Roaming fees have become a four letter word in the world of travel. Too many otherwise savvy globe-trotters have been shocked by the charges racked up after using their phones while overseas. Thankfully, there are ways to get around those outrageous fees and still stay connected. These simple tips can help rein in unnecessary roaming charges and leave money in your pocket for a few extra nights on the town.
Keep mobile data usage in check
The bulk of roaming sticker shock comes from high data charges. With fees that vary wildly depending on which country you are in, it can be incredibly difficult to keep track of your spending. In some case, charges can go as high as a whopping $10 USD per MB of data. To put that in perspective, 1MB data would only allow you to read about 10 emails or view 5 web pages. Imagine having to pay $1 for every piece of spam that ends up in your junk folder!
With reports indicating that average monthly data use in America is now close to 2GB (2000 MB), there is huge value in drastically reducing data usage while roaming. Whenever possible, it is best to just turn cellular off and use WiFi where available. This will not only keep you from racking up charges for scrolling through Instagram pics; it will also protect you from the large amount of data that can be used up in the background as your phone continually updates, receives messages and does automatic checks. Keeping this function switched off will enable you to have full control of what you pay for and what you don’t.
With just a little planning, minimizing data need not come at the expense of convenience. Several apps come equipped with functionality that can be used when offline. Emails, once downloaded over WiFi, will remain accessible when you hit the road. Google Maps allows you to download cities of interest so that you have access to directions even with data disabled. Full instructions can be found at Google’s support website: How to access Google Maps Offline. Once you have downloaded a map for offline use, put your phone in airplane mode and check to make sure it’s been downloaded correctly and works well with data switched off.
Hot Tip: Google recently released Google Trips which not only allows you to manage your full (itinerary flight, car rental, airbnb, local attractions), but they make it dead simple to download the data for offline use (including map data).
WiFi is your friend...but be careful out there
The usefulness of WiFi in these situations cannot be over-emphasized. With one report indicating over 500% growth in hotspots globally since 2013, many countries have sufficient penetration for you to be able to move from location to location and find WiFi at least a few times for the day.
Apps like Skype, Whatsapp, Duo & Viber are well worth checking out, not only are they great for messaging, but their voice and video calling features often work so well over WiFi that you don’t miss traditional phone calling at all.
Hot Tip: You can use an app like WiFi Map to help find hotspots in your area when traveling.
Though WiFi is convenient, it is important to highlight that those same hotspots can pose some risks. Public WiFi networks, like those found in coffee shops and restaurants often provide very little security and in some instances can be maliciously modified to steal personal information. When using WiFi in a public area:
If you are instructed to install something in order to use a WiFi network, don’t!
You should never install any kind of app or certificate from a WiFi network provider. If that is a requirement then just don’t use the network. Otherwise they may be able to intercept, read and modify your communications even when you think you are accessing secure websites. This would affect not only the websites that you visit while on the network, but all the apps running in the background on your phone like Facebook, Gmail and Uber, which could potentially allow them to impersonate you on those apps.
Make sure that your connections are secure
Pay attentions to any security errors or warnings that you get while browsing the web over a public network. Any warnings about a problem with an SSL certificate being invalid is a strong indications that something is not right and your communications may be compromised. Pay attention to those warnings and don’t use any sites or apps that show them.
Be on the lookout
Although many high tech techniques exist. There are instances where important data is stolen just by peering at your computer screen. Check out your surroundings before sitting down and try to get a seat where a view of your screen is limited.
With those safety measures in place, you should be able to surf happily as you move from hotspot to hotspot!
Go Local (SIM)
While roaming rates can be astronomical, local phone rates are often extremely competitive and favorable. Cell phone unlocking has become an increasingly popular (and simple) solution for the savvy traveler. Once you unlock your cell phone, you can easily purchase and use a local sim with prepaid minutes. This allows for access to lower rates and pre-paid cards ensure no unexpected charges.
Unlocking also allows you to keep your phone (with all your contacts and info) rather than going through the pain of buying a temporary local phone in each country visited.
Although there has been some amount of confusion in the past, recent legislation has ensured that cell-phone unlocking is completely legal. This makes it one of the best alternatives for a traveler looking to minimize costs in a simple and safe way.
Hot Tip: GetUnlocked.com can help you unlock your phone :)
While the standard fees for roaming can be mind-boggling, there are some carriers that are starting to offer some more competitive plans specifically targeted at travelers. These packages often let you determine how much you want to pay in advance and identify the bundle that meets your needs. Some are data only while some include talk minutes as well.
The key is to check around well in advance of your trip to make sure you are eligible and have done everything necessary for signup. It is also important to check what happens once your package is up. Some packages will automatically cut-off data and mobile once the bundle is used up. This allows for optimal control but may be frustrating if you are caught off-guard. Other packages will automatically switch back to standard roaming charges which can lead back to the unexpected charges you were hoping to avoid. Be sure to make your wishes clear and confirm that it is possible with the package you are choosing.
If you are using a bundle, it is recommended to use your phone settings to track your data and mobile usage and provide warnings and specific usage levels.
Project Fi (by Google)
Project Fi is an innovative and affordable wireless service from Google, but it comes with one very big caveat that must be mentioned right off the bat. The service can only be used with an officially supported phone and at present (December 2016) that list only includes 5 phones: the Pixel XL, Pixel, Nexus 6P, Nexus 5X, and Nexus 6. If you already have one of those phones or you are willing to upgrade to one of them then this option might be right for you.
Project Fi is Google’s attempt to create a fast, reliable, affordable wireless service. It automatically makes use of a combination of different carrier’s networks and WiFi to give you the best service possible wherever you are. It also has a very easy to understand monthly plan: $20 for unlimited calls and texts, and $10 for every GB of data that you use.
Project Fi is not specifically designed for roaming, but the roaming features are so impressive that it may be worth it to sign up just for a month while you travel and then decide if you still want to cancel (or put it on hold) when you return. There are no long term contracts, cancellation fees or early termination fees.
Here is what Project Fi offers to travellers when visiting any of the over 135+ supported countries
- Data: Project Fi offers high speed data for the same $10/GB that you pay in the U.S.
- Texts: Unlimited international texts are free whether you are home or abroad.
- Calls (WiFi): If you are connected to a Wi-Fi network
- All incoming calls are free
- Calls to US and Canadian numbers are free
- Per-minute costs for calls to other countries vary based on which country you're calling.
- Calls (Cell network): If you're using cell coverage, all calls cost 20¢ per minute.
The best thing about Project Fi is that the plans are reasonable and easy to understand and the rates are consistent across countries. You can also keep your existing phone number and make use of WiFi to make and receive free calls from back home.
Staying fully connected while traveling is no walk in the park, but we hope our helpful hints will make it just a little bit easier to enjoy your vacation without having yet another thing to worry about when you get back home.