How to Minimize Costs When Using Your Phone Internationally and Top Apps for Communicating Abroad

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TPG contributor Debbie Emery did some research on the top ways to use your phone to communicate while traveling international, so read up before you get stuck with a huge bill after your summer trip abroad!

A mammoth cell phone bill after an international trip can wipe out any savings you might have gotten by booking an award ticket, not to mention undoing all the benefits of a relaxing vacation before your tan has even faded, or aggravating your boss with a mammoth expense request.

The nightmare scenario of opening the bill and seeing hundreds (or thousands) of dollars of international roaming charges has happened to many of us, and as much as you may pledge that you won’t use your smartphone while on the road – needs or temptations always arise – after all, you need to snap a few photos and post them on Facebook to make your friends back home jealous in real time!

With a little pre-planning and some helpful apps, however, it is easy to keep in touch from around the globe without it costing you the world. The most essential task is to get a data plan before you even take off, either by calling or registering online with your mobile carrier. While all the major cell companies give international travel assistance, AT&T and Verizon have the most detailed and flexible plans.

AT&T has a global plan to fit once-a-year vacationers or traveling professionals.
AT&T has a global plan to fit once-a-year vacationers or traveling professionals.

AT&T: AT&T has a variety of plans depending on where you’re traveling in the world.

For travel to Canada and Mexico, AT&T offers:
-For $30, 80 voice minutes at 38 cents per minute
-For $60 a month it is 200 minutes at 30 cents per minute
-For $120 it is 500 minutes at 24 cents per minute (50 cents per minute overages apply to all plans).

In Europe:
-A monthly charge of $30 gets 30 minutes at one dollar per minute
-For $60 a month it is 80 minutes at 75 cents per minute
-Or for $120 it is 200 minutes at 60 cents per minute (one dollar per minute overages apply to all plans).

In the rest of the world:
-A monthly charge of $30 gets 15 minutes at $2 per minute
-For $60 a month it is 40 minutes at $1.50 per minute
-For $120 it is 100 minutes at $1.20 per minute ($2 per minute overages apply to all plans).

The calling rate on cruise ships is $2.50 per minute, or you can buy a package that starts at $30 per month for 50 minutes with an overage charge of one dollar per minute.

The Global Messaging plan also has three tiers.
-For $10 a month, you can send 50 messages costing 20 cents to send (40 cents each for overages)
-For $200 you can send 200 messages at 15 cents a message (35 cents each for overage)
-Or for $600 a month you can send 600 messages at 10 cents a message (25 cents each for overages).

Without a plan, it costs 50 cents to send a text and 20 cents to receive.

For global data:
-120 MB costs $30
-300 MB costs $60
-and 800 MB costs $120.

Business travelers who live on their laptop, tablet or SmartPhone can sign up for the Data Global Add-On package and estimate their anticipated usage before embarking on their trip.

AT&T has its own easy-to-follow Travel Guide that allows you to see if your smartphone is compatible to work in Estonia, Mongolia or wherever your itinerary takes you. When roaming in Japan or South Korea, you’ll need a device that operates on 3G technology at 2100 MHz, however.

Verizon's comprehensive international calling/messaging plans offer a variety of global options.
Verizon’s comprehensive international calling/messaging plans offer a variety of global options.

Verizon: The Verizon International Dialing plan allows you to direct-dial international calls as long as your calling plan allows it, or through a pre-paid account.

For one-off occasional calls, pay per minute is the most cost effective, but if you are going on a long trip they recommend signing up for the Verizon Wireless International Long Distance Value Plan (be sure to call or log onto the Change Features page in My Verizon before you leave the US to set it up). The International Value Plan charges a monthly fee for discounted long distance rates. They have a wide range of global options depending on your trip length, how much you are going to use your phone and if you are a regular jetsetter or a once-a-year vacationer.

The Global Voice Plan costs:
-$4.99 per month with calls to most countries costing 99 cents per minute. Text messages cost 50 cents to send and 5 cents to receive. Multimedia messages cost 25 cents to send and 25 cents to receive.

For global data:
-100 MB costs $25, or pay-as-you go allows a variety of options including 2 cents/KB or $2.05/MB in Canada, or 5 cents/KB or $5.12/MB in Mexico.

For those hitting the high seas, cruise ship rates are $25/100MB for data and $2.46 per minute for voice roaming, and 50 cents per message sent and 5 cents per text message received.

The handy interactive International Trip Planner allows you to input your destination country (cruise or on-land), communication preference and your mobile device.  For adventurous travelers who are going off the beaten by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro or trekking into the Andes, a satellite phone rental is a great idea. A $500 authorization fee is required and all incoming calls are free and outgoing calls are charged at a flat rate per minute

T-Mobile offers limited plan options and focuses more on pay-as-you fees.
T-Mobile offers limited plan options and focuses more on pay-as-you-go fees.

T-Mobile: Originally only with pay-as-you go options, T-Mobile now has an International Talk & Text  plan to keep you connected overseas for $10 per month. Rather than a set rate across the board, however, they detail different rates for each country, for example calling a mobile phone in Australia from the US costs 33 cents per minute. Roaming calls when down under are $1.99 per minute. It costs 50 cents per text message to send and 20 cents to receive.

