Avoid big mobile bills when you travel

Are you loath to leave home without your cell phone, smart phone or tablet? With countless travel apps, maps and booking engines, mobile devices have transformed the way we travel… But at what price?

We’ve all heard a few horror stories in the news about travellers returning home to discover hefty bills from their wireless providers — sometimes to the tune of hundreds or thousands of dollars. The worst part? Those fees weren’t due to heavy use. Travellers were unaware of roaming charges or other fees, and their carriers didn’t notify them when the costs started to pile up.

While these cases may seem extreme, any charge you weren’t expecting is still too much. Here are some ways to keep those bills in check when you travel.

Assess your needs. As with any money-saving measure, the first step is to know what you already have and what you need. Consider:

– Will your currently mobile device work in the countries you plan to visit? (You may need to “unlock” your phone or obtain an unlocked phone to take advantage of some options.)

– What roaming charges apply to talking, texting and accessing the internet?

– How much will it cost to make a call, especially if it’s long distance? Will you be charged when people call or text you?

– What are your needs when you travel? For example, will your phone be used for emergencies only, or do you need to touch base at home and work? Will you use travel apps that require internet access? Do you want to upload photos to social networking sites or a travel blog? Will people need to reach you on your cell phone, or can they call the hotel?

Don’t forget to consider your travel budget as well. Think about how much you want to allot for mobile use and look for options that suit your number.

Rent or buy abroad. Even if your mobile device will work abroad, it may be cheaper to leave it behind. Veteran travellers know it’s often less expensive to buy or rent a phone at their destination and use a pre-paid card. You’ll enjoy local rates, and you have the option to buy another card if your time runs out rather than unknowingly running up a bill.

Where can you rent or buy? You can often find this service alongside car rentals or hotels as well as from mobile phone companies. Some travel providers also offer packages. Wireless plans are competitively priced in Europe and Asia, but expect to pay more in countries where the technology isn’t as common — like South America. Regardless, it’s wise to stick to reputable providers.

Buy a SIM Card. If you have an unlocked phone, an international SIM card can let you make calls for a fraction of the price you would pay with your regular carrier. There are a variety of SIM cards on the market with a range of packages and pricing. Many cards are pre-paid so there won’t be any surprises, and some SIM cards even include pre-paid data plan access in some countries.

Consider an international calling plan. While experts warn prices vary greatly depending on the carrier and features, upgrading to an international calling plan may be the way to go for long trips and frequent travel. However, beware that such plans often don’t cover texting, photo uploading or internet browsing — plus rates vary from country to country.

Rely on Wi-Fi, not your data plan. Don’t get dinged with costly roaming fees for simple actions like sharing photos or checking email. Experts recommend switching off your data plan while you’re away and limiting your internet use to wireless hubs. Many places like airports, train stations, cafes and libraries offer free Wi-Fi.

Experts also recommend turning off any automated features like updates or email programs that might unintentionally retrieve or “pull” data before you can stop it.

Downsize your data. Travelling with an iPad or iPhone? You can stretch your data plan with Onavo — a free app that compresses data. (You can use it at home too.)

Try VoIP for calls. Many smart phones now let you download apps or software that let you access voice over IP (VoIP) — that is, place phone calls over the internet instead of a phone line. For instance, you can add Skype to your iPhone or iPad and call other Skype-equipped devices for free (or call regular phones for a small fee).

Track your usage. It may be inconvenient, but this simple step can help you avoid overage charges and warn you when you’re running low on pre-paid time. If you travel frequently, you’ll also be able to see if you’re getting the most for your money or if you need to change plans.

Do things the old-fashioned way. New technology isn’t always better when it comes to price. For instance, if you can’t find free Wi-Fi, paying time in an internet café or your hotel’s business centre may still be cheaper than a data plan. Packing an international long distance calling card and using a payphone or courtesy phone can let you stay in touch without worrying about roaming fees or hefty per-minute prices.

You can also dodge internet access by downloading maps and other information ahead of time rather than using online options, or use travel apps that don’t require internet access.

Take safety precautions. Unfortunately, any kind of gadget or “bling” is bound to earn you some unwanted attention from thieves — especially in countries where mobile use isn’t widespread. Experts warn to be cautious about where and when you use your devices, and keep a close eye on them. You may also want to “lock down” your device with a password so you’ll have an extra layer of protection if it’s lost or stolen.

Beware of what other people might overhear. Cell phone users often forget their device doesn’t come with a “cone of silence”. Mind what you reveal over the phone — like your plans, where you are staying or any other sensitive information that could be used to commit a crime.

Read the fine print. Regardless of what coverage you choose, make sure you understand all of the details and get them in writing. Watch out for hidden fees, daily or monthly service fees, activation fees and expiration dates. You might also be charged for incoming calls and texts whether you answer them or not. Make this research part of your pre-trip planning, and make sure you seek clarification if there’s something you don’t understand.

True, it’s going to take some time and effort to find the best deal so you’ll want to start looking well before you travel. However, saving hundreds of dollars will be well worth your while.

Sources: Canada.com, Consumer Traveler, Gadling.com, RickSteves.com,Tripso.com, wireless and SIM card company websites.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Pawel Gaul

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