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Travel without “roaming”

girl under umbrella using laptop on the beach

© Ximagination | Dreamstime.com

How to beat international roaming charges — or at least keep them at bay — when you use your smartphone while traveling.

♫ Oh, give me a phone
with a plan that won’t roam,
and a bill that won’t blow me away…♫

Back in 2011, a Michigan man named Jeff Gardner spent four days in Jamaica. While there, he used his cellphone sparingly and tried unsuccessfully to send emails via his laptop.

When he returned home, Verizon Wireless was waiting for him — with a bill for $11,000.

Another guy in 2010 downloaded a movie for his nephew in Mexico using his data card. His bill: $62,000.

Not everyone gets this kind of cellphone sticker shock, but cellphone horror stories from international travelers are frightfully common.

Smartphones make it easy to communicate by voice, send/receive text messages or email, even access the Web in the palm of your hand from anywhere in the world. But cellphone service providers bill you as if you were calling Mars or sending data to Saturn.

The magic word is “roaming,” and the moment you see it at the top of your cellphone, be afraid.

Actually, be terrified. When international roaming rates kick in, it doesn’t take much — or long — to send your bill into orbit.

At rates approaching $3 a minute, international roaming rates for voice calls are bad enough. International roaming charges to send or receive data are much, much worse.

On Verizon, for instance, sending 1 megabyte of data via your cellphone, laptop or tablet could cost you more than $20.

Another thing: With smartphones like the iPhone, the Internet is always on. Those little push notifications and automatic updates that you take for granted at home can do a number on your checkbook abroad.

Your cellphone basically is a radio with extremely short range. It moves between lots of cell towers — often less than a mile apart — until it gets where it’s going.

When you try to use your phone outside your provider’s service area, the provider has to bounce your signal off some other company’s towers to complete your call. That’s roaming, and you don’t have to be out of the country for it to happen.

The difference is in how it’s billed.

If your signal roams domestically, it’s usually treated as a regular domestic call, with minutes deducted according to your calling plan. International roaming is billed separately, and almost always at rates high enough to spike your blood pressure.

If Willie Sutton were alive today, he’d probably own a cellphone company. The gun-waving thug in the 7-Eleven is a chump compared to a cell service provider armed with roaming fees.

I’ll say it plain: Roaming charges are a rip-off, straight-up robbery on a global scale. But you already know that.

The good news is, you’ve got options.

First, let’s look at the things you can do that won’t cost you anything.

  1. Turn off, tune out, shut down.
    Do you really need to be connected to home every minute of every day while you’re away? If the answer is “no” — and for most of us, if we’re honest, it probably is — then your salvation is as simple as shutting off your phone completely. You may end up saving both money and battery power.

    At the very least, turn off anything involving roaming. Remember all those push notifications? If you have an iPhone, turn your Notification Center OFF. If you have an Android phone with Auto-Synch, turn that OFF.

    My standard rule when it comes to roaming: When in doubt, turn EVERYTHING off.

  2. Airplane à la Mode.
    If there are games or other non-phone/non-Internet apps in your phone you’d like to use, switch your phone to Airplane Mode and leave it there. That will prevent you from being hit with roaming charges while you’re traveling, including turning off that 24/7 Internet access which is the default setting on most smartphones. Which brings us to…
  3. Know Your Phone
    Do you know how to turn international roaming on and off? How to turn wifi on and off? For that matter, how to turn Airplane Mode on and off? If the only thing you know how to do with your phone is make calls, take pictures and download apps, you’re in trouble.

    Knowing how your phone works is critical to controlling costs. Study your owner’s manual. Stop by your cell service provider and ask questions. Find online tutorials for your phone. If all else fails, ask a teenager.

    Do whatever it takes, but learn your device, before you get schooled — and maybe bankrupted — by it.

  4. Vox über Internet
    The actual term is Voice over Internet Protocol or VoIP. These let you make voice calls, send texts or even video messages worldwide…free. The catch: Your calls are free only between people using the same VoIP service.

    Vonage is one example of a VoIP service. Even better known is Skype. There are many others. Find the one that suits you best.

