Q: I’m going to various countries in Europe this summer and can’t figure out the best way to use my smartphone. Any suggestions?
A: Your smartphone can be your most valuable companion when traveling abroad and if you do it wrong, it could be the single highest travel expense you will encounter.
The Internet is filled with stories of folks that didn’t realize that they were racking up huge bills because they were on international roaming rates. First lesson: just because your smartphone works when you land in a foreign country, doesn’t mean you should just use it as usual.
There are a number of ways to avoid expense charges, but the best method for you depends on a few variables: your phone, your carrier and what you actually want to do with your phone.
If your phone is unlocked or you can get your hands on an unlocked smartphone, you can simply purchase a pre-paid ‘SIM’ card in the country or countries that you plan on visiting and totally control what you spend.
If your phone is tied to a US-based carrier, it’s probably locked and will only work on that carrier’s system or a system in Europe that they have a roaming agreement with.
In these cases, the cheapest way to use your smartphone is to simply put it into airplane mode and try to use open Wifi hotspots wherever you are traveling. This is also the most frustrating way to use your phone, because you pretty much need to stay put in order to get on the Internet.
If you want to be able to connect virtually anywhere you are or while you are on the move, you really need to work with the cellular providers.
When I travel, all I care about is data access because I use Skype and Skype Out minutes to make phone calls, so I generally activate a global data plan from my carrier before I leave for my trip.
AT&T charges $30 for 120MB of data, $60 for 300MB and $120 for 800MB and the overage rates are pretty steep, so choose wisely. Verizon charges $25 for every 100MB of data, so the equivalent 800MB plan will cost you $200.
Make sure you contact your carrier before you leave to discuss options and to make sure it automatically terminates when you return so you don’t get charged every month.
Even 800MB will go quickly if you aren’t really careful, so you need to change your surfing behavior while you are on your trip. I always put my phone on airplane mode when I get on the plane and reset my usage meter so I can track my exact data usage once I hit foreign soil.
I only take my phone out of airplane mode when I can’t find an open wifi connection and I need location specific information (maps, restaurants, etc.) or to use a translation app in real time.
I don’t post to social media, check my e-mail or casually surf the internet unless I am connected to a wifi hotspot.
I always make sure that all the background apps are shut down before I take it out of airplane mode so I don’t accidentally waste a bunch of bandwidth.
I also look every day to see how much bandwidth I have left and divide it by the number of remaining travel days to know how much data I can use per day.
Another way to stretch the data plan is use an app called Onavo Extend which uses compression technology to squeeze more usage out of your data plan.
It also helps you understand which tasks are using the most bandwidth and is available for iPhone, iPad and some Android devices.