Galaxy S7 in hotel room

For many travellers, their smartphone is the most useful, if not the only, electronic device they’ll carry. It can replace everything from flashlight to camera, guidebook to diary and more. It’ll also let you stay in touch with loved ones, book flights and accommodation, convert currency and deal with many other of the inevitable tasks that crop up on vacation.

There’s a huge difference between devices, however, and price isn’t always a guide to quality. The good news is, though, that no matter how much you have to spend, it’s possible to get a good smartphone to make your trip much easier and more enjoyable.

These are the best smartphones for travellers to buy in 2017, broken down by price range.

Note: all prices are for the outright purchase of an unlocked phone. This ensures you can use local SIM cards around the world for inexpensive calls, text and data. 

Best Budget Smartphone

If you’re after a new smartphone for your travels but don’t have a big budget, don’t despair. Budget phones have become a lot better in recent years, and you can now pick up a perfectly-good device for under $250. You won’t get top of the line specifications or amazing camera quality, but if you pick the right phone, it’ll serve you well for even extended trips.

Even at this lower price point, you shouldn’t accept anything less than 16GB of storage space, and more is much better. Battery life won’t necessarily be great, but a few budget phones do manage to last a full day. LTE isn’t always included, especially for regions outside wherever you purchase it. Bear that in mind if you really need super-fast cell data.

Motorola Moto G 5 Plus

Moto G4

In some ways, Motorola invented the “budget smartphones that don’t suck” category with the first version of the Moto G back in 2013. The company has been at the front of the pack ever since.

The fifth iteration doesn’t disappoint, at least if you buy the “Plus” version. It’s only slightly more than the standard model, with better specifications, and sports many of the same features you’ll find in phones costing far more. LTE support comes as standard, for at least for the region you purchased the device in.

There’s 2GB of RAM for snapper performance, dual SIM slots on the European model, and a fingerprint sensor for faster unlocking.

Camera

The Moto G 5 Plus comes with a 12MP camera that, while it won’t blow you away, is decent enough, and at least on par with everything else you find at this price point. Outdoor shots are detailed and have good colour accuracy, but it’s less impressive in low light. Still, the HDR mode fixes many exposure problems without making the picture look artificial, and it even does a decent job of macro shots.

Battery and Charging

Motorola claims the phone has “all-day battery,” whatever that means. Since the screen size actually dropped slightly from the previous model (5.2″ instead of 5.5″), you’ll get a little longer out of each charge. Unless you’re binge-watching TV shows or playing intensive games to while away a long layover, you shouldn’t have to look for a power socket until the end of all but the longest travel days.

If you do need to add more juice, the fast charging feature is a welcome addition. The included “TurboPower” charger adds up to six hours of use in just 15 minutes, via a standard micro-USB port.

Capacity and Durability

The phone comes in two capacities, 32GB and 64GB. The extra storage also comes with more RAM (4GB instead of 2GB), which will improve performance. It’s a reasonable upgrade, but since there’s a micro-SD slot that can take anything up to a 128GB card on both versions, you won’t run out of space either way.

Rarely found in a device this cheap, the phone is also water-resistant. Don’t plan to go swimming with it, but a bit of rain shouldn’t cause a problem. That’s very reassuring when you’re travelling.

Overall, there’s a lot to like about this device, especially given the price tag. If you want a decent smartphone but don’t want to drop a lot of cash to get it, the Moto G 5 Plus should be right at the top of your list.

Best Mid-Range Smartphone

With an increase in price comes an increase in expectations. Mid-range smartphones typically fall in the $250-$500 price range. For that kind of money, you should see a significant step up from even the best of the budget range.

Cameras need to take good photos, at least outdoors and preferably in more challenging conditions too. Storage space should be at least 32GB, ideally built into the phone. You need to be able to get a full day of moderate to heavy use from the phone, to deal with long travel days away from charging points.

OnePlus 5

OnePlus 5

While OnePlus is still a relatively recent entry to the smartphone market, it’s been making waves from day one by putting out high-spec phones at low-spec prices. That trend continues with the 5, which continues to offer exceptional performance at a noticeable discount.

Speed and Capacity

There’s no doubt about it, the specs of the OnePlus 5 are impressive. With a top-of-the-line Snapdragon 835 processor and either 6GB or 8GB of RAM, you get more raw power for your money than most phones priced far higher. Apps open in the blink of an eye, and the phone ranks near the top of benchmark tests.

There’s no microSD slot, but with 64GB of storage as standard, or 128GB on the higher-priced model, that’s hardly a glaring omission. This is one device that isn’t going to be obsolete a year after purchase, even for the most demanding users.

