We've all heard the horror stories of travellers coming home to massive cell phone bills after an international vacation. If you are a frequent traveller, you have probably found yourself in an area where it has been difficult to get in contact with those back home. While some people like to 'switch off' on vacation and don't want to any receive calls whilst travelling, having some way to contact friends, family and colleagues back home is something more and more of our clients are asking about. Although technology changes all of the time and different options are available in different countries, here are some current tips on how to stay connected from overseas:
1. Sims, Cells and Services:
Decide whether to use your own phone and plan or purchase an international sim card to use whilst travelling.
- If you decide to use your own phone, make sure that the phone itself is compatible with the country you are visiting. Cell phones are set to work on specific bands of frequency and a lot of countries don't use the same frequency as the US does. A quick internet or Wikipedia search will tell you which frequencies each country and cell phone is compatible with. Once you have worked out whether your cell phone will work, you need to make sure that your carrier has activated international calling on your account. Even if you decide that you are only going to use your phone for emergencies and don't want to add an international calling feature, you may still have to activate the ability to make a call from overseas. If you decide to add a feature that will reduce the price of calling from overseas, there are normally two types you can add to your domestic cell phone plan. In both cases, the cost involved is normally different depending on the country that you are visiting. The first is a discount add-on that will reduce the cost of each minute you use and/or text or megabyte of data you send or receive. These are sometimes the best way to go if you only plan on very limited usage. The second is a bundle which is purchased in advance and gives you an allotment of features to use whilst you are overseas. Knowing exactly what is included in the bundle is key also. For example, most bundes come with limited minutes and almost all international bundles come with no or very limited data. Knowing how to check how your minutes or data usage is vital to not going over the allotted amount. The nation's four largest carriers (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint) offer various rates and plans for using your phone overseas. Click on the links to find out more.
- If you decide to purchase a new sim card, you could either use your own phone, if it's unlocked or purchase a new phone to use specifically with the international sim card. In a lot of countries, the sim card itself is free when you purchase an amount of credit or minutes to use. They normally set you up with a new number and all you need to do is slot it into an unlocked device and you are ready to go. Alternatively, you should be able to buy a package that includes a new phone and sim card (this is sometimes the best option if you are staying for a long period of time or plan to return multiple times to one destination). For example, in Britain the most basic types of phone cost as little as £10 and sometimes even come with credit to make calls! There are also companies that specialize in providing sim cards that can be used in multiple countries for reduced rates (One SimCard, WorldSIM and GO-SIM are a few examples)
Data is probably the biggest factor when it comes to unexpected high overage charges on cell phone bills after overseas travel. Many devices and their apps are set to automatically update when new software comes out. If you happen to be overseas when a new operating system update for your phone comes out and have data enabled, it can result in huge overages. You can avoid using data completely by either contacting your carrier and having them disable it on your account or by disabling data on the device itself. A common way of disabling data is by putting your cell phone into Airplane Mode. This disables all network functionality including text and calls, so if you only want to disable data, on most devices, you have to go into settings and and make sure that the 'mobile' data is unticked or selected as 'off'.
WiFi is no longer only used by businessmen looking to hook their laptops up with email for the latest budget reports. Most travellers, from backpackers to jetsetters, are now able to connect various devices to WiFi to make calls, send text and email, go online, connect to social media and download all sorts of different media for free. Being able to connect to the internet in this way whilst overseas has revolutionized the way that we can stay in contact with the world back home. Making sure the place you are going to stay has WiFi available (preferably for free) or that there is a place close by that will allow you to connect is now an important factor when considering accommodation options.
As we mentioned above, there are many different ways to use your cell phone to make contact with those back home if you can find a WiFi or internet connection whilst travelling. Most of these features require the installation of some sort of app. Obviously, there are well known apps such as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest that allow you to connect, post images and Facebook also just introduced a calling feature which allows you to call other Facebook members. However, there are some less common applications which can make it easy to call US numbers, send text messages and make video calls all for free. We have listed them below with a brief description for each:
- Google Voice: Users can place outbound calls to domestic and international destinations from their cell phone app, from the web-based application, or by dialing their Google Voice number. As of August 2011, users in many other countries also may place outbound calls from the web-based application to domestic and international phone numbers. Domestic and outbound calls to the United States (including Alaska and Hawaii) and Canada are currently free from the U.S. and Canada and $0.01 per minute from everywhere else.
- Viber: A cross-platform instant messaging voice-over-Internet Protocol application for smartphones developed by Viber Media. In addition to text messaging, users can exchange images, video and audio media messages.
- WhatsApp Messenger: A cross-platform instant messaging service for smartphones and selected feature phones that uses the internet for communication. In addition to text messaging, users can send each other images, video, and audio media messages as well as their location using integrated mapping features.
- Skype: Allows users to communicate with peers by voice using a microphone, video by using a webcam, and instant messaging over the Internet. Phone calls may be placed to recipients on the traditional telephone networks. Calls to other users within the Skype service are free of charge, while calls to landline telephones and mobile phones are charged via a debit-based user account system.
Having someone back home that knows exactly when and where you are at any point during your vacation is helpful too. You can leave this information with anyone, but if you have used a travel agent to book your trip you already have a person that will know where you are going to be. All you have to do is hand their information to your friends and family in case of an emergency. A good travel agency will also offer an after hour number or alternative way for you to contact them in case you need anything whilst traveling. If you leave a list of important people with them, they may also be able to relay any messages you need to be passed on to people back home.