iPhone Traveler Pt. 5: Choosing the right iPhone case


Many people like to use the iPhone “naked,” and I can see why. It looks and feels great just as Apple designed it. That’s fine for daily out-and-about, but I always keep mine in a case while traveling. There’s a risk of it getting jostled around, handled at airport security, or dropped while you fumble with other things.

The type of case you choose depends on several factors. First, what types of conditions will your iPhone be subject to? Will others handle it? Are you likely to drain the battery?

I’ve listed several types of cases to meet all types of scenarios, from underwater to long hours of use. Some offer protection of the elements, some convenience and others will keep your iPhone’s battery going and going. Read on to find several types of iPhone cases.

Battery backups

juicepackSince I recommend that you use your iPhone extensively while traveling, I’ll start with battery backup cases. These add bulk and weight but also greatly extend your iPhone’s battery life. In my estimation, the trade-off is worth it. The best ones can be turned on and off, so you can control when you’re pulling on their reserve. Here are a few of my favorites.

Mophie Juice Pack
Cost: $99.95 (iPhone 5), $79.95 (iPhone 4, 4S)
Compatibility: iPhone 4/4S/5

I’ve been using the Mophie Juice Pack for years. It consists of two pieces that slide over your iPhone, as well as a USB charging cable. The cable is compatible with most computers’ USB port as well as the USB AC adapter that Apple sells for the iPhone.

The Juice Pack itself charges quickly when connected to a wall socket with the AC adapter. And, if you connect the Juice Pack to a wall outlet with your iPhone inside, both devices will be charged.
Four status lights on the bottom provide an indication of its remaining charge (one to four) and a switch on the lower left lets you turn it on when needed. I use the Juice Pack by turning it on once my iPhone’s battery has drained to 20%. That typically gets it back up to 80%, providing hours of additional use.

Third Rail TRIO
Cost: $89.99
Compatibility: iPhone 4/4S (iPhone 5 model is in development as of this writing)

The Third Rail system is unique in that the battery itself is removable, and snaps onto the back of the Third Rail iPhone case. The case itself is quite slim without the battery attached and less bulky than others with the battery in place. Each snap-on battery can be charged while on the case or on its own with the provided USB charging cable. What’s more, the battery can be used as a hub while it’s being charged itself, so connect one other USB-powered mobile device (like an iPod or another smartphone) and charge it up, too.

Finally, the batteries are swappable between Third Rail cases, so you can share them with a travel partner.

Fastmac iV
Cost: $79.95 − 99.99 (varies by model)
Compatibility: iPhone second generation, 3G, 3GS, 4 and 4S

The iV from Fastmac is a slide-in case with two unique features. First, it’s compatible with Apple’s iPhone dock, meaning you needn’t remove it to dock your iPhone. While docked, both the iV and iPhone are charged. It also features an LED flash which can be used as a flashlight or when taking photos (the original iPhone 3G and 3GS did not have a flash).

Wallet Style Cases

bbWallet style iPhone cases offer the convenience of carrying your phone, ID, cards etc. Together. Plus, many of them look great. While not always convenient for talking on the phone, wallet cases are a boon for those who want to pare down what they must carry to a minimum.

The obvious downside is that if you misplace it, you’ve lost the lot. So keep an eye on these cases if you use them. Here are several options to choose from.

BookBook by 12 South
Cost: $59.99
Compatibility: iPhone 4/4S/5

The BookBook by 12 South is very long on looks. Designed to resemble a leather-bound book (albeit a tiny one), the BookBook pulls off the illusion well. It feels nice, too, and is quite comfortable to hold.
Of course, it’s more than pretty. Two unique features enhance its usefulness. It stores your ID, cards and cash on the left and your iPhone on the right. There’s a special compartment for your ID which lets you slide it in and out with your thumb. It works well in my experience. Additionally, a “bookmark” on the right hand side lets the iPhone slide out of the case just enough to reveal the camera. So there’s no need to remove the iPhone entirely to take a photo.

Speaking of photos, there’s one minor hindrance that I must mention. When the phone has been adjusted to reveal the camera, a portion of the case obscures the screen. Not by much, but enough to annoy some users.

Little Black Book by Pad and Quill
Cost: $49.99
Compatibility: iPhone 4/4S

The Little Black Book is another good-looking case. Bound in bonded leather, it resembles a Moleskine brand notebook when closed. A birch wood frame holds your iPhone in place on the right, and a small cutout hole reveals the camera (but not the flash). A pocket on the left holds 2–3 cards. Finally, a clever “bookmark” lets you remove the iPhone easily.

The Little Black Book holds an iPhone very securely, as Pad and Quill have designed a very effective frame. All of your iPhone’s ports are accessible while in the Little Black Book, so you can connect it to a charging cable, insert headphones and so on.

Pocket iPhone Case by Hard Graft
Cost: About $86
Compatibility: iPhone 5

Unlike the BookBook and Little Black Book, the Pocket iPhone Case does not fold open and closed like a book. Instead, it features a pocket on the back side, which holds cash, cards and so on. Constructed of wool felt and leather, the iPhone Pocket Case fully encloses your iPhone. Like the others, it adds bulk and trades function for convenience.

