Although I would love to disconnect completely while on vacation, running my own consulting and training company means I can’t go totally offline. But I do try to limit checking e-mail to once a day—instead of checking it once every ten minutes, as I do when I’m working!

In spite of such discipline, however, I find that when I’m traveling I actually use my iPhone more than when I’m at home! I use it for countless tasks: getting flight updates, checking restaurant reviews, looking up directions, sharing on Facebook, and reading about local tourist spots, to name just a few. I love having so much useful information right at my fingertips.

What I don’t love, however is coming home to a smart phone bill higher than the cost of my trip. (I’m sorry to say that I have firsthand experience with this scenario. Ouch.) No doubt you’ve heard the horror stories about travelers who rack up thousands of dollars in roaming charges during a trip abroad—or perhaps you’ve been one of those unfortunate travelers yourself. These charges can be especially tricky to avoid with so many of us addicted to e-mail, texting, Facebook, Instagram, and other applications that eat up tremendous amounts of data. Unless you have a prepaid plan that cuts off your device when you’ve spent all of your allocated funds, you run the risk of racking up a huge bill when your usage exceeds your usual limits (which often happens when traveling).

Lesson learned: take the time before traveling to find out how to avoid exorbitant charges while you’re on the road, both for yourself and for Mom or Dad. After all, when you travel with aging parents, you just know that they’ll want to post photos and updates on Facebook during your trip! So you need to figure out a way for them to do this without going broke.

Fortunately, you can benefit from my hard-earned (and dearly paid!) experience! In this two-part series, I present plenty of useful tips and suggestions for staying online during your trip without taking a hit to the wallet when you return home. I follow these tips myself, so I know from personal experience that they work!

The vocabulary for these matters can be a bit confusing, so here are a few terms you’ll need to understand in order to get the most out of this discussion:

  • Smart phones (sometimes also called mobile devices): These devices can make phone calls and access the Internet. To use them you need a calling plan (measured in minutes of talking), a texting plan (measured in number of texts), or a data plan (measured in MB of uploads or downloads)—or some combination of these three. These include iPhones, Android phones, Blackberries, and Windows phones.
  • Cell phones: These devices only make phone calls. They do not access the Internet. To use them you need a calling plan (measured in minutes of talking); a texting plan (measured in number of texts) is optional.
  • Roaming charges: These fees apply when your smart phone or cell phone uses another service provider’s network, usually because your own network is unavailable. Because you’re not on your own network, you end up paying much higher than usual rates.

(Note: Most of my tips apply to both smart phones and cell phones, so I use “phone” through these articles. If a suggestion is particular to one device or the other, however, I’ll use “smart phone” or “cell phone,” depending on which is relevant.)

 

Call your service provider.

Whenever I look up the international calling, data, and texting plans on my service provider’s website, I feel like I’m reading a foreign language. Talk about confusing! So I’m a big fan of calling the company directly to ask for an easy-to-understand version of the terms. Before you pick up the phone, however, first check the company’s website to familiarize yourself with your current plan. This helps you figure out what questions you need to ask when you speak with a customer service representative (CSR).

Tell the CSR where you’re traveling and verify that your phone will even work in that area. (In some remote parts of Asia, for example, I’ve had no mobile access whatsoever!).  Be sure to discuss all of your existing plans with the CSR: data, texting, and calling are usually measured—and billed—separately. Then consider whether you’ll need to modify any of those plans (usually by increasing their limits) for the duration of your trip.

Be prepared to be confused even speaking with a CSR. Keep in mind that the CSR’s job is to help you, though, and if you’re patient and persistent this conversation will eventually yield information that’s both understandable and useful.

Don’t be afraid to ask the CSR for recommendations! With my service provider, for example, the data plans I can choose for international travel have limits of 120MB, 300MB, and 800MB. Off the top of my head, I haven’t the slightest idea which is the best option for me, but a CSR can look up my usage for the last couple of months and offer a recommendation based on those numbers.

 

Turn off roaming when you’re not using it.

Even when you aren’t making a call or using the Internet, your phone may still be accessing the Internet by updating applications (apps) and checking for e-mail, among other tasks. This “passive” phone use can end up costing you a lot of money! Learn how to turn off roaming on your phone and make sure to do so whenever you aren’t actively using your device. In other words, activate roaming just long enough to check your e-mail or upload a status update to Facebook, then turn it off as soon as you’re done.

Warning: Some third-party applications override the data roaming settings on smart phones. Before downloading an app like this, the user is usually notified (in very tiny print, of course!) that the app has the ability to turn on data roaming. If you download a lot of apps on your smart phone and don’t remember their terms and conditions, either look through them before your trip and delete the ones that override roaming settings or keep your device turned off while traveling.

Here’s another precaution that could save you some bucks: if you have an iPhone, turn off push notifications; if you have an Android phone, turn off auto sync. Doing this stops your e-mail app from checking for new mail and prevents most apps from automatically updating. (Both of those processes use quite a bit of data and can quickly put you at your limit.)

 

Remember that airplane mode is your friend.

Many phones have a setting called airplane mode that shuts down a phone’s ability to make and receive calls but allows the use of its other functions, such as apps, texts, and calendars. Many phones can still connect to Wi-Fi when in airplane mode. If you don’t need to use the calling or text messaging services on your device while traveling but still want access the Internet (say, to check e-mail or update your Facebook status), leave it in airplane mode and use it only when connected to a Wi-Fi network (available at many hotels and cafes).

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Following any one of these suggestions can save you some serious bucks on your phone bill when traveling abroad. Following all of them might save you enough money to pay for the entire trip itself! (Well, maybe not quite . . . but you never know!)

I’ve got several more money-saving tips for you, so come back tomorrow for the second post in this series!