UK Travel Tips: Giffgaff for Cellular and Apple Pay for Transit

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Planning a trip to the UK? After a family vacation there, Adam Engst has some advice for international travellers looking for an inexpensive way to get cellular data for their iPhones. He also suggests using Apple Pay for public transportation in London and recommends an inexpensive power adapter for charging devices.

  • Use the same device each time.

Also, use the same payment card each time! If you switch among payment cards and you don’t use the same card across a day (or week), you don’t get the benefit of the automatic Transport for London caps. While you can get this with an Oyster Card, too, you don’t have to worry about it with the Oyster Card as long as you use the same one.

Another tip: Tristan has aged out of this, but TfL has a variety of confusing discounts for anyone under 17 as of August 31 on a given year. (That is, if you turned 18 on September, you can still qualify as 17 until your next birthday.)

I did a lot of research, as it’s geared for Londoners, but finally figured out that for a short trip, it’s optimal to get a Visitor Oyster Card (which TfL will ship to you in advance), and then on arrival at any Tube stop with a counter (and other locations as well), you can have the card converted to an 11-15 Youth Card for 14 days. Kids under 11 ride free on a lot of transport, and 16 & 17 y.o.'s have what I found to be more confusing options. We’ll be in London for 10 days soon, so that’s the option we chose. For longer visitors, kids can get photo ID cards, which can be applied for online and in advance, and then picked up on arrival at a place you choose from a number of locations.

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Bonus for T-Mobile customers: Using the standard T-Mobile One and Simple Choice North America plans allow for:

  • Unlimited Data
  • Unlimited Text
  • Phone calls at 20 cents per minute

This is simply part of the plan, and involves no extra cost or activation.

We used this in Israel, and it was cheaper than buying a SIM and much easier than trying to set up my phone and my Apple account to use a new phone number. You can’t beat practically free.

Not all countries are included, and some countries have limited areas where this works. You can check the T-Mobile Website for information on a particular country.

If you have voIP home service, you can see if there’s an iPhone app that will allow you to use your home phone number. I was able to answer my phone while in Israel. You can also see if your service will allow you to buy a local number in the country where you’re visiting. The only issue we had was that someone in Israel calling me in Israel was charged for an International call to the U.S. The next time we go, I’ll get an Israeli number from my home service provider for $5 per month.

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A few comments:

  1. If you are an AT&T unlimited data and call plan and taking a short trip, you should be able to still use all your devices for $10/day. The trick is to enable the plan for only your phone and use it as a hotspot for your other devices.

  2. If you data limited by your cell plan and using your phone for navigation, consider downloading Google Maps for the area in which you are traveling in advance (or when you have a WiFi connection) and turning off Google Map cell access. You won’t get traffic updates, but you should still get decent directions. When I have had limits, I kept a list of apps on Notes where I had pulled cell access. This also became a great checklist for future trips.

  3. I have found a paper clip (or at least ones I have tried) to be unreliable SIM removal tools. They have tended to bend before I could apply sufficient force to push the unlock pin. I was pleasantly surprised that the kit Apple provided for returning a phone as part of the iPhone Upgrade Program provided a SIM tool which provides a better grip and resists bending.

  4. Not being a contact lens users, I have used SD card cases in which the card is initially sold for storing extra SIMs. I include a scrap of paper with a note about the SIM. The SIM removal tool also fits there.

  5. For plug conversion, I have been using a Powercube adapter and bringing the US and appropriate foreign adapter inserts in my carryon bag. In my luggage, I also carry a 6-outlet Anker USB charger with a detachable power cord. One problem that plug adapters pose is that anything heavy plugged into them will tend to pull the plug out of the outlet. That is why I like the corded USB adapter, even though the cord is only more item to pack (I keep it with the adapter in a plastic bag). Ideally, I’d like to use a US plug travel power strip plugged into the adapter, but most of them are not certified for 240 volts. I’ve had a hotel room circuit breaker trigger when plugging one in that wasn’t so certified.

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Excellent advice, David. I used this on various trips to Europe and it worked very well. When I actually made calls I usually used FaceTime audio anyway, so I only ended up paying very little for the few cases where somebody called me on my US phone number.

That said, never try the reverse. Without their international calls add-on ($20/month I believe) calling to Europe is ridiculous, like $3/min. It reminded me of the early 80s when you’d call Europe through an operator and then get billed about a day’s wage for a 10-min call. ;)

One more piece of advice for international travelers with Apple gear. If you have any Apple charger (except the compact 5W iPhone charger), you don’t need to fuss around with adapters (although the one Adam shows with built-in USB ports seems nice). All you need is a two-pronged power cord for about $5 on Amazon. This one here’s obviously for the US, but they have the same for Europe, the UK, and Australia. One thing I like about that is it works really well in hotels where there’s sometime not a lot of outlets and the few there are often don’t make it easy to reliably insert a big bulky converter. Plus, there’s no ground pin which makes finding the right outlet a lot easier.

Added bonus, this kind of cord will also usually work on all aircraft. Some of the outlets there, especially the smaller ones between economy seats won’t allow inserting a bulky adapter. And many aren’t compatible with ground pins. The cord works just fine though. If your cord has a 2-prong US (sometimes also EU) plug you should be good to go on pretty much any Airbus/Boeing with in-seat power.

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Good article Adam. Having been there twice on long rural vacations 5 and 9 years ago, I wish I’d had this article then. Apple maps was vital.

Look right, drive left, and stop when in doubt at busy roundabouts. :slight_smile:

You don’t need a special visitor card - any Oyster Card can be converted into an 11-15 Youth Card at a train station (or other places).

Also, you can, I believe, get the card to refund you all the remaining balance on it at a Pay Station. In the end we didn’t do this and will just ship our Oyster Cards back to our friends in England to use up, but it does mean if you double check that that you can dump a lot of cash into the card and not have to keep topping it up every few days or worry that you will lose all the money trapped in the card.