For global data, 1 MB costs $10 in Canada and $15 in the rest of the world.

Sprint keeps it simple with flat-rate billing.
Sprint keeps it simple with flat-rate billing.

Sprint: Sprint Worldwide offers voice, messaging and data coverage around the world based on a simple billing program so that you get a flat-rate for all calls placed and received, regardless of call destination.

For example, if traveling to Australia, it is $1.99 per minute or $1.69 per minute with Sprint Worldwide add-on. Text messaging is 50 cents to send and 5 cents to receive.

For data, 1 KB costs 1.9 cents (so $19 per MB).

The Best Apps For Keeping In Touch From Abroad

Whether checking college basketball scores, keeping track of your concert schedule at a music festival or finding the nearest coffee shop, there usually is “an app for that,” and international calling is no different. So no matter what carrier you have or which device, check out these bill-busting downloads before you rack up your roaming charges whether you’re calling back home from abroad, or want to keep in touch with friends you’ve made overseas.

Viber is an efficient way to message or call internationally and it syncs straight to your Facebook or cell contacts.
Viber is an efficient way to message or call internationally and it syncs straight to your Facebook or cell contacts.

Viber: If you have an iPhone, then Viber is considered by most to be the all-star app, allowing you to text, call or send photos/videos all over the world. While the voice-to-voice calls can sometimes be low-quality, it appears to be improving and Viber warns you of what level to expect so you can wait until you’re in a good hotspot to make your call. There are no fees or registration, and it links into you Facebook and digital phone book so contacts automatically pop up when a friend joins, eliminating the need for swapping numbers. Unlike other message platforms, Viber doesn’t drain your battery or use up your device’s memory, so you can always receive your incoming calls and message notifications without overloading your phone. It also has a handy location finder, so if you are off-the-beaten track abroad, your friends can easily find out from where your message was sent.

Skype offers free texts and calling to fellow customers on a wide range of devices.
Skype offers free texts and calling to fellow customers on a wide range of devices.

Skype: The original and many believe still the best, Skype is often the easiest way to stay in touch abroad, especially as it is available on a number of carriers and devices, which is especially appealing to non-iPhone users. Video and voice calls, and instant messaging and file sharing to other Skype users are free, while calls to mobiles and landlines incur variable fees depending on the country, for example to the UK it costs 2.3 cents per minute or $6.99 per month. With everyone from your grandmother to your four-year-old niece on the system, it is easy to find contacts to catch free face time with. Video conferencing options also offer an essential tool for remote professionals to keep in touch with co-workers around the world.

Fring allows you to use other VoIP providers — including Google Talk — on your smartphone.
Fring allows you to use other VoIP providers — including Google Talk — on your smartphone.

Fring: Available for both iPhones and Androids, Fring is a highly efficient buddy messaging system that allows users to access other  voice over internet (VoIP) providers — including Google Talk — on your smartphone or even on an iPod Touch. It also allows you to video chat with up to four people at a time.

WhatsApp: Already a huge market for texting overseas, WhatsApp is free for the first year and a measly 99 cents after that, plus it works on Android, iPhone, Blackberry, Windows Phone, Symbian and Nokia. Globe-trotters can share their location on Google Maps, attach an image, video, audio clip, or contact to a message, insert an emoticon, or change their signature wallpaper.

WiFi Finder only locate service but also rate the locations, strengths, and availability of the signals.
WiFi Finder not only locates service but also rates strengths and availability of signals.

WiFi Finder: Struggling to find WiFi is the bane of many a traveler’s life, and you can’t always expect to be near a Starbucks or your hotel service (assuming they have one). WiFi Finder is a free app that has an online and offline directory of over 500,000 different hotspot locations in 144 different countries. The app relies on users submitting their local hotspot locations to a central WiFi Finder server, it then stores and relays all its WiFi information to all of its app users. Although iPhones and most Androids have a built-in WiFi scanner, this app charts the locations, strengths, and availability of the signals, instead of just listing them, then once you find the optimal WiFi network, you can log on to use one of these other communications apps.

Whistle: Unlike Skype, which charges to call landlines, the Whistle app lets you call through the Internet to any US phone – landline or mobile – for free for 20 minutes. After the minutes are up, you can recharge your account in denominations of 99 cents. Whistle also lets you call for free to any other Whistle user.

Tango: Tango is another VoIP app that uses 3G, 4G or WiFi to make calls from anywhere. The calls can be video or audio, and currently people in 190 countries are using the service for calls, of which 80 percent are video. The app is free and is available on the iPhone, Android, Windows phones as well as laptops and desktops. 

HiTalk: Available on iPhones and Androids, HiTalk is a basic international call and text service that boasts HD sound and clear calling quality so you will no longer be the loud American screeching in an Italian cafe.

Voxofon offers hybrid VoIP calls and messaging for BlackBerrys.
Voxofon offers hybrid VoIP calls and messaging for BlackBerrys.

Voxofon: Another popular VoIP, Voxofon signs straight into Facebook so you can easily connect with all your virtual friends for free messaging and calls. A major advantage is that it can be downloaded onto BlackBerrys and Windows devices, as well as iPhones and Androids. For calls to non-Voxofon members, rates vary from country to country, and for example start at one cent a minute to the UK.

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