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Travel Tips: International Cell Phones

22-04-2016

Should you stay connected while traveling abroad? If so how?

Whether or not you want to stay connected while you are traveling is a very personal question. It depends on your level of responsibility and dependence with your career, family, and home, just to name a few factors. If you own your own business, for example, it may be essential that you are able to keep up with your emails; and if you are leaving children behind while you travel, you always want to make sure they can contact you in an emergency.

 

With so many options and the complexities of smartphone plans, it can be very confusing (and costly) to determine the best way for you to stay connected while you travel abroad. Although you will still need to do a fair bit of digging into specific mobile plans and options, we have provided some tips and summarized the options that we have found worked best for our clients in the past. We hope this post will help reduce the stresses that can accompany arranging international travel so you can start your adventure relaxed and ready to explore!

 

Items to consider when making your decision:

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  • How long are you traveling?
  • Where are you going? Major cities, countryside, multiple countries?
  • Are you going alone or with a group? Is it a large group that will need communication or a small group where you can share phones?
  • Who or what are you leaving behind?
  • Keep in mind that for any of Cyclomundo’s self-guided tours you are given the representative’s local cell phone number to call should trouble arise on your trip.

 

INTERNATIONAL CELL PHONE OPTIONS

 

International Package through Current Carrier (USA)

Most major cell phone companies offer international packages and through global partnerships it is becoming a much more practical option in terms of coverage and cost. Because you will continue to use your phone the same way you would at home, this may be the simplest option if you wish to stay somewhat connected while you travel, but be warned it has strict limitations depending on your carrier. Companies like AT&T or Verizon offer plans with reduced rates for international minutes or text messages. They also offer plans that include a specific amount of data usage for emails, internet, social media use, etc. This option is ideal for the traveler that needs to stay connected but plans to limit the time they focus on their obligations back home.

 

Best for trips:

  • Up to 1 month in length
  • Visiting multiple countries
  • Traveling alone
  • Leaving behind children or business

 

Limits:

  • Limited amount of minutes, texts, and data included in packages
  • High coverage charges (AT&T/Verizon: $10/day, 60-130/month)  

 

International Package through Current Carrier (UK/AU)

 

Most major cell phone companies offer international talk and text automatically, or offer international additions to plan packages for low prices. Through global partnerships, it is becoming a very practical option in terms of coverage and cost. Because you will continue to use your phone the same way you would at home, and use your regular phone plan, this may be the simplest option if you wish to stay connected while you travel. Companies like Vodafone UK and EE offer your regular plan internationally for free (As of January 2019, O2 does not offer international coverage plans in Cyclomundo countries, i.e. France, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland). Companies like Vodafone AU and Optus offer your regular plan internationally for a small daily/monthly fee. This option is ideal for the traveler that needs to stay connected, use their phone the same way they would back home, and keep the same phone number.

 

Best for trips:

  • Using your regular phone plan (calls, texts, and data)
  • Visiting multiple countries
  • Traveling alone
  • Leaving behind children or business
  • UK: no extra charges

Limits:

  • AU: $5 extra charge per day/$10 extra charge per month

 

International SIM Card

 

For the traveler who is staying for an extended period of time and plans on conducting business as usual, this is the more practical option. You can generally order your international SIM card before you leave, and activate the phone immediately upon arrival. Note that this option requires an unlocked phone to be used with your new SIM card. (Most phones can be unlocked with a request to your current provider [see your provider for any qualifications they might have]. An old phone that you no longer use has automatically been unlocked from the network provider and is also a good option.) You have an abundance of options for pay-as-you-go SIM cards from different providers, but there are also some companies that offer (unlimited) monthly plans without a contract (“sans engagement”) like Bouygues and Orange. I would not suggest this option for a very short trip, as it requires you to unlock your phone, purchase and activate a new SIM card, and use a new phone number while in Europe. This is quite a few steps, but for a longer trip it is definitely beneficial to have better connectivity and not be constantly worried about getting slammed with massive coverage charges. Particularly for visitors from the US, this is a much cheaper option than a US carrier’s international plan if you intend to stay 4 days or more.

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Best for trips:

  • 2 weeks or longer
  • Visiting multiple countries
  • Needing larger data options
  • Multiple trips to the same country (check with providers about reusable SIM cards)

Limits:

  • Costs and elements vary by plan (including multiple countries is standard, but double check which plans include all of europe/countries you will be visiting!)
  • Must navigate provider websites in foreign languages (try downloading a translator plugin such as Google Translate)

 

Pay-as-you-go Rental Phone

 

A rental phone with an international SIM card is a good option for those who will only need to be minimally connected as most of the phones offered are only good for calls and limited texting. This option is ideal for those on a strict budget because minute and text usage is cut and dry, while calculating data usage can be very tricky. Most of the providers of rental phones make the steps to activate and return the phone very clear. I would recommend this option for international travelers who only need to stay in contact with the group they are traveling with and/or contact Cyclomundo in case of emergency (broken bike part, personal injury etc.). Many rental companies like PicCell or Cellular Abroad frequently offer unlimited talk and text to all their users and they provide a virtual US or UK number so it is cheaper for anyone trying to contact you.