I don’t understand why a company which prides itself on being reasonable and simple charges so dang much for international calls. Is it really that big a profit center? So big that it’s worth antagonizing your customers.

I use my voip service from my iPhone to make these calls. They bill me 2¢ per minute (to land lines) with an hours worth of free calls. Due to Europeans rules, cell phones are around 10¢ to 15¢ per minute.

Adam - Lots of useful information in your article. Thanks. I’m headed to the UK in a few weeks and wish you’d published this a few weeks ago, before I went SIM-shopping.

Another good choice for UK (and Euro) travellers is a SIM from Three. It’s an odd name for a wireless company, but it’s part of Hutchison, a major international telecom based in Hong Kong. Three has a £15 ‘Feel at Home’ bundle (they call it an “add-on”) which gets 5GB of data, 3000 minutes and 3000 texts. The bundle is good for data/calls/texts in the UK and anywhere in the EU. Calls from the UK back home (in my case, to Canada) are a mere 1p per minute! Calls to USA are 3p/min.

My plan for upcoming trip is a Three SIM (free) with £20 on it: £15 for the bundle with £5 left over for pay-as-you-go calls to NA.

Based on discussion with a UK native last night, I can confirm what peternlewis posted about the Oyster card. A regular Oyster can be ‘cashed-in’ prior to departure from the UK. A Pay Station machine will refund the balance still on the card (up to £10) plus the £5 deposit paid for the card.


Yes, but! I didn’t want to have to fuss with both buying two Oysters Cards and getting them converted to Youth. I figured having the Visitor card on hand when we arrive means if we’re too knackered to deal with it, we just get on the trains and cope the next day.

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I emailed Giffgaff about obtaining multiple SIMs at once and a pooled plan, and they don’t offer that—it’s one account per card, one plan per card. Which makes sense given their model, and it is cheap.

However, I have a Tesco SIM from my last trip that included the card, 2 GB of data, several hundred minutes of calls and texts, and just £10 ($13.35 at today’s exchange rates). That compares to £18 for the Giffgaff 9 GB plan + lots of calls/minutes.

I used only 1.5 GB with heavy photography and map use over 7 days in London late last fall, and we are staying in a home with Wi-Fi, so I think I may opt for saving ~$40. We’ll see if I come out ahead!

Absolutely, if you can manage it beforehand, it is well worth doing.

Speaking of Tesco, if you are planing on driving around England looking at the sites, then I have three more tips:

  • Get an English Heritage Overseas Visitor Pass. You can buy them when you enter the first English Heritage location (for us, it was Stone Henge), and then you have free entry in to all the other English Heritage sites. We must have visited about 20 over the 9 days we were driving around England.
  • If you’re going to do the above, spend some time looking at possibilities beforehand, because the English Heritage sucks rocks and is particularly painful to use on a mobile. Also, use the Wikipedia page List of English Heritage properties as much or more than the site. Our favourite places included: Stone Henge, Goodrich Castle, Kenilworth Castle, Bolsover Castle, and Brodsworth Hall and Gardens, but there were many many more.
  • If you are driving around England, staying in B&Bs, then a visit to Tesco in the morning to grab a Sandwich/Drink/Snack £3 meal-deal can save you a lot on lunch time cafe visits, as well as a lot of time looking for places to eat when you could be reading about what happened in 1266.
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FWIW this trick will also work in Scotland, Wales & N Ireland :slight_smile: Other supermarkets are available…

Note that Scotland has a separate National Heritage and National Trust so you although membership will get you into the other ones’ properties season passes are unlikely to.



Another +1 for the 3 SIMs for your phone. Unlimited data, tons of minutes and texts and roaming in the EU. At least until Brexit hits, still unclear what happens after that. American visitors, long used to barriers and lousy deals from US carriers, might find it difficult to accept how easy it is to pop into an EU store and pick up a SIM. They are on every high street and will swap it out for you. As long as your phone is unlocked of course…

I have been travelling with a Satechi travel adapter for several years. It has multiple plugs, usb-charging plus becomes a wifi station if your hotel has an ethernet outlet (which I believe is more secure than most hotel wifis).

I also have an Apple SIM for my iPad Air2 and subscribe to Gigsky data service for most countries/regions that I visit. It is not the best value data service but is reliable and saves having to preorder SIMs or queue up at airport arrivals. It allows hotspotting so our family can connect their iOS devices at any time they are nearby
Finally, does anyone know if the Apple Watch S3 works with London Transport (using Applepay).

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I live in Stratford-upon-Avon about 15 minutes walk from the RSC. The first email I got after buying my first Mac, an LC I think, and connecting to the web was from Adam when I signed up to Tidbits many years ago. To think the great man was just a few minutes away. I’d have bought you a pint in the Dirty Duck if I’d known. Stratford has over 3 million tourists a year and on public holidays the traffic in this small town is gridlocked. I always use Apple Pay on the tube in London. It’s the most effective way to travel. I try not to take my car there if I can help it.

Thanks for running this down, Glenn! Our friends did have kids in that age range, and I think they were generally using the Visitor Oyster Card approach too. I’ll work that in briefly.

Seriously! I love the roundabouts, but the first few times through are scary. I also really like how London tends to write “Look Right” or “Look Left” or “Look Both Ways” on the ground at pedestrian crossings.

Giffgaff’s £10 plan is unlimited minutes and texts and 3 GB of data, which seems pretty hard to beat.

Oh man, I’m sorry we didn’t know! You should connect with Kirk McElhearn sometime since he’s just a few miles away.

Oh, that’s weird: I didn’t notice a more plans option, and only saw three options on the main page. Great tip!!