Whether you’re hopping over the pond for a weekend or hiking through Southeast Asia for a month, choose wisely before you leave to avoid coming home to a gigantic phone bill.
Add an international plan to your phone. It may not be the cheapest way to go, but it’s the simplest, and some U.S. carriers are making their international deals more appealing. T-Mobile’s bundle of free texting, free data and 20-cents-per-minute calls is now available in 145 countries. Sprint introduced similar bundles you can add to existing plans. And Verizon recently debuted TravelPass, which lets you transfer your domestic plan’s talk, text and data allowances to more than 65 countries for a small daily fee ($2 for Canada and Mexico, $10 for all others). Be sure to confirm with your carrier that you will have coverage in your destination and that your phone will work abroad. Handset compatibility is more likely to be a problem with some older Sprint and Verizon devices that are “CDMA only,” a technology not widely used around the world. If your carrier doesn’t offer a favorable deal for your destination, don’t rely on pay-as-you-go service unless you plan to use your phone sparingly; you’ll shell out a couple of dollars or more per minute. And turn off data roaming altogether. Cruise passengers can check with their carrier for special packages or simply pay roaming fees if they must use their phones.
Load a free app. Free comA munication apps, such as Skype, WhatsApp, Viber and Facebook’s Messenger, generally let you call, text and send photos and videos to other app users at no cost. Some even let you call mobile numbers or landlines for a few cents a minute — and in the case of Google’s Hangouts Dialer, most calls to the U.S. and Canada are free. The catch? You need to be connected to Wi-Fi. “I travel all the time and have no issues,” says Logan Abbott, president of WireFly.com, a Web site that compares phone plans. If you go this route, set your phone on airplane mode to avoid accidentally racking up cellular charges, then turn on your Wi-Fi connection.
Go native. You may want the security of knowing you can call, text or look up directions on your phone at all times. If you’re visiting a single country, you own an unlocked phone and you plan to make mostly local calls, popping out your SIM card and substituting a local SIM card upon arrival can be economical. Prices vary widely, but Dave Dean, founder of TooManyAdapters.com, a travel technology Web site, says you’ll generally pay between $10 and $50 to get a month’s allotment of calls, texts and data. (Some countries make the setup process cumbersome, so check before you leave home.)
Hook up a mobile hot spot. If your phone is locked or you want to keep your U.S. phone number for calls and texts but avoid data roaming charges, you can buy or rent a mobile hot spot or “MiFi” device, a pocket-size gadget that creates a personal wireless connection. XCom Global, for example, charges $14.95 per day to connect up to 10 devices.
And for frequent fliers . . . A free Google Voice phone number rings all of your devices at once, transcribes voice mails, tracks missed calls, lets you dial international numbers cheaply and more.