Traveling abroad or taking a cruise? Avoid huge roaming charges

July 22, 2011

If you’re about to take a trip overseas or going on a cruise and just can’t leave home without your trusty phone (smart or otherwise) or your laptop, there are a few things you should know to avoid bill shock went you get home.

Travelers face steep roaming charges when on ships or wending their way around the globe. When you add data usage to the mix, the costs can be staggering. Roaming charges can run well over $2 a minute and data charges can run $20 per megabyte. A relatively small attachment to an email can easily be 1 MB, so $20 can pile upon $20 very quickly.

Most wireless companies offer some kind of package that allows customers to buy a discounted block of time ahead of their journey. AT&T, for example, sells a $25 a month plan that gets you 50 MB of data in about 200 countries. It offers other plans for those who plan to use more.

This isn’t an exercise that can be done at the last minute. You need to make sure the data plan is in place before you leave. And usage needs to be monitored closely because overages can be costly.

A few horror stories:

A couple of years ago a man on a cruise ship docked in Miami was charged nearly $28,000 for streaming a football game on his laptop. It seems his computer latched onto the wrong signal. After an intervention by a newspaper, the charges were wiped out.

On a trip to Germany, Rick Palmer — iPhone in tow — went about his business and came home to a $2,400 wireless bill. Palmer, an engineer by training who manages the education department at Jive Software in Portland, Oregon,  thought he had prepared his cell phone plan to avoid just that sort of problem.

What happened? Even though was aware that charges can run high and ordered a plan that should have lightened the load, he didn’t realize it wouldn’t be activated in time for his trip.

“I was completely shocked when I saw the $2,400 charge,” says Palmer, who also writes a tech help blog called Ricky Says. “I am about as technically-savvy as they come and was very careful to follow all the rules, and so I think it would be incredibly easy and common for most people to find themselves in a similar situation.”

Palmer says he spent a lot of time calmly and carefully explaining how the overage happened and how he was confused by some of the wording about when the plan would take effect. In the end, he wasn’t absolved of the charges, but he did get them reduced.

International travel expert Jason Cochran offers this tip to help keep bills in check: “The most important thing you can do is turn off data roaming and cellular data before you get on the plane to leave home,” he says. “That’s because once you turn on your phone abroad and it registers with the local phone company, you’re eligible for charges. That includes phone calls you may not even answer.”

Here are some more tips to keep from getting a crazy wireless bill when you’re traveling outside the U.S.:

  • Be sure your phone will work overseas. Not all do.
  • If your phone doesn’t work overseas or you want to have control over your spending and a lower cost for use, consider purchasing a pay-as-you-go phone when you arrive at your destination at either a cell phone store or department store.
  • If you have an unlocked phone, consider going to a cell phone store at your destination and buying a SIM card that comes with credit on it.
  • No matter what you do, connect to a wireless network whenever you can — at airports, hotels, cafes — so that you do not incur network data and roaming charges.
  • If you have an iPhone, consider shutting off data roaming and other features that automatically retrieve data for you. You can run up a big bill as your iPhone downloads data when you’re not looking.
  • Consider using Skype or Vonage for your phone calls, but be sure that you’re on a wireless network.
  • Renting a phone can also be an option often presented by rental car companies, but be very careful about the charges you can be subject to. They’re not usually a good deal.
  • Consider having a look at travel expert and TV host Rick Steves’s detailed primer on traveling overseas with a cell phone.

Also, each of the major cell phone carriers spell out their policies and rates on their websites. Here are links to Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile. Familiarize yourself with the policies and decide on your cell strategy so you can roam as you want to. (With apologies to the B-52s.)



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even better, leave the dam phone at home and enjoy the vacation.

Posted by koli | Report as abusive

About 2 years ago, I went to Canada for a month. I check with my provider, to find out about roaming charges, etc. They said not to worry. Well, you know the rest of the story. $ 1900 bill later, I was upset. Most of it was “data” use over and above my normal domestic use.

Later, after I paid it, I found out you can set up an international data plan. Check it out before you go.

I was on a cruise, recently, where I was telling me about his 18K cruise data bill, on the ship. Ouch.

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[…] was in England in December when she swung by a mobile phone store to buy new sim cards (to avoid international roaming charges) when the sales person looked blankly at her credit […]

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[…] was in England in December when she swung by a mobile phone store to buy new sim cards (to avoid international roaming charges) when the sales person looked blankly at her credit […]

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