The rise of smartphones and ubiquitous Internet services has made it easier and more of a priority to keep in touch while traveling abroad. And while staying connected has become cheaper and more convenient compared with the dim, and relatively expensive, international calling centers scattered around tourist hotspots a decade ago, for many casual travelers, increased connectivity can also present a potential minefield of hidden fees.
Horror stories abound of careless travelers who unwittingly rack up thousands of dollars in cell phone roaming charges while on the road, which can happen almost instantly when using a cell phone abroad without an international roaming plan.
For example, AT&T’s pay-per-use international data rate for the iPhone costs $0.0195/KB—in more realistic numbers, that’s nearly $20 per MB, or about $40 to open an email with a five megapixel picture in it, or to download a three-minute video on YouTube. And while the pay-per-use cost of making international phone calls depends on the destination, it can easily top $2 or $3 a minute.
Fortunately, today there are plenty of ways to keep talking without breaking the bank.
Using Your Own Phone to Keep in Touch Abroad
For most casual (i.e. non-business) travelers, the expense of adding international connectivity to a personal cell or smartphone plan probably isn’t justified for a standard one- to two-week trip. But for those who want—or need—to go this route, and are willing to pay for it, the first step is to make sure your phone will even work abroad.
“[In most cases] the phone must have GSM capability,” says John deGlavina, founder of cellphoneforums.net. “A sign that a phone has a GSM antenna is the presence of a SIM card.” Some U.S. carriers, like Verizon, primarily offer CDMA-equipped phones, which don’t have SIMs and work in far fewer places outside the United States. “If you have Verizon, you can use one of its ‘global’ or ‘world’ phones, like a Blackberry or some Android devices,” he says.
Then decide if you want to add international roaming to your current plan, or get a local plan with a new SIM card when you arrive at your destination, deGlavina advises. The first option maintains the original U.S. number and, after paying an international roaming fee, provides relatively affordable rates for calls back home. To make it happen, call your service provider just before departure to activate international roaming or data, and then make sure to call and turn it off after returning home. Keep in mind that service providers often offer international calling and data (Internet) plans separately.
The second option is better suited to people who want a local phone number at their destination. Refitting a phone with an in-country SIM card provides a local number, allowing for calls, texts, and possibly data service at the local network rate—go this route, however, and the long-distance rates of the new carrier will apply to calls back home.
These pay-as-you-go SIMs are pretty easy to find in Internet cafés and mobile phone shops at most destinations. “For under $10, you usually get a local number and a certain amount of credit,” says travel blogger Audrey Scott of UncorneredMarket. “When we arrived at the Bangkok airport, the airline KLM was actually giving away welcome packets of Thai SIM cards upon arrival.”
The catch? “Most phone models must be unlocked to use another carrier’s SIM card,” deGlavina says. “Some carriers will do this, but most do not. Usually [third party] online vendors can provide unlock codes for a small fee.” Or a very cheap and basic cell phone can be purchased in your destination country.
The most cost-effective solution for travelers who want to make calls but don’t necessarily need a working phone in their pocket 24/7 is an Internet-based VOIP service like Skype. “I’m surprised in our travels how few people actually know about Skype,” says Jonathan Kraft, who has spent more than a year traveling and blogging across more than a dozen countries with his partner Carrie at CarrieandJonathan.com. “The call quality is clearer, and you can call another person on Skype for free.”
Of course, Skype is far from the only VOIP service on the market, but it’s the most popular, and it works on multiple platforms, including laptops and smartphones, as long as there’s an Internet connection. In the case of smartphones, however, be sure to turn off data roaming (it’s best to do this right out of the box) to keep it from automatically connecting to an international data network. Also switch it to airplane mode to keep from receiving cellular calls or text messages. In both cases the phone can still connect to the Internet through a Wi-Fi connection and make Internet calls using Skype or other VOIP applications.
Because VOIP services offer free calls to other users anywhere in the world (i.e. using Skype to call another Skype user), it’s best to evangelize friends and family about a particular service so everyone uses the same program. However, even using VOIP to call a regular landline or mobile phone from abroad will cost a fraction of standard long-distance rates.
For just occasional calls home, it’s easy to prepay for $10 of calling credits and dial landlines or mobile phones for just a couple cents a minute. Frequent callers can also find monthly plans, which offer flat rates for unlimited calling to 40 different countries.
“We pay $30 a year for Skype Out so that we can make unlimited calls to any U.S. phone number wherever we are in the world,” Kraft says. “For another $30, we have Skype In, so that people can call us on a U.S. number based out of Denver, and reach us as though they’re making a local call.”
Staying connected with VOIP services like Skype—not to mention email, social networking sites, and instant messaging—requires reliable access to the Internet. And luckily there is no end to the tips, tricks, gadgets, and services available to Internet-hungry travelers.
At the hotel: The best place to start is the hotel—when booking, pay close attention to the fine print on the hotel’s website or in the description on booking sites because the wording can often be misleading. For example, if the description simply advertises “high-speed Internet access,” the hotel probably only offers a couple of Internet-connected computers in the lobby, while “free Wi-Fi” is likely only accessible in the lobby or business center, and “in-room Wi-Fi” probably has fees attached. Look specifically for some version of the words “free Wi-Fi (or high-speed Internet) in guestrooms.” Often low- to mid-range hotels offer more liberal Internet offerings, while many of the most expensive properties tack on outrageous daily fees for in-room Internet access. Hotel Chatter’s 2010 Wi-Fi Report has some info about Wi-Fi access at hotels around the world, though the U.S. coverage is more comprehensive.
On the street: If the hotel doesn’t have Internet access or charges an unacceptable price for it, hunt around the neighborhood for connected businesses. “Wi-Fi is becoming widespread,” says Paul J. McManus of the bike-tour company Tour d’Afrique Ltd. “Most hotels in Europe and Asia seem to have Wi-Fi, and there are Internet cafes even in small African towns now.” Stephanie Hackney—who has spent years traveling the world by motorcycle with her husband—says, “We purchased a small phone designed to work with Skype that also detected wireless networks—how cool to be able to drive through a region and find the local wireless offerings. Finding Wi-Fi was sometimes hard in remote areas, but every major city was littered with them.”
Always-on Internet: For the traveler with a serious Internet addiction that can’t be quelled with hotel Wi-Fi and the occasional Internet café, there’s a gadget that has received good reviews in Engadget and The New York Times: the MiFi from Xcom Global. This small rental device, about the size of a cell phone, provides a portable Wi-Fi hotspot that connects to as many as five computers or smartphones. It’s not cheap—$17.95/day rental fee, and $29.90 for round-trip shipping before and after the trip (about $155 for a seven-day trip)—but for that, it provides an unlimited, always-on portable Internet bubble in around 27 different countries.