I hope that after reading yesterday’s post in this series, you’re feeling more confident about using a smart phone or cell phone abroad without coming home to a staggeringly high bill. After reading today’s post, whether you’re planning to travel with aging parents or embark on a different sort of trip, you should be well prepared to hit the road and stay in touch—all without busting the bank!

 

Use local free Wi-Fi services wherever possible.

Here’s one of the best pieces of advice I give to anyone traveling abroad: use a free local Wi-Fi network to check your e-mail or use apps during your trip. As you can probably guess, in addition to checking e-mail regularly I also use a lot of apps while traveling (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are among my favorites). But I do so only from a free Wi-Fi hotspot. I never want to pay exorbitant prices to tell my followers what I’m up to!

“Free” doesn’t mean the same thing as “safe,” though. Before using a free Wi-Fi hotspot, take a moment to check consider whether it’s secure from prying eyes and computers. Free hotel Wi-Fi that requires a password that you get from the front desk, for example, is probably fine to use. A publicly accessible network called “FREE!!!SuperSpeedyFreeWIFI,” on the other hand . . . well, that might be risky.

If you’re worried about your communications (including passwords) being intercepted on a public Wi-Fi network, you may want to limit your use of free Wi-Fi hotspots. (You can also take the precautions outlined in this post, including investing in a VPN, but they may be more technical than you want to get.) Regardless of how safe a Wi-Fi hotspot is, though, security experts agree that truly sensitive communications (such as banking account numbers and passwords) should never be sent on open Wi-Fi networks and only on secured networks.

 

Keep track of your data.

Monitor your data usage so you don’t go over the maximum your plan allows before the high rates kick in. I know what you’re thinking: “Keep track of how many megabytes of data I’m using during a trip? That’s crazy!” Don’t worry—your phone can do all the work for you! For example, a variety of apps are available for iPhones and Android devices to track data usage. Your service provider may be able to help, too: mine sends a text message to my iPhone when I hit my monthly data limit. It serves as a great reminder to get on Wi-Fi if for some reason I’ve haven’t disabled data roaming!

You can also look up the data usage on your phone. Ask your service provider how to do this or search the Internet for “how to monitor data usage on iphone” or “how to monitor data usage on android phone.” (On an iPhone, for example, go to Settings→General→Usage; other iPhone-specific suggestions can be found here. Some helpful tips for Android users are located here. )

Note: This suggestion requires a bit more work and is ideally suited for those of us who invest in a global plan or decide to use our phones even when they’re roaming.

 

Purchase a local SIM card at your destination.

In the USA, most phones are “locked” to particular carriers. (Thus, a phone may be set to work only, say, on the AT&T network and no others.) An “unlocked” phone, however, can be used on any carrier as long as the hardware is compatible with the network and you have a SIM card that works with your phone. Some service providers will unlock your phone if you’ve fulfilled your service contract; even if they do, though, there’s no guarantee your phone will be work at your destination because most of the world uses GSM phones and the USA (along with Japan and Korea) use a different standard.

A SIM card gives your phone a local phone number and lets you use it at local rates at your destination. If your phone is locked or doesn’t work on the frequencies at your destination, though, you can still take advantage of this option by purchasing an unlocked phone before you leave home. (For example, you can find some by searching for “unlocked quad-band GSM phone” on Amazon, where prices start at about $25 for a cell phone and $100 for an Android smart phone.) When you get to your destination, simply purchase a SIM card (available at airport kiosks, newsstands, and local stores) with the voice or data limits you want, pop it into the phone, and go! Keep in mind, however, that with this setup you have a local phone: it’s great for making calls at your destination, but far from ideal for calling back home.

 

Purchase a prepaid phone at your destination.

If you don’t want to bring your phone along but still want to make calls during your trip, you do have a couple of options. One is to purchase a cheap, prepaid phone when you arrive at your destination. (You can find these at many of the same places that sell SIM cards.) Another is to schedule a prearranged time to use a landline or a computer at an Internet cafe to check in with family members back home.

 

Turn off costly international plans upon your return.

Most service providers can schedule an automatic shutdown of any international plans you added for your trip. Sometimes, though, you’ll have to call them when you return and ask them to make the change manually. Either way, it can’t hurt to contact your service provider directly to double check your usage rates and manage your expectations.

I’ve found that right after I get home from a trip, it’s a good idea to call my service provider and ask if I had indeed selected the right plan (or if I went over in data, texting, or calling service). On a few occasions, the CSR told me that I went over my limits during my trip—but then switched me right then to a different plan that gave me a better rate for what I used.

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If all this data talk has your head spinning, I’ve got one more suggestion for you. It’s foolproof and anyone can do it, regardless of technical expertise: just turn off your phone while traveling and stop thinking about minutes and data usage altogether! After all, isn’t vacation all about disconnecting and relaxing?

Do you have other tips on using smart phones and cell phones while traveling—without incurring huge fees? Please share them in the comments!