5 Tips to Reduce International Data Roaming Charges

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Like most travel bloggers, I am addicted to my smart phone  (IPhone). So much so, that when in Europe several times this summer, I’ve irrationally turned OFF airplane mode when I couldn’t find a free WiFi connection, so I could download my latest tweets, feeds and emails. These quick gulps of data seemed like a good idea at the time, but reality came knocking when I received my AT&T bill this month… $180 in roaming for turning my data on TWICE in London. Ouch!

Apparently in those two sessions, my Iphone downloaded and sent a total of 9 megs of data, which doesn’t seem like much, but at $19.99/meg, increased my normal $85 bill to $265. Not only that, but I used my phone even more when in Paris recently, so I had a panic attack about a four digit bill in the pipeline.

I immediately called AT&T to sort the situation out, though I knew it was my own fault for a) Not getting an international data plan and b) Having no idea how much data is actually used when doing simple tasks.

Luckily, the AT&T agent understood my situation and really worked to help me out. In the end they slashed my $180 bill to $90 and added a $24.99 20 Meg international data package to my account, which would proactively cover the 12 megs I had used in Paris (which I would have been charged $240 for). They also told me how to monitor my data usage:

Settings -> General -> Usage -> Reset Statistics. This way, each time I travel and use my phone, I can track my data usage.

For kicks, I wanted to see how much data simple tasks used:
1) Check Twitter feed: 200kb
2) Check Facebook feed: 60kb
3) Send a 5 line email: 12kb
4) Did a Google search for “What to do in Paris on a Monday” and opened the first Tripadvisor article: 120kb
5) Load cnn.com mobile and open main headline: 150kb

If you did each of these, it would cost you $10 on AT&T international roaming pay per use (and let’s be honest, who loads their Twitter feed only once?).

My tips for avoiding heinous roaming data charges:

1) Get a data plan before you travel
I checked out the four main US providers to see what they offer:

AT&T- $19.99/ meg pay as you go international roaming (pretty much everywhere- including Canada).
Also offers straight forward international roaming data packages, where you can get data for as low as $1 meg.
20 Megs- $24.99 ($1.25/meg)
50 Megs- $59.99 ($1.20/meg)
100 Megs- $111.99 ($1.12/meg)
200 Megs- $199.99 ($1.00/meg)

Verizon- Has less options, but their unlimited plan is much cheaper than AT&T and Sprint. They offer an “unlimited email (which includes web data)” option for $64.99 a month.
Pay as you go data is $2.05/meg in Canda, $5.12/meg in Mexico and $20.48 in most other countries.

Sprint- Recently cancelled their $40/month unlimited international data plan. $16.38/ meg in most countries.

T-Mobile- Only has pay-as-you go- $10/ meg for Canada and $15/meg for everywhere else.

2) Know how much data you are using. If your phone can’t track data usage (see above for how to do it on the Iphone), try monitoring your normal data usage before your trip, so you know how much you use. Most providers allow you to track your current usage online in case your phone doesn’t allow you to track data.  There are also several Blackberry apps that can track your phone data.

3) Use WiFi as much as possible. If you phone is WiFi enabled, try searching for free hotspots because you turn on your data. For visitors in the US, all Starbucks now have free WiFi. Many hotels also offer free WiFi in the lobby (like most Ws).

4) Don’t roam while drinking. For some reason, my urge to data roam increases after a couple drinks. Especially when you are traveling to a great destination, you may not be able to resist NOT mobile uploading a classic shot of the Eiffel tower to make everyone at home jealous. But just think to yourself- is it worth $8 to upload that picture 30 minutes before you go back to the hotel and have free WiFi access?

5) Don’t be afraid to ask for forgiveness. Like in my situation, AT&T sliced my roaming charges in half and all I had to do was ask nicely. I think they all know how ridiculously priced international roaming is, so there is definitely wiggle room. Just be as nice as possible and hope for the best.

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