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Experience April/May 2023

On the Road Again

Jeffrey M Allen and Ashley Hallene


  • Practical tips on how to manage mobile costs while traveling to avoid expensive roaming charges such as international plans offered by U.S. wireless providers, using local SIM cards and data plans, and employing mobile hotspot devices.
On the Road Again
megaflopp via Getty Images

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Traveling can provide stunning sights. So can your bill for staying in touch while you’re on the road if you’re not careful. Here’s how to keep those costs in check.

Do as the locals do?

Most major U.S. wireless providers offer international plans, so start by investigating that plan before your departure. Adding an international pass to your plan may be the easiest way to deal with the situation. It won’t cost the least, but it’ll often be less expensive than paying international roaming fees.

It also allows you to use your regular number and phone, ensuring that you can be reached while traveling. When you talk to your wireless carrier, verify that you’ll get your service and data speed where you’ll travel. Set the plan to run from the date you arrive to the date you return.

One expensive risk is getting hit with roaming charges while using cellular data overseas. Be sure to ask your carrier about roaming charges. We know someone who had an international plan that required her to access data roaming to use her phone in the United Kingdom. Before she traveled, she contacted her carrier to ensure she understood her plan accurately—that roaming didn’t cost extra. It didn’t, and she didn’t incur any roaming charges to receive texts while traveling.

Phones and providers use different frequencies; make sure your phone uses the same frequencies as you’ll have available.

We consider roaming charges exorbitant and try to avoid them. One way to do that is to get a SIM card and data plan for the area in which you’ll be traveling. When we did that, we had some hassle, but not much. The cost of data on that plan proved significantly less than roaming charges.

Remember, data charges rack up pretty quickly with news feeds, video calls, email, and all the other things you do on your mobile. If you’re traveling to one area where a single cellular plan and SIM card will work for your entire trip or most of it, this approach probably makes sense. If not, we think it’s more hassle than it’s worth.

It usually doesn’t make sense to get a local SIM card and account if you’ll use it for only a few days or a week. We wouldn’t do it for much less than a month. If you plan to get a local SIM card, make sure you have an unlocked phone so it’ll work with a SIM card not from your primary provider.

Double your SIMs

Some people swap the local SIM card for the card in their phone. Or they purchase an inexpensive second phone to hold the SIM card and leave their regular phone behind. We don’t like that approach; it requires you to buy a phone you don’t need. It also means you give up apps and features on your phone you use regularly (we especially don’t like giving up the GPS and navigation features).

Some phones accept two SIM cards. You don’t have to take the primary one out. Just use both slots, and you can remain active on your primary number. Some phones have shifted to electronic SIM cards, making it even easier to add a second SIM card. If your phone requires a physical SIM card and has only one slot, store your primary card safely so that it’s not damaged or lost.

If you feel the need to have a new number when you travel, look into second-phone apps, sometimes called burner apps. They create an electronic virtual phone with another number that works on your existing phone without requiring a new SIM card.

We don’t think that approach does much for travelers, but there are good reasons to want a second or third number. Most burner apps let you kill a number and replace it just about any time.

What to know about WiFi

WiFi is a less costly way to connect while traveling. Turn cellular data off when you get on the plane and leave it off until you return. You’ll find free WiFi almost everywhere in Europe. We have security concerns with public WiFi networks, but you can minimize your risk by using a reliable virtual private network.

We strongly prefer to carry our own hotspot rather than use public WiFi. You can get devices, such as Skyroam Solis and GlocalMe, that provide you with a WiFi hotspot. Both have their own hardware and sell data connection plans for use all over the world and for various time frames.

Portable travel routers easily fit in a backpack, messenger bag, or purse. The WiFi networks they create travel with you, and we’ve had little trouble maintaining a connection in Europe, Eurasia, and the Middle East. The devices run on built-in batteries and need recharging after about 14-16 hours of use.

Although they have programs that include “unlimited” use, these vendors may cut the speed of your connection if you use too much data. We’ve discussed this with them, and they take the position that unlimited data doesn’t guaranty any particular speed.

So you’ll want to limit your use to a reasonable amount. Yes, the term reasonable is vague. We’ve tried to learn the cutoff at which they start to reduce connection speed but have never received an unambiguous response. We’ve been told it depends on where you are and whom they contract with there.

We try to minimize the amount of data we consume while traveling. The exception is if we connect to someone else’s WiFi, such as the hotel’s (using a good VPN, of course).

We also try to avoid large data transfers and streaming while traveling. But if we can’t, we’ll save large transfers and streaming for hotel WiFi. To conserve on data consumption, before departure, we load our devices with travel apps, books, audiobooks, music, movies, and other data.

Be sure you know your data limits before you leave. Track and manage data consumption through the settings on your device, a third-party app, or an app from your provider. Pay particular attention to activities that hog data, such as streaming video or music.

How free apps help

If you rely on WiFi, download an app like Skype, WhatsApp, Telegram, or Signal to exchange texts or calls using your internet connection. Make sure the people you’ll communicate with have the app you choose. If you use Apple devices, you can text or make video calls to other Apple users using iMessage or FaceTime. Skype, Google Hangouts, and other apps also offer free video calls with other users over an internet connection.

You can also use some of these apps to call local-to-your-travel-area places. When making a reservation in the U.K., a friend found the restaurant’s Facebook page, then clicked on the phone icon to make a free call through Messenger.

WhatsApp is a cross-platform app that allows users to send and receive free messages internationally. It uses your cellular connection or WiFi to let you send messages or make calls. You can even group chat. It can use your cellular data as well as WiFi. So again turn cellular data off to limit it to using WiFi.

The app uses end-to-end-encryption, so messages are stored only on your device, not on the developer’s servers or anywhere else.

Signal uses end-to-end encryption with the secure Signal protocol and gives you encrypted messages, as well as voice and video calls.

Telegram Messenger is another IM service. It provides optional end-to-end encrypted chat, known as secret chat, as well as video calling, VoIP, file sharing, and several other features.

It’s free, with no ads. Telegram messages load only using WiFi. It doesn’t use cellular data, and there’s no charge for international calls between phones using Telegram. You can’t, however, use Telegram to call landline or mobile numbers outside the app.