Your iPhone’s screen is inaccessible while in the iPhone Pocket Case, as are the volume controls, mute switch and USB port. If you’re OK with keeping your iPhone in set-it-and-forget-it mode, the Pocket iPhone Case warrants your consideration. It’s quite good-looking and keeps everything tidy.

No. 50 Wallet by Griffin Technology
Cost: $80
Compatibility: iPhone 4, 4S and 3G

Here’s a wallet-style case that looks great. It’s made of leather and features three pockets: one for you iPhone and two others for credit or debit cards, cash and an ID. Like all wallet-style cases, I’ll say use them with caution. Yes, they look great and the convenience of having everything in one place is nice. Unfortunately, if you lose it, you’ve lost your iPhone, cash, cards and ID all at once.

Extreme Cases

lifeproofFor some of us, travel means adventure. Or at least, exposure to harsh conditions. I enjoy kayaking, and even though my kayak has a water-resistant compartment, I still hesitate to bring my iPhone along. Fortunately, there are several manufactures making extreme cases meant to survive contact with water, dirt, grime, and serious bumps and bruises.

Of course, there are other scenarios that benefit from a case like this, like a day at the beach, poolside at the hotel, or a day on the slopes. Even steady-handed hikers are opt to drop an iPhone. The following hardcore cases are for those who see vacations as anything but restful. Here’s a list of the top extreme iPhone cases.

LifeProof iPhone Case
Cost: $79.99
Compatibility: iPhone 4/4S/5

LifeProof bills its iPhone cases as being ready for “wherever you go.” The company is focused on cases that can survive water, snow, dirt and shock. In my experience, they work brilliantly. Each case is built to military specifications, meaning it will survive drops of 2 meters, submersion in water of up to 2 meters deep. Melting snow will not be wicked to your iPhone and the case is completely sealed against exposure to mud, sand, grit, dust, and lint.

I was able to drop one into a sink full of water where it sat for half an hour. I’ve also buried it in snow, tossed in sand and dropped it into a lake. My iPhone still works perfectly.

OtterBox Impact Case
Cost: $19.95
Compatibility: iPhone 4/4S

OtterBox is among the original extreme case manufacturers. Its Impact Case costs less than others but still offers the drop protection you expect. This two-part case snaps together and fully encases the iPhone (all ports and the screen are still accessible, however). Its designed with an inner core that disperses the force of an impact safely, allowing your iPhone to resist serious damage.
Note that the OtterBox Impact Case is not meant to protect against elements like water and dirt. This is strictly an impact case.

iPhone 5 owners will want to consider the iPhone 5 Armor case ($99.95). Billed as “the toughest case ever built,” the Armor case can withstand being submerged in 6.6 feet of water for 30 minutes, drops of up to 10 feet and two tons of crushing force. That is one badass case.

Griffin Survivor
Cost: $49.99
Compatibility: iPhone 4/4S/5

Griffin proudly refers to its Survivor case as “ridiculously over-engineered,” and with good reason. The bulky case is ready to protect your iPhone from just about anything it might encounter. Designed to meet the US Department of Defense Standard and UK Department of Defense Standard, the Griffin Survivor can handle water, dirt and drops without a problem. Like the other cases in this category, it adds weight and bulk, but it’s worth it to those whose phones might encounter potentially dangerous situations.

My main iPhone case doesn’t extend its battery life, protect against the elements or dramatic falls, or accommodate my credit cards. Those of you after simple protection should consider these options. I consider these every day iPhone cases, and they’re perfectly suited for travel, too. Here are three examples of simple and effective iPhone cases.

Everyday Cases

Bumper by Apple
Cost: $29
Compatibility: iPhone 4/4S

apple bumperApple’s Bumper case is a strip of rubber and plastic that encircles your iPhone’s edge. Compatible with all models of the iPhone 4/4S, the Bumper leaves the front of back of your iPhone exposed, though it offers just enough clearance to prevent either from touching most flat surfaces while lying down.
The Bumper offers mild shock protection (it will handle most drops from a moderate height but don’t put too much faith in it) I’ve used one for years and am quite happy with it.

There’s one word of warning regarding the Bumper. It adds a bit of height to the phone’s edge, and certain headphones cannot sit firmly in the audio port because of this. Make sure yours will if that’s important to you.

Cost: Starting at $14.95
Compatibility: All iPhone models up to the iPhone 5

The GelaSkin is a laminated vinyl decal that covers the back of your iPhone as well as front surfaces other than the screen. Most feature highly decorative artwork and you can even upload your own custom design. Note that the GelaSkin offers no protection against impact or the elements. Scratch protection — and a bold look — is about all you get. Of course, you can combine a GelaSkin with a Bumper for some added peace of mind.

Cost: Starting at $29.95
Compatibility: iPhone 4/4S/5

Speck makes a huge variety of iPhone cases, from simple to nearly environment-proof. My wife swears by Speck cases, for good reason. First, they snap on tightly and you feel that you can trust it. The rubberized edge produces enough friction against your skin to significantly reduce the chance of accidental drops. Finally, the come in nice-looking patterns that won’t embarrass you in front of co-workers.

So there you have it! Several choices for your various travel needs. If I could offer one suggestion, I’ll say get a battery case. They’re almost mandatory. Happy traveling!

This article is part of a series on traveling with your iPhone. You’ll find the other articles here.