No topic animates pro travelers quite like this one. Sure, we love to share tales of hidden beaches and breathtaking hiking trails. But if you want to engage an adventurer in deep conversation, ask this question: What cellular and data plan do you use?
Most globetrotters have tried it all in an effort to stay connected while not spending a small fortune. I know a guy who has three different cell phones for countries he visits frequently. He’s not a gangster or politician, just a dude trying to save a few bucks.
Goodness knows, I have made mistakes in this area. Let’s just say when your phone usage during a trip to Morocco costs more than your flight, you took a wrong path. So how can we avoid brain-blowing bill statements after returning home from mind-opening travel? That largely depends on where you travel and specific communication needs; of course, but there are a few universal considerations.
This week in Travel Secrets, experts weigh in on best practices for staying connected during travel.
“If you understand your plan and know what you are paying, cellular data is a great way of enhancing your trip,” says Jane Legzdins of travel industry leader Mobal Communications.
“It’s a great way to find your way back to your hotel when you get too confused by windy Venetian streets and alleyways,” she says. “And it can help you avoid a last minute stay at the worst hotel in town or a meal at a terrible restaurant by quickly checking reviews online!”
Pro-tip: Many travelers embark on a journey with their regular phone as a safety net, vowing only to use in emergencies or Wi-Fi zones. The temptation proves too great for most. Always avoid leaving home without an international plan for at least one device.
Begin by exploring international options offered by your current carrier. Not always the cheapest route, however for some travelers, the comfort of a familiar device and number is worth the cost.
Personally, I use T-Mobile’s Simple Choice Plan, with unlimited texting in 140 countries and 4G LTE data, $.20/minute calls abroad, and free Wi-Fi calling.
AT&T’s Meghan Callahan says the company introduced Global Passport, in 2014 to help ensure bill predictability for travelers. The plan offers coverage in over 200 countries.
Rounding out the top three, the U.S.’s largest carrier Verizon offers a range of traveler options including loaner phones and a pay-as-you-can plan for Cuba.
Pro-tips: In some cases, switching carriers pays off. Weigh contract buyout costs against long-term savings at home and during travel.
The spectrum of international plans varies. Be sure specific countries you plan to visit are actually covered.
“Check whether your phone will physically work overseas,” says Legzdins. “Different countries and cell companies use different technologies and frequencies, and your phone needs to be compatible with them to work.”
She advices looking for quad band or specific bands 850/900/1800/1900 MHz in your device’s specifications and checking country frequencies.
Mobal offers a range of travel phone options including a Talk & Text service starting at $29 for a basic device which automatically connects to the strongest signal in your location. The phones never expire and can be renewed for future trips.
Call your cell company to see if your phone is unlocked. “Policies vary widely but cell companies in the US are at least legally required to unlock prepaid phones after a year, and contract phones after they’ve been paid off,” says Legzdins.
Check specific policies with technology research firm, Gigaom’s Unlocking Guide.
If your phone is unlocked, purchasing a country-specific or global use SIM card is an easy and affordable option. Country-specific cards are usually sold in local newspaper shops. The biggest downside to this option is using a new, temporary cell number.
One of Mobal’s most popular options is purchasing a card with an international number for life.
When ordering a SIM, size matters. Make sure you get the correct card for your device. Some phones are duel SIM, allowing the use of a home and travel SIM at the same time.
Pro-tip: To eliminate all risk of surprise charges, choose a pay-as-you-go card.
Regardless of your plan, there is no need for data to be “on” when not in use.
“Turning data roaming OFF blocks email, browsing, visual voicemail and downloads, but it will not block text messages,” advises Callahan. When data is on, international roaming rates may apply when you send texts or images.
“It seems so obvious, but people forget,” says Callahan. “Wi-Fi usage does not count toward your data allowance.” Secure Wi-Fi zones are the place for “data dumps,” turning on data to allow emails and feeds to refresh.
Check to see if your smart phone engages free Wi-Fi calling. If not, Skype, WhatsApp, Viber, and FaceTime (Apple users,) work well for audio and video calls.
Of course, Wi-Fi isn’t always gold. Zones are often sluggish or connections open and vulnerable to lurkers. To avoid the latter, PCWorld recommends setting up a VPN (Virtual Private Network.
“Another top tip, which is often overlooked, is that calling to toll-free numbers from international cell phones is usually chargeable,” says Legzdins. For instance, a call to your bank’s toll-free line from another country can incur international roaming charges. Every minute left on hold can rack up fees.
Pro-tip: Skype offers free calls to all US toll-free numbers.
Communication experts agree the biggest mistake travelers make is overusing
data, often without realizing it. Before a trip, understand your average monthly usage and how much data frequent activities consume. Native usage trackers on most devices
offer handy breakdowns.
Legzdins warns that some devices automatically use data without user interaction. “Applications such as push email, news & weather updates, location services, and many downloadable apps (even free ones) may do this,” she says.
“Some apps consume more data than others,” says Callahan. “Knowing this in advance of your travels can help you avoid unexpected charges.”
Don’t overlook common social media apps, many of which are data drainers.
Callahan also adds many travelers don’t realize when abroad, iMessage (and other calling and messaging apps) are treated as data rather than as text messages.
“Streaming content is extremely data intensive,” says Callahan. “Download content before leaving the U.S. to avoid streaming movies, videos, music or other content while abroad.
Pro-tip: Before leaving home, download maps to use off-line through Google
Always use a PIN code or fingerprint recognition for all devices. And, know how to report your phone lost or stolen if the worst should happen.
“As we know, tourists are often targeted by pick-pockets in busy areas,” says Legzdins. “If your cell phone should get into the wrong hands, a user can build up a high bill all too quickly. Reporting the loss quickly means that your cell phone company can deactivate the service to prevent any usage.”
Always double check that proper charger chords are packed for all devices. Carry on baggage only, savvy travelers. Make sure you have correct international adapters for all countries on the itinerary. And, invest in an external battery charger.
You are affordably connected in case of what-ifs, now take the opportunity to unplug. Turn off your device, take a social media hiatus. It will still be there when you get home. After all, travel at its best, offers connection on a level no cellular phone or plan can deliver. Optimize that connection.
Image: Mister G.C., CC-BY
Jess Simpson is a full-time digital nomad, grateful and giddy for bylines in Paste, Mental Floss, Bustle, UAB magazine, Birmingham magazine, and more. Follow her travel secrets and tales at Paste as well as on Facebook and Instagram.