot
  • Dual SIM slots
  • Android 5.0

 

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Asus Zenfone 2 Laser

Asus Zenfone 2 Laser

Even though Asus has just come out with a new version, the Zenfone 2 remains our pick of the range for budget travellers. The replacement Zenfone 3 is an excellent phone, but the accompanying price hike puts it firmly into the mid-range category.

The brushed plastic finish provides a stylish, albeit generic, look, but it’s what lies inside that sets the phone apart.

Being able to pick up a fast, attractive device for under $250, with plenty of memory and storage, a good camera, unlocked and ready to use around the world, is very impressive.

Throw in the fact it also includes LTE support, dual SIM cards, a microSD slot and fast charging (zero to 60% in under 40 minutes), and there’s little else out there that comes close.

As with many other budget phones, there’s no NFC chip or fingerprint scanner, and if you want water-resistance, check out the Moto G instead.

Note the Zenfone 2 comes in different versions, but our pick is the Laser model. It’s an upgrade from the original, with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, plus a speedy laser-based autofocus system for the camera.


What We Like:

  • Dual SIM slots
  • Micro-SD storage
  • Good amount of RAM and storage
  • Good camera for a budget smartphone
  • LTE support
  • Fast charging
What We Don’t Like:

  • Battery life isn’t remarkable
  • Top-mounted power button is annoying, especially on a large device
  • A little bulky and heavy
  • Speakers won’t impress anyone

The Specs That Matter:

  • 5.5″ Full HD IPS display with Gorilla Glass 4
  • Intel Snapdragon 615 processor
  • 3GB RAM
  • 13MP rear camera, 5MP front camera
  • 3000 mAh battery
  • 32GB storage, with microSD slot
  • Dual SIM slots
  • Android 5.0


The Final Word

While all three of these phones are good options for travellers, the Asus Zenfone 2 Laser just takes the top spot for us. The extra memory and speedy camera are both features travellers will find useful, and it’s competitively priced for what it can do.

The Moto G remains an excellent choice, however. It’s a solid, well-performing phone, and the only one of our picks that can handle being caught in the rain or dropped in a puddle.

The Blu Life One X falls into the cheap and cheerful category, but does the basics well, at a highly-affordable price. If you’re on a very strict budget, this is the phone to get.

Note: This list only includes smartphones easily available for purchase in the US and Europe. 

So those are our budget smartphone picks towards the end of 2016. Do you think we left something out? Sound off in the comments!

Main image via Japanexperterna, other images via manufacturers

Think you can't get a decent smartphone for under $250? Think again. Any of these three devices will serve you well on the road, without breaking the bank.
About the Author

Dave Dean

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Founder and editor of Too Many Adapters, Dave has been a wanderer for nearly 20 years and a geek for even longer. When he's not playing with the latest tech toy or working out how to keep his phone charged for just a few more minutes, he can probably be found sitting in a broken down bus in some obscure corner of the planet.

Comments

  1. Moved to SEA last year and decided to buy my smartphone here. Thought prices would be much cheaper. Mistake. Prices and selection were better in the US (FYI that goes for ALL electronics). I couldn’t even find the Motorola I wanted in Thailand because Samsung Galaxy and iPhones are all the rage. The budget IQ smartphone I bought is OK (fairly weak reception and crashes), but at least it’s quad band so will work back in North America.

  2. The 1st edition of the Moto G had an LTE option. I travel with it and found it to be a great option from a budget perspective.

  3. Would seriously recommend looking at Oneplus X or Oneplus 1 phones & if wanting to get pricier, look at the Oneplus 2 (my own phone) & recently introduced Oneplus 3.

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