Smartphone in hand

The Best Budget Smartphones for Travel in 2018

In Phones by Dave DeanLeave a Comment

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Until a few years ago, we 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 to today, however, and it’s a very different story. Asian manufacturers, in particular, have been producing phones that provide most of the features a traveler needs for a relatively small amount of money.

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 up there with fancy flagship devices that cost three times as much, but for many travelers, they’ll be good enough.

For our purposes, a “budget smartphone” is one that costs under $300/£300, off-contract and unlocked for use with local SIM cards around the world. Some of these recommendations push right up against that limit, while others are a lot less. Most of them run Android, but there is one Apple option that just scrapes in under our price point if you look in the right place.

Best Overall: Motorola Moto G6

Motorola Moto G6 front and back

Motorola has been turning out good, reliable budget smartphones for several years, and the latest models in its Moto G series are no exception. There are a few different versions, but the best for most travelers is the Moto G6, and it’s our top pick as a result.

Unlike many lower-cost handsets, the G6 doesn’t look cheap, with an all-glass design that sets it apart at this end of the market. What’s inside is equally impressive, with a mid-range Snapdragon 450 chipset, 3GB of RAM, and 32GB of storage that’s upgradeable via the micro-SD slot. With specs like that, it’s not one of those budget devices that’s going to be obsolete in a year, especially since it’s running the latest version of Android.

It has fast USB-C charging to keep you topped up during a short layover, and a bright 5.7″ display that doesn’t feel enormous due to the 18:9 aspect ratio and small bezels. There are dual rear cameras, a fingerprint sensor on the front, and a feature you won’t find on many smartphones three times the price: a headphone jack. The bundled Moto Actions like shaking the phone twice to turn on the flashlight are also somewhat useful, rather than just pointless gimmicks.

So what’s not to love? Not much, really. It’s only splash-proof rather than having true water resistance, and the day-long lifespan of the 3000mAh battery is acceptable, not outstanding. The camera quality is better than most others in this price range for both stills and video, but is still unlikely to be a replacement for a dedicated camera for most travelers.

Those are the only shortfalls, though, in what is an excellent phone for the money. If you’re looking for an attractive budget smartphone with many of the features of a device costing far more, go for the Motorola Moto G6.

What We Like

  • Attractive design
  • Bright 18:9 display
  • Good performance for a budget phone
  • Micro-SD card for extra storage
  • Fast charging
  • Headphone jack
What We Don’t Like

  • Battery life and camera are ok, but don’t stand out
  • There’s no official dust or water resistance rating

Best for Long Battery Life: Asus Zenfone 4 Max

Asus Zenfone 4 Max

Let’s be honest, the Asus Zenfone 4 Max isn’t a very exciting phone. Chipset, memory, and storage specifications are all lower than the other devices on this list, and performance and usability suffer as a result. In 2018, a Snapdragon 425 processor, 2GB of RAM, and 16GB of storage doesn’t really cut it.

So why consider it? Three simple reasons: it’s cheap, the camera isn’t bad, and it lasts forever on a single charge. The 4100mAh battery, coupled with a low-resolution 5.5″ screen, means the phone lasts around two days of regular use before you need to find a charger.

The dual-camera setup is reasonable for the money, with the second sensor having a wide-angle lens for a bit of extra versatility. Throw in a range of shooting and enhancement options, and you’ll usually get usable photos, at least in good lighting. It’s certainly no worse than most other budget smartphones in this regard.

There are a few other things to like about the Zenfone 4 Max, too. Even the US model has dual-SIM support, which is great to see at this price, and the inclusion of a micro-SD slot goes some way towards making up for the insufficient onboard storage.

There’s fast charging and a fingerprint sensor, and you can even use that huge battery to power other USB devices directly from the phone via a cheap OTG cable (sold separately in North America, bundled elsewhere), which is useful in a pinch.

If low cost, long battery life, and a non-awful camera are your main criteria for buying a phone, you’ve found it here.

Note: you’ll sometimes see a version with the same chipset, but a 5000mAh battery, 3GB of RAM, and 32GB of storage, being sold for an extra $50 or so. If it’s available, spend the extra money — it’s well worth the upgrade!

What We Like

  • Long battery life
  • Low price
  • Micro-SD card for extra storage
  • Dual SIM support
  • Headphone jack
What We Don’t Like

  • Mediocre performance and insufficient storage on the standard model
  • There’s no official dust or water resistance rating

Best for Small Hands: Apple iPhone SE

Apple iPhone SE

The words “Apple” and “inexpensive smartphone” don’t typically go together, but there’s one slight exception to the rule: the iPhone SE.

While the design and specifications are looking dated in 2018 (there’s an update rumoured for later in the year), it’s a solid performer, and the only model that even comes close to being a budget option. Apple’s retail price still exceeds our threshold, but you’ll often find the base model under $300 on Amazon and other major retailers.

In a world where phone displays are growing ever-larger, the 4″ version on the SE looks positively tiny by comparison. What is a dealbreaker for some people is a selling point for others — it’s very light, fits into a pocket more easily, and those with small hands find it much more comfortable to use than devices with 5.5″ or 6″ screens.

You can’t directly compare specifications between Apple and other devices, so while the 2GB of RAM wouldn’t be enough on an Android phone, it’s enough to get good performance out of the SE. The A9 chipset, while getting a bit long in the tooth, is still fast enough to run the latest iOS 11 smoothly, and while the 1624mAh battery is puny compared to what’s in other phones, you’ll still typically get a day of light to moderate use out of it.