 

Best for trips:

  • Between 2 weeks and 2 months (rentals are sold per month)
  • Traveling with a large group

Limits:

  • Limited Data availability with rental phones
  • Remain aware of text/minutes as it is related to costs

 

WhatsApp

 

WhatsApp is a downloadable app for Android, iPhone, and Windows phones, as well as a computer application for Mac and PC. The app is free, and you can send unlimited messages to your friends and family using a cellular data plan and/or wifi. Voice calling and video chats are also free on the app, but again require cellular data and/or wifi. You can even send files (pdfs/pictures/videos) up to 100MB, so no need for emails or extra document sharing apps in order to send over important information such as your travel documents. What makes this different from Facebook Messenger is that WhatsApp uses end-to-end encryption. This means that only you and the person you’re communicating with can see your messages, and nobody inbetween- not even WhatsApp.

 

Best for trips:

  • Between 1 and 2 weeks (or as a supplement to the other options listed above)
  • Leaving behind friends and family (not children/business that may require emergency contact)
  • Wifi-accessible and/or data-covered plans

Limits:

  • Limited availability without additionally purchasing a data plan
  • Audio/Video calling quality is tied to wifi quality

 

TIPS FOR USING YOUR PHONE ABROAD

For whatever option, package, plan, or phone you choose to use while you travel abroad, we have some general tips that may help reduce costs and potential headaches.

 

1. Understand Your Options

Make sure you understand all the aspects of your international service before you leave and especially before you turn on your phone in another country. If you do not activate an international plan and you habitually keep your cellular data on when you land in another country, you could be charged for those emails and texts that automatically download. Having a clear understanding of the number of minutes, texts, and the amount of data you can use will make it much easier for you to negotiate the best way to communicate. For example, if you have a larger number of texts than minutes, it may be better to send two texts to check in with the house sitter and save the minutes for family calls. If you have a small data plan, be aware of places around you that offer free wifi, such as airports, hotels, and cafes!

 

2. Understand Your Phone

Androids are particularly sneaky phones when it comes to data usage, but with so many apps, connections to multiple accounts and complicated notification settings, all phones can be tricky to navigate. Automatic downloads and background features like weather or social media apps are the main culprits of constantly using data without your awareness. A simple solution if you don’t know all the tricks disabling your data usage is to only take your phone out of airplane mode when you are connected to a WiFi network. Another option is to turn off all data usage in the mobile network settings in which case you will only receive texts and phone calls. With any smartphone, it is a good idea to go through your settings and check which apps you allow to use cellular data before connecting to an international network.

 

3. Be Aware of Your Usage

The most important thing that can help you feel at ease with using an international phone network (and how much you are paying for it) is to remain aware of how much you are using. When you know how many texts, minutes, and data you have used, you don’t have to worry about going over your plan and won’t have any surprises when the bill arrives. For many people who have grown dependent on their phones, they are not even aware that they are playing a game or checking social media, so this is easier said than done. While it can be a challenge to disconnect from everything at home, reserving the use of your phone for only necessary communication can help you have a better overall experience while you bike through Europe. You may come to find you don’t miss those status updates so much after all.

 

PHONE OPTION RESOURCES

Verizon International Plans: https://www.verizonwireless.com/solutions-and-services/international/

AT&T International Plans: https://www.att.com/offers/international-plans.html

AT&T Data Calculator: https://www.att.com/att/international-data-calculator/international_data_calculator.html

Vodafone International Info UK: http://www.vodafone.co.uk/discover-vodafone/managing-my-costs/travelling-abroad

EE International Info: https://ee.co.uk/help/help-new/roaming-and-international/inclusive-roaming-allowance/where-can-i-use-my-inclusive-roaming-allowance

Vodafone International Info AU: http://www.vodafone.com.au/personal/international-roaming

Optus International Plans: https://www.optus.com.au/shop/mobile/phone-plans

B and You (Services most of Europe): https://www.bouyguestelecom.fr/forfaits-mobiles/sans-engagement

Orange (Services most of Europe): https://boutique.orange.fr/mobile/offres-prepayees

PicCell Rentals: https://www.piccellwireless.com

Cellular Abroad Rentals: http://www.cellularabroad.com/

WhatsApp: https://www.whatsapp.com/

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