  5. Why roam when you can wifi?
    One of the most familiar options for beating roaming charges, and a good one, is to turn off roaming altogether and limit yourself to wifi. It won’t let you make voice calls, but you can use it to check email or use the Web without roaming charges.

    But wifi presents its own challenges.

    The first trick is finding wifi you can use for free. Most likely, that will be in some public place. The more popular that spot is, the slower the wifi is likely to be. You also have security issues when using public wifi.

    Another option is to rent your own local wifi hotspot, sometimes called MiFi or a “wifi bubble.” The data rates you pay are $10 or $12 a day and there are other charges as well, but all told, still a lot cheaper than roaming.

There are other options that cost money, but nowhere near the cost of swallowing roaming charges.

  1. SIM cards
    If your cellphone allows you to swap out SIM cards at will, you can buy a prepaid card in your international destination that gives local access to cell service at local rates, complete with your own local phone number and no roaming.

    In most of the world, SIM cards are incredibly cheap and just as easy. Cellphone stores sell them. Newsstands and corner grocery stores sell them. In many developing countries, hawkers sell them on the street.

    Or you can buy a slightly pricier international SIM card before you leave home.

    The catch: You need a GSM phone and it needs to be unlocked.

  2. KnowRoaming
  3. This is a sticker that fits over the SIM card in your phone. It self-activates once it senses that you have left your home country. The folks at KnowRoaming say they’ve negotiated rates that let you save up to 85 percent on voice and data calls from 220 countries.

    The sticker must be aligned precisely on your SIM card to work, and like SIMS cards, only works with unlocked phones.

Cellphone companies have seen lots of their customers ambushed by international roaming and are usually willing to drop enormous roaming charges…to a point.

The $62,000 Man had his bill reduced to $17,000. Verizon gave Mr. Gardner a little help with is, too.

Today, most cellphone companies have a variety of international voice and data packages for international cell users, even online calculators that let you work out in advance how much it will cost you to roam in your destination country. Some will let you pre-pay for international roaming.

None of these plans are cheap, but they can save you from a five-figure phone bill. Still, ask lots of questions and make sure you clearly understand everything before you commit to one of these plans.

If your travel plans include a cruise, most cruise ship nowadays sell wifi access plans for use aboard ship. Princess Cruise’s Island Princess, for instance, has plans that start at $69 for 100 minutes. You can look over the plans online and pre-pay before you sail, or wait until you’re on the ship.

But just like public wifi on land, shipboard wifi can be excruciatingly slow, which can quickly burn through your minutes. And the same security concerns on land apply at sea.

The cheaper alternative is to wait until the ship docks and find a free wifi hotspot on shore. Many ports nowadays that their own wifi hotspots. If they don’t somebody on the ground will know where there’s one close by.

Another tip: ask a crewmember who’s going ashore if they know a good wifi spot in town. Since they need to communicate quickly and cheaply with their own families back home, there’s a good chance they will.

Remember that “notable exception” among service providers I mentioned earlier? That would be T-Mobile. In Oct. 2013, they launched their Simple Global data plan. Free text and data from 115 countries around the world. No international roaming charges. None.

The cost: $50 a month.

Has T-Mobile hooked my attention with this new plan? You bet it has.

But before you go rushing out to change cellphone carriers, check out the caveats from this guy.

Another hopeful sign for those who travel to Europe. The European Commission is proposing to do away with all international roaming charges by July 1, 2014.

If it happens, that eventually could change the game worldwide in your favor, but it needs a vote of the European Union to take effect — and it will not go unopposed by the cellphone industry.

Meanwhile, console yourself with the knowledge that you already have the power to avoid being slammed with mountainous bills for international roaming. To do it, you’ll need to take complete charge of your cellphone, and your cellphone service.

At times, that might seem like a hassle, especially if you’re allergic to technology. Still, it beats the hell out of a five-figure phone bill.

TRAVEL TECH: Dual-SIM cell phones
CELL PHONES 1: In search of travelers’ mobiles
CELL PHONES 2: The Two-Phone Solution

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