Camera

One of the biggest changes from the previous model is with the cameras, at least in terms of specs. There are now a pair of lenses on the back, a wide-angle 16MP/f1.7 version, and a 20MP telephoto lens beside it. In theory, this should give better photos in all kinds of situations, especially portrait shots.

In reality, though, you’re still not getting the same image quality as high-end devices like the Samsung Galaxy S8 (below), Google Pixel or Apple iPhone 7. The new ‘Portrait mode’ often doesn’t focus quite where you want it to, landscape shots aren’t always as crisp as you’d like them to be, and low-light shots can be surprisingly noisy. With better lighting comes better photos, but if you’re planning to use your phone as your only camera, you may want to pony up the cash for the Galaxy instead.

The front camera does redeem things a little — it’s also 16MP, and captures plenty of detail. If selfies or video calls are your thing, you’ll be happy with the results.

Battery and Charging

There’s a non-swappable 3300mAh battery built in, which is similar to most other phones this size. As a result, it ranks highly in battery rundown tests, and you’ll be able to get a full day’s use out of it unless you’ve got the screen on for hours.

OnePlus has duplicated much of the phone’s power management system in a special “Dash” charger. Why would it do such a thing? To move heat generation away from the phone itself, which means it stays cooler and can keep charging even under heavy use or in hot weather.

Depending on how you use and charge your phone, that may or may not be useful, but either way, it also means the phone can go from 0 to 60% in half an hour. Now even the tightest of layovers should give enough time to charge your phone for the rest of the day.

Like many other manufacturers, OnePlus has jumped from microUSB to USB-C, with the benefits and pitfalls that go with that. There’s no wireless charging, though.

Display, Size and Other Features

The OnePlus 5 has an attractive aluminium body, which looks good and lets it stand up to plenty of abuse. The only exception? There’s still no waterproofing, so keep the phone away from toilets and rain clouds.

Previous versions used to have a distinctive look and feel, but now, many people would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between this model and the latest iPhone. Whether that’s a good thing or not lies in the eye of the beholder, although like many other phones, the design looks a bit dated compared to the super-sleek ‘infinity’ display on the Samsung Galaxy S8.

Speaking of displays, the 5.5″ 1080p screen is unchanged from earlier models. It’s still perfectly acceptable, but given the high-end specs of everything else, it’s an unusual decision. On the upside, fewer pixels to push around means better life — for many travelers, that’s a trade-off worth making.

The fingerprint scanner is fast and reliable, and there’s also NFC if that’s something you care about. More importantly, the phone comes unlocked and has dual SIM slots. If you want to take advantage of the cheap rates of a local SIM card, while still keeping your home SIM in place to get texts from your bank (or your mum), you can.

All in all, this is a lot of phone for under $480. The price has risen slightly from earlier models, and a few compromises have been made, but other than the lackluster camera, there’s nothing that would stop people from buying. If you’re looking for an affordable smartphone that is super-fast, has loads of storage, with travel-friendly features like fast charging and dual SIMs, you’ve found it in the OnePlus 5.

Buy from OnePlus

Best High-End Smartphone

Once you’re paying over $500, you’re in the premium smartphone category. These devices need to have the sleekest designs, best cameras, and ample storage. They have to be fast and reliable, with plenty of useful extra features. Given how good cheaper phones have become, there needs to be a good reason to drop the cash for a high-end version.

In short, at the top end of town, you should be making very few, if any compromises.

Samsung Galaxy S8

Samsung Galaxy S8

Samsung’s Galaxy S8 is the latest, sexiest, and best, in a long line of premium devices from the South Korean manufacturer. With its curved ‘infinity’ display, it instantly made every other smartphone on the market look old and boring when it came out in April.

It’s not just good looks that make it stand out, though.

Speed and Capacity

Put simply, the Galaxy S8 is incredibly quick. With 4GB of RAM and a super-fast processor, it right near the top of the charts in both benchmark and real-world testing. You’ll never be waiting for it to load or switch between apps, and it handles the most demanding tasks easily.

The phone comes with 64GB of storage. It’s nice to see high-end devices come with extra space like this — if you’re paying this much for a smartphone, running out of room should be the last thing you need to worry about. Even better, there’s a micro-SD slot that can handle anything up to 256GB cards. If you’re using more than that, perhaps it’s time to store your entire movie collection somewhere else…

Camera

The Galaxy range has long had some of the best smartphone cameras, and the S8 is no exception. It’s fantastic for food, macro and low light shots, in a way that most phone cameras aren’t. Outdoor photos are very good as well, especially given the S8 has a wider-angle lens than most.

