Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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Phoning (and Texting and Data-ing) Home
April 16, 2015 -- My friend Tony, an infrequent but meticulous international traveler, is on a train to Montreal even as you read this. Before he departed, he made sure his credit and ATM cards wouldn't charge him foreign-currency fees in Canada. He even researched the customs and passport formalities when the Amtrak Adirondack reaches the Canadian border.
But he was flummoxed by his iPhone, specifically what he'd be charged for voice calls, texts and data while tooling around Quebec. "No matter what you do, you can't get a straight answer out of Verizon," he complained.
Meanwhile, my friend Charlene, who travels more frequently and sometimes blogs about it, is on a Caribbean cruise. And all her pre-trip prep seemed dedicated to ducking outrageous phone charges when she reaches the Cayman Islands.
She flow-charted how her calls would work and even tested the Vonage app before she left to ensure her mobile phone could operate on the ship's Wi-Fi with the redirected voice-over-internet service. "I want ... to avoid being in the middle of the ocean paying Verizon stupendous amounts of money just to check in with our son," she explained.
It's just kismet that both of my traveling friends this week dedicated significant amounts of time to making sure they wouldn't get burned by the outrageously high international roaming fees charged by Verizon Wireless. Travelers who use AT&T or Sprint are equally obsessed with what it costs to use their phones, tablets and laptops overseas.
Then there's yours truly, a regular international traveler who for 15 years has tied his wireless fortunes to T-Mobile, the perennial market laggard. For all of T-Mobile's domestic shortcomings — I barely get basic voice and data connections where I live and work — T-Mobile is genius internationally. When I travel in most countries, my texts are free. So is my email and basic (if slow) Internet access. Calls cost me just 20 cents a minute. And when I was in Europe last week and lost WiFi connections for hours at a time, I simply hit the "mobile hotspot" button on my HTC One phone, connected my laptop to the cell signal and kept on working. That was free, too.
I do not suggest that T-Mobile's Simple Choice Plan, a $50-a-month bundle that includes all the overseas perks as well as mostly unlimited domestic service, is the answer to every international business traveler's prayer. But it's simple and workable and has disrupted the market since its introduction in 2013. So much so that Sprint finally matched it last month. Google apparently plans to make cheap international calls and free data roaming part of its forthcoming wireless service. And Verizon and AT&T, which together control two-thirds of the domestic wireless business, have lowered international roaming fees in response to T-Mobile.
Still, international travel with your mobile devices remains a minefield of fees, options, add-ons and strategies. The testimonials from my friends bear this out. As Tony, who likes things simple and direct, discovered, there are no simple and direct options. And as Charlene rightly believes, you can't la-de-da the topic because making the wrong choice can literally cost you hundreds of dollars in a matter of days.
How do you win — or at least survive — in a market where the wireless companies expect to rack up north of $40 billion in roaming fees by 2018? Here are some useful approaches:
Know your carrier's policies. T-Mobile's international service package is free, but only includes low-speed data. If you want 3G/4G speed overseas, expect to pay $15 for 100 megabytes. And 100mb doesn't buy much. Verizon's breathtakingly high pay-as-you-go rates start at 89 cents a minute for calls, 25 cents for texts and about $20 for each megabyte of data. Bundled monthly prices are (comparatively) more reasonable: $40 buys you 100 minutes of calls, 100 texts and 100mb of data. AT&T bundles cost less, but do not include voice calls, which cost upwards of $1 a minute. Sprint is hobbled because it operates on CDMA, a mobile system mostly limited to North America.
Prepare for alternatives. If your carrier's prices for international calls and data are too high for your budget, you'll need other options. So make sure to get your phone "unlocked," which will allow you to use some alternatives. Your carrier will unlock your phone in most cases, but you'll have to ask. Also make sure you understand your carrier's policy on WiFi usage. Many include free WiFi, but some don't. Ditto for tethering, techie jargon for turning your smartphone into a hotspot that allows you to repurpose the device's mobile or WiFi signal to power data access for your laptop or tablet.
Go 'airplane mode' on the ground. If you want to risk it, you could rely solely on WiFi for calls and your data needs. Put your phone in "airplane mode" and then make sure your WiFi is on. If your phone plan allows WiFi calls, have at it. If not, use an app such as Skype, Google Voice or, as my friend Charlene did, the app for Vonage or another VOIP provider. The obvious downside: If the WiFi is poor or unavailable where you are, your phone will be a brick. And any devices you've tethered to the phones via the mobile hotspot will also be bereft of data access. Meanwhile, if you don't want to or can't use your phone as a mobile hotspot, buy or rent a mobile WiFi device from a reliable provider such as Cellular Abroad.
The SIM solution. Like many international travelers, I once had a large collection of international SIM cards, the tiny data cards that are the heart and soul of most mobile phones. Once you unlock your phone, you can slip the SIM of the local country into the slot currently occupied by your own carrier's card. Using a local SIM card has benefits: you pay lower rates to make local calls, incoming calls are free and high-speed data prices are cheaper than roaming charges imposed by U.S. carriers. But your U.S. contacts won't be able to reach you on your U.S. number and managing multiple SIM cards is a chore. Unless you need a local number overseas, the days of SIM swapping may have passed. Still, it remains a viable option for some travelers, so check prices and options with Cellular Abroad, Telestial or OneSimCard.com.
Get another phone. Finally, you could always buy or rent a phone specifically for international use. Carrying an additional device is not universally popular — Can you say Hillary Clinton email excuse?— but experienced international travelers already tote an array of gear. What's one more little phone Companies such as Cellular Abroad sell or rent phones specifically for international travel. Alternately, repurpose an outdated device you have otherwise abandoned and stashed in a drawer. Make sure it's unlocked, of course, then purchase a single-country or multi-national SIM. Just one tip: Don't repurpose a device so old that it requires a unique power charger rather than the now-standard USB connection. Multiple phones I can handle, but I draw the line at carrying another adapter.