The camera was one of the strong suits of the SE when it launched. While the latest high-end iOS and Android devices take much better photos these days, the quality is still fine for most people. Both daytime and low-light performance is as good as most other budget handsets, although you’ll still probably want to travel with a dedicated camera as well.

Getting access to the Apple iOS app store is an advantage, too — while there’s not as much difference as there used to be, there’s still arguably a better range, and higher quality, of apps there than on the Android store. As with other Apple devices, though, if you’re looking for things like dual SIM support or micro-SD slots, you’re out of luck. At least there’s a headphone jack!

All in all, if you’re looking for a small phone, or really want to use iOS on a budget, the iPhone SE is your best option. It’s worth getting a model with at least 32GB of storage, since that’s really the minimum useful amount these days, especially on a phone like this where you can’t add more later.

What We Like

  • Small and light
  • Access to the Apple app store
  • Headphone jack
What We Don’t Like

  • Dated specifications
  • Battery life is a day at best
  • There’s no dust or water resistance

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Best Value for Money: Honor 7X / Huawei Mate SE

Honor 7x

In the last couple of years, Honor has started making inroads outside its home market of China, and that’s no surprise. You can get an awful lot of phone for not much money when you buy one of the company’s devices, with the best option for travelers being the Honor 7x.

With a slimline, all-metal design, it’s particularly attractive, especially for such a low-cost device. The nearly-6″ display is colorful and vibrant, and while it’s a big phone, the tall 18:9 aspect ratio and tiny bezels make it easier to hold than you might expect. There’s also a fingerprint sensor on the back.

The Kirin 659 chipset is a decent mid-range performer, and depending on where you buy the device, you’ll get either 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage (the Americas), or 4GB/64GB (elsewhere). There’s a micro-SD slot for adding extra storage, plus dual-SIM capability, so you can use a local SIM to bring costs down overseas, while keeping your home SIM installed to receive texts and calls if needed.

Charging is done via a dated micro-USB port, although given how many other travel gadgets still use that type of cable, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There’s also a headphone socket, which we always like to see. The cameras on both front and back do a decent job in good lighting, but as with many budget phones, noticeably struggle in dim conditions.

Speaking of battery life, the 3340mAh battery typically powers the Honor 7x for about a day, but not much longer. Disappointingly, there’s no fast charging — that’s a useful feature for travelers, and one that some other budget phone makers have managed to include.

In an odd move, Huawei (Honor’s parent company) released a slightly different version of the same phone in the US, and called it the Huawei Mate SE. It’s typically about $50 more expensive than the Honor 7X, and the only difference is the 4GB/64GB configuration that comes standard elsewhere in the world. It’s worth the upgrade cost for most travelers.

What We Like

  • Attractive design
  • Value for money
  • Vibrant 18:9 display
  • Dual-SIM, even in the US model
  • Micro-SD card for extra storage
  • Headphone jack
What We Don’t Like

  • Battery life is only ok
  • There’s no dust or water resistance
  • The camera is only really any use in good lighting

Best for Longevity: Nokia 6.1

Nokia 6.1 front and back

Remember Nokia? Just when you thought it was dead and buried, the brand was bought by hardware company HMD, and started releasing a range of surprisingly-good budget smartphones with numerical names. The best of them is the Nokia 6.1, which combines useful specifications and solid hardware with Google’s Android One program that promises ongoing system and security updates for at least two years.

Built from a single block of aluminium, it manages to stand out from the crowd in a way that most budget smartphones don’t. It should be a bit more durable than those with plastic or glass backs, too, but the lack of any kind of water resistance is a definite downside. There’s a headphone jack (yay!) and a USB-C port for fast charging — you’ll get back up to around 50% in an hour.

The standard specifications are about what you’d expect from a good low to mid-range phone in 2018, although again they vary depending on where you are in the world. While both models ship with a Snapdragon 630 chipset, the North American version has 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, while other markets will get 4GB/64GB instead. Either way, there’s also a micro-SD slot for extra storage, which doubles as a second SIM slot.

The 3000mAh battery will get you to the end of an average day, but no further — it’d be nice if it lasted longer, but is no worse than many other similar devices. The bright 5.5″ HD screen has good colour accuracy, and there’s a fingerprint sensor on the back.

There’s only a single rear camera, and as is so often the case with budget devices, both front and back cameras take good shots in good light, but noticeably less so at other times. The camera app can also be a bit slow to focus and unreliable. Given Sony’s long-standing focus on photography, that’s all a bit frustrating.

Still, for under $300 you’re getting an attractive, durable, and useful phone, with extras like dual SIM support. Solid specs and two years of security and system updates meam it won’t be out of date any time soon, which is impressive for a budget device. All in all, you could do an awful lot worse than taking a Nokia 6.1 on your travels.

What We Like

  • Distinctive and durable design
  • Micro-SD card for extra storage
  • Fast charging
  • Headphone jack
  • Dual-SIM, even in the US model
  • Android One means guaranteed updates for two years
What We Don’t Like

  • Battery life could be better
  • Camera should perform better than it does in low or very bright light
  • There’s no official dust or water resistance rating

Images via Japanexperterna, Motorola, Asus, Apple, Honor, Nokia.

About the Author

Dave Dean

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Founder and editor of Too Many Adapters, Dave has been a traveler for 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.

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