My oldest daughter’s iPhone now lives in Iceland. Let me back up...

It’s our family’s habit to save up all our extra money and take a Big Trip every two years. Once it was Greece. Another time it was New Zealand and the Cook Islands. This year it was a swing through Germany and Switzerland. As an extra-added bonus, the cheapest airfares to Germany were via Icelandair—which offers a stopover in Iceland of up to seven days for no extra cost. This was a bonus too good to pass up.

So we began our trip in Iceland, and it was fantastic. We ate Icelandic cod (duh), drank Viking beer, and spent most of our time outdoors even though the temperature in July rarely gets above 50 degrees. The scenery was otherworldly and so varied it felt like visiting not one country but five.

However, since I write about parenting and technology not travel, I’ll skip ahead to the point of this post. My 12 and 14-year-old daughters both brought their smartphones along for the trip, with the idea that they could be used to record photos and short videos.

What not to do

We didn’t want to pay for an overseas data plan, so they’d have to wait until we encountered some free wi-fi before they could share their photos or check in with their friends. We warned them to leave the phones in airplane mode so they wouldn’t inadvertently rack up any data charges. We warned them not to stick the phone in a back pocket where it could be swiped by a talented pickpocket. We warned them to look up every once in a while, to make sure they were enjoying the trip and not just documenting it.

But four days into our Iceland experience, despite the warnings (or perhaps because of them… but I’ll get to that in a minute), my oldest daughter realized she couldn’t find her phone. I called the restaurant where we’d eaten lunch and the museum we’d most recently visited. My Icelandic is a little rusty but luckily most Icelanders speak English. No one had seen the phone.

The only other place it might have disappeared was a grocery store we stopped into on the way back to our rented bungalow. But the store was a chain, and there were lots of them scattered around. I wasn’t sure of the address or even the neighborhood of the one we’d visited, so I couldn’t find a phone number for it.

Find My iPhone

I tried using Find My iPhone to locate it—but since my daughter had followed the warning about unnecessary data charges, the phone was set to airplane mode. Find My iPhone requires either WiFi or Cellular connectivity to operate. Airplane mode shuts off both. Doh!

Now any number of things might have happened to the phone. It might have been deliberately stolen. It might have fallen behind something and won’t be discovered until the grocery store is renovated in late-2022. It might have been dropped in the parking lot and immediately run over.

We will never know, because two days later we packed our bags and headed off for our next destination—minus one well-loved iPhone.

My daughter took the loss pretty well, all things considered. We were traveling with friends so there was plenty of non-tech activity to keep her busy. And, like me, she probably assumed the phone would turn up somewhere, and a good Samaritan would contact us and mail it back.

When we got home, we realized that wasn’t going to happen. We would need to figure out what to do next. Should we replace her phone? Send her off to high school in the fall without one to make a point? Was there an in-between that would adequately convey the seriousness of a lost phone without over-penalizing an otherwise responsible teen?

We settled on a compromise option. There was a dated iPhone kicking around my desk drawer, the result of a recent upgrade. So we decided to let her use that one. She’d have to pay for a new case along with any charges incurred by transferring her account to the ‘new’ phone. We made it clear that this was her one-and-only “get out of jail free” card. If she loses another device, she’ll have to not only pay for a replacement but do all the legwork required to get it set up.

A new (old) phone

Once we got the new (old) device re-activated, the biggest hurdle was that she wasn’t sure she’d set the phone to back-up automatically. If there was a back-up somewhere, then all her contacts, photos, apps, and music could be easily reloaded onto her new (old) device. If not, the apps and music could be re-downloaded eventually, but her contacts and photos would be lost.

We got lucky here, at least. As soon as the new (old) device was reset to factory settings, a message popped up asking whether we wanted to restore the phone from the latest iCloud back-up—dated just a week before we left on our vacation. Within twenty minutes, my daughter was back to being a typical phone-carrying teen.

It was probably inevitable that with four kids we would eventually have to face the consequences of a lost device. To spare you some of the agony we went through in the process, here’s what we learned:

  • If you have an old device on-hand, it’s fairly easy to replace the SIM card and change that device so it works with your existing phone number. Though I'm sure different carriers have different policies, in our case it cost us nothing but a fifteen minute visit to the local AT&T store to get my daughter’s account back up and running on the new (old) iPhone.

  • Find My iPhone is only good if you've turned it on and you’re not in airplane mode. If I had it to do over again, I’d manually turn off cellular data for each app on the phone, while leaving the main Cellular setting turned on.

  • If you set it up before you leave the U.S., most carriers offer a month-long international wireless plan that won’t break the bank. I paid $40 (which was promptly discounted even more by the sales agent “because you’re a long-time customer”) for a plan that gave me access to multiple free WiFi hotspots and covered a small amount of data enough to navigate my way out of a couple of genuine travel emergencies like pulling up a bus schedule or figuring out whether to tip a waiter in Switzerland. It’s something to consider, since no matter what it costs it’s cheaper than replacing a lost phone.

  • Make sure your phone (and your kids’ phones) have an automatic back-up plan. The ending to this story wouldn’t have been such a happy one if there hadn’t been a recent back-up.

  • As a precaution, we had our daughter change passwords for her Apple ID and any other account she typically accessed from her phone.

I'm still not completely convinced the phone is gone forever. We activated Lost Mode on Find My iPhone as soon as we realized it was gone, so, in theory, if someone finds it and plugs it in they'll see a message on the home screen with our rescue phone number (my cell) and a note saying the phone has been lost. Newer iPhones have built-in security features that link devices to the owner's Apple ID. Without my daughter's Apple ID password, the phone itself is essentially useless.

NOTE: a tech-savvy friend who read an early draft of this post pointed me to the following excellent article—seems like it's typical for people who've lost phones to hold out hope that they'll turn up, and some canny criminals are trying to take advantage of that.

In the end, things worked out okay. The mistake didn't cost us much and my daughter ended up with a phone that was almost as good as new. Hopefully, she’s also better off for having learned an important lesson about keeping track of her devices...

Oh, who am I kidding?

This is just the first in what I assume will be a long string of lost phones, not just for her but for her siblings. I’m a pragmatist, so my goal is simply not to make the same set of mistakes twice. There are still dozens of new mistakes we’ll surely make along the way.

So if/when we get a call from Iceland telling us that the phone has been found, I know just what I'll do with it. Put it in my desk drawer for the inevitable day when my second-oldest daughter comes to me and says, "Mom. I lost my phone."

Here's a good article with more information on what happens when you lose your iPhone.

Have any good tips to share when it comes to lost phones? Send them my way: robin@rakkoon.com