Every year, smartphones get—well, smarter and smarter. Here, the most exciting new models for 2019, including a variety of price ranges and cool features that can make travel easier and more enriching.
From digital maps to translations to photography to reservations, smartphones have radically changed the way we travel. But when it comes to features, not all phones are created equal. Whether you’re ready to purchase a new device or simply need to swap out a SIM card when you arrive at your international destination, here’s a guide to the best features and phones to help you make the most of your next journey.
1. Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL
An unlocked phone (meaning it'll work with multiple service providers) with a cutting-edge camera and a built-in interpreter, the Pixel 3 is our overall pick for best smartphone for travelers. Though it's expensive, it’s actually only a few dollars more than the lowest priced iPhone (see below).
As smartphones have become ubiquitous, their technology has improved exponentially, and many travelers now opt for their phone’s camera over a stand-alone one. Google has built on that trend with top-notch, dynamic-range cameras. Here you’ll find an advanced 12.2-megapixel sensor on the rear camera, the main one used for your everyday photos and optical zoom, and two additional eight-megapixel front cameras for selfies, including one for wide-angle shots. Other camera features include a flash-free low-light mode called Night Sight,and a Top Shot mode that takes multiple pics around each shot, then automatically chooses the best one.
Another new Google-specific feature is the Google Assistant Interpreter Mode, which detects the language you’re speaking and translates it like a third-party interpreter. Also just announced is the AI-powered Duplex (available this summer), a chat agent that allows you to automatically book appointments or make reservations without making a call or opening an app. Finally, as an alternative to mainstream service providers, Google’s own Google Fi wireless service is a lower-cost alternative that includes free international roaming and hotspot capabilities. From $799; store.google.com
2. iPhone XR
The iPhone XR is Apple’s answer to a budget phone, at least compared to its flagship XS model, which starts at $999. With a larger, 6.1-inch screen and a choice of six groovy colors, it also offers Face ID for instant unlock and the longest battery life of any iPhone—a giant plus for any traveler.Though it’s not as comprehensive as the XS, the XR’s camera has one wide-angle 12-megapixel main camera with a portrait mode, resulting in excellent low-light pics and image stabilization for sharp, vibrant images and impressive details. What’s missing is a telephoto lens for optical zoom, so the magnification is less than perfect. It’s not completely waterproof, but the XR can take a good dunk in water and, in theory, its dual-SIM support plus eSIM capability allows you to add a local plan on the same phone when you’re overseas—though you’ll have to check with your national carrier to see if you can take advantage of this feature. From $749; apple.com.
3. OnePlus 6T
The OnePlus 6T may be the best phone you’ve never heard of. An under-the-radar indie favorite among those in the know, the 6T is a high-end smartphone with a bargain price tag. Sporting an expansive 6.4-inch high-resolution display and 128GB of storage, we also love the screen’s super-quick fingerprint scanner for easy unlock.The camera is not up to the Pixel 3’s standards, but considering the 6T is nearly half the price, we’re happy with the dual rear camera with 16-megapixel and 20-megapixel lenses and a 20-megapixel front-facing selfie lens. The night mode takes great low-light images, the optical zoom snaps realistic, magnified pictures, and a suite of pro options let you manipulate the shutter speed, ISO, and white balance.
Travelers will be pleased to know that a single charge gets you more than 10 hours of battery life. Another perk that’s supremely useful on the road is OxygenOS, a feature that automatically stops unused background apps, makes it less complicated to switch between your entertainment and business apps, and allows for speedier launch times for the apps you use the most.
Best of all, the dual-SIM support lets you keep your U.S. number and slip in an extra SIM card wherever you may roam.
4. Motorola Z3 Play
The Motorola Z3 Play is a thin, lightweight, well-built phone with a 6-inch screen encased in Gorilla Glass for durability, but the real draw here is the collection of Moto Mods, an assortment of customizable accessories that snap onto the back of your phone with integrated magnets. In addition to the included Moto Power Pack, which adds a whopping 40 hours of battery life, other mods can keep you organized, entertained, and even help you snap better photos. With a 12-megapixel main lens and a second 5-megapixel selfie lens, the Z3’s rear dual camera system isn’t hugely impressive in comparison with most midrange phones, but the camera-specific mods can take things up a notch. There’s the Hasselbad True Zoom with a 10x optical zoom and Xenon flash; the 360 Camera for 360-degree video, audio and images; and the Polaroid Insta-Share Printer, which also prints pics from social media. Our other favorite mods include the JBL Soundboost 2, a pint-sized boombox for watching movies, shows, and videos on the go, and the Moto Gamepad, which transforms your phone into a portable gaming device. From $400; motorola.com.
5. Alcatel 1X
If you’d rather save your cash for your next trip than blow it on a phone, check out Alcatel’s feature-rich, unlocked phone for less than $100. The 1X, crafted by TV-manufacturer TCL, has a 5.5-inch screen and boasts bright colors and decent viewing angles. It also comes with a higher-end fingerprint scanner and Face Key facial recognition technology for quick, easy unlocking. The dual rear camera has a 13-megapixel lens and a 2-megapixel lens, and though we wouldn’t suggest using this phone as your primary camera, it’s perfect for social media and can capture respectable portrait shots and selfies. Swipe either way on the viewfinder and you’ll be rewarded with a handful of controls, including a flash and a timer. The 1X comes with 16GB of storage, but we appreciate the microSD slot, which allows you to store up to 128GB of images, videos, podcasts, music, and more. From $95 at Best Buy, Amazon and Walmart; alcatelmobile.com.