In our current era of thousand-page EULA's, small-print laden wireless contracts, and internet service monopolies, it's fairly common for travelers to encounter ridiculously high data and cell-phone roaming charges upon returning home from vacations abroad. Before heading out on your next worldly excursion, trick-out your cell phone to work in the most cost effective and comprehensive manner with this insider's guide to getting the most from your device when traveling abroad.
Get Your Phone Unlocked:
Thankfully, because of legislation passed in August 2014, unlocking you cell-phone for use on other networks is once again legal, though with a few minor caveats based on your current carrier. If your cell-phone is compatible with a network in your travel destination, you can have your cell-phone unlocked, purchase a prepaid SIM-card locally, and use your device on the new network for potentially huge savings - mostly by avoiding the international roaming charges that often come on domestic contracts.
Purchase Data Before You Arrive:
Most carriers offer international plans based on the country you plan to visit, and provide lists of the various packages on their websites. Take some time before you head out to estimate how much data usage you will need, and purchase the corresponding plan. You'll be happy you took care of this process early, so you won't be stuck making expensive calls to set it up once you are already on vacation.
App Grab! Helpful Travel Apps to Manage Usage and Connect with Others:
If you are expecting serious charges for international phone/text/data usage, download WhatsApp, Line, Google Voice, or Skype, and use those instead. When coupled with the app, My Data Manager (available on iOS and Android), users can monitor their cell-phone data usage with the help of restrictions and alarms to notify you as you begin to approach the data limits set by you in the "device settings" option. The benefit to using third-party apps for talking and messaging, despite the fact they work off of the same data-plan as your phone's inherent communication systems, is that they aren't susceptible to additional fees often added on by mobile carriers for international use.
Cutting Down on Background Data Use:
Though it often goes unnoticed, many apps automatically refresh in the background of your phone's inner-workings, things like automatic email syncing and iCloud/Dropbox/Google syncing. Disabling the automatic background syncing of such apps can save you a ton of data usage, and when you're traveling abroad, every megabyte counts. To manage which applications automatically update in iOS, go to Settings > Cellular, where