There’s great colour saturation and white balance in almost any conditions. Despite the rear camera having the same 12MP sensor as the previous model, the camera has a f1.7 lens and larger pixels than usual, so it’s rare to find conditions it can’t handle. The front camera has had an upgrade, though, now sporting 8MP and auto-focus.

Battery and Charging

The 3000mAh battery in the S8 is the same as the previous Galaxy S7, but the company says a new design will allow it to keep its capacity for much longer. That’s important — too many smartphone batteries are good when you first buy them, and terrible six months later. Of course, we’ll need to wait until the end of the year to know how much difference this actually makes in practice.

As you’d expect, the phone has a USB-C port, and supports fast charging. It uses the industry-standard Qualcomm Quickcharge approach, so as long as you’re using the included charger, even 30 minutes plugged into the wall will keep you going for several more hours. There’s wireless charging as well, although it’ll take longer to do its thing.

Display, Size and Other Features

That stunning ‘infinity’ display means many of the phone’s most noticeable features relate to its screen. It’s longer and narrower than most other phones, which means the standard diagonal size measurement (5.8″, in this case) doesn’t mean all that much. In real terms, the Galaxy S8 has basically the same dimensions as an iPhone 7, but with vastly more screen to play with.

That screen is simply stunning, by the way. It’s extremely sharp, with vibrant colours, and plenty of brightness for viewing in direct sunlight.

Despite its size, the Galaxy S8 is easier to use than you might expect. The narrower body, and curved edges, make it easier to hold than most other large smartphones, although there’s a bit of finger gymnastics required to pull down the notifications tab, or reliably hit the oddly-placed fingerprint sensor on the back.

Samsung decided to retain water and dust resistance for this model, which is very welcome for travellers. You can leave the S8 in up to five feet of water for half an hour and it’ll keep going strong. While I wouldn’t recommend testing those limits, you should have no problem with rain, water splashes, or your friend knocking a beer over it at the bar.

The Samsung Galaxy S8 is not a cheap phone. If money is no object and you’re not inclined to make compromises, however, it’s the best high-end Android smartphone you can buy right now.

All product images via respective manufacturers. Main image via Samsung.

Travelling in 2017 and need a new smartphone to do it with? These are your best options.

Comments

  1. Hi again. I’m going to make a purchase this year so I’ve been looking. Any thoughts about ASUS ZenFone, Xiaomi, other Samsungs ( A9 Pro is looking pretty good, as well as Note5), Huawei. I found something called Yu Yureko, a 6″ phone with specs, for $120 approx., with good reviews. I’m currently using a ZenPad 8 with double sim. It’s actually holdable as a phone,fits in my pocket, albeit a bit heavy and bulky. 8″ is a great all in one travel size. True 10″ better at home, a phone better on street, but hey, $220.

    1. Author

      I actually used to recommend one of the Zenfone phone models, and you wouldn’t go too far wrong with the higher-spec versions. I only include phones that are easily available for purchase in both the US and Europe, which unfortunately rules out many of the Chinese manufacturers.

  2. I have two unlocked iphones and am visiting Vietnam (Hanoi) in a little over a week…will these work if I walk into vinaphone and ask them to asctivate/purchase a sim? Is it the same price or more expensive to use an iphone?

  3. Hi, I’ve read there are issues with limited frequencies/bands on the oneplus 3, what do you think about that?

    1. Author

      It guess it depends on what you’re comparing it to. There are three models of OnePlus 3T (Europe/Asia, North America, and China), each with somewhat different LTE band support. This means you’ll typically get 3G coverage pretty much anywhere it’s available, and LTE mainly in that particular region. A region-specific approach is common from most manufacturers — Apple has four different versions of the iPhone 7, for instance, although its 1778 model has pretty wide-ranging global support.
      That said, all versions of the 3T definitely support fewer frequencies than (eg) high-end devices from Samsung and Apple, so you’ll be a little more restricted as to which countries and carriers you can get LTE speeds in. How much that matters is really an individual issue.
      As an example, the phone I use (currently a Nexus 5x) is the North American model, meaning I rarely get LTE coverage elsewhere in the world. Personally I’ve never found that to be a problem — 3G speeds are fast enough for me, and LTE burns through my data allowance and battery much faster, to the point where I usually turn it off even if it is available! If getting LTE speeds in as many places as possible is especially important to you, though, you may need to spend the extra money for a Samsung, Apple, or other phone with greater band support than the 3T.

  4. Hi Dave

    Do you think there’s any advantage to choose the S8+ over the S8, obviously apart from the bigger screen

    1. Author

      The only other reason is a bigger battery – it jumps from 3000mAh to 3500mAh. That’s nearly 20%, which is significant. Is that worth the extra cost and weight? For some people, maybe, but if you pack a portable battery anyway, probably not.

  5. Hello Dave,

    I am suffering from my iPhone 7 256GB heat and slowness specially Whatsapp and other apps. I’m too hungry photographer and my camera-roll is holding over 40K photos and videos BUT the free space is still over 100GB. I’m upset because the free space isn’t tight and iPhone performs slow! Is there a recommended smartphone that can handle my heavy use and photography media OR I just have to free up my iPhone as everyone recommends 🙁

    Thank you.

    1. Author

      If you’ve got 100GB of free space, that’s definitely not the issue. It’s likely either a problem with a particular app, or the phone itself. If it was me, I’d back everything up (and then double and triple-check I’d got everything!), then do a factory reset and only reinstall the apps I absolutely needed. I’ve done that on a couple of Android phones when they started showing similar symptoms, and it made a world of difference.

      If it doesn’t help, and the phone’s still under warranty, it’s time for a trip to an Apple store.

  6. Hi Dan,
    I need an unlocked smart phone for intermittent travel both in Europe and SEAsia. You have a Nexus5X. Why isn’t that a phone you recommend? I have been going to Asia for many years and for those many years Nexus was the phone of choice. I have a cheap model that I’ve brought with me when I go, but it’s not a smartphone.

    I hope you still get this, need your advice!

    1. Author

      Dan?

      I don’t recommend the Nexus 5x because it’s no longer a current model, and you can’t buy it (other than second hand, perhaps). Google has replaced the inexpensive Nexus brand entirely, now selling decent, but expensive, Pixel phones.

  7. Hi Dave,

    I came across your article as I was researching a smartphone that I can purchase in the US to give as a gift to someone in India. Costs aside my concern is the international warranty and the ease of connecting to the local carriers of Idea or BSNL. Any recommendations ?

    Yours
    Sruthi

    1. Author

      True international warranties on smartphones are hard to come by — even Apple doesn’t officially offer it on iPhones, although you can sometimes get a warranty repair/replacement overseas. Even major companies with a local presence often won’t honour the warranty if you’re in a different country — and especially, a different region of the world — to where the phone was purchased.

      The 4G/LTE cellular frequencies used in India are different to those in the US, which means that most phones purchased in North America won’t get 4G/LTE coverage in India. That said, any unlocked GSM phone (ie, one that would work on the AT&T or T-Mobile networks) bought in the US should get 3G data, and be able to be used for texting and calling, without a problem.

  8. Hey Dave,

    I’m interested in buying the new Blackberry KEYone, but since I travel a lot (Central/South America, Europe and Mediterranean, Asia, Australia), I was wondering if it would be a good phone for me. I use Verizon here in the US, so I would need the CDMA version of the phone, but I’m not sure if that version can be used outside of the US that easily. I currently have an iPhone 6 and it works and gets data coverage just about everywhere I’ve gone.

    Thanks,
    Gordon

    1. Author

      Hi Gordon,

      Since Verizon doesn’t sell the phone itself, and the CDMA variant is less common, it’s a bit tricky to get guaranteed information. That said, this page shows a model that supports CDMA, plus 14 LTE frequency bands, many of which are commonly used overseas. The Amazon listing for the CDMA version mentions the phone having a nano SIM.

      Combining those two pieces of information, plus the fact you’re presumably buying an ‘unlocked’ version of the phone (since Verizon doesn’t sell it directly), my guess would be that you’ll be able to put in a local SIM card, or roam with Verizon, and get connected overseas. This forum post and this Amazon question/answer also suggest that to be the case. I have to say, though, that none of this is confirmed — it’s a best-guess only!

  9. Hi Dave
    I am a tech dinosaur, still using my non smart phone – just for phone/texts.
    With two daughters overseas, and a trip overseas planned I need to be able to contact hotels, family etc.
    What do you recommend for very easy use, non expensive, sometime that will enable me to use wi fi so I can use whatsapp and facetime whilst overseas.

    Thanks so much Angela

    1. Author

      The Moto G5 Plus mentioned in this article is your best bet, since it does all the things you need, without making major compromises on things like speed, screen quality, camera etc. When switching to a smartphone, many people find that although they start out only wanting pretty basic functions (in your case, WhatsApp and Facetime), they start using their phone for more things once they’ve had it for a while.

      Things like maps, translation apps, and entertainment like music, podcasts, games, crosswords etc for long travel days, all become pretty useful, and the really cheap smartphones just can’t handle those things very well (not enough storage space, memory or speed), plus tend to have terrible cameras. You’ll be surprised what a different a decent camera makes on your smartphone — I rarely take my standalone camera on trips these days, as the one on my phone meets about 90% of my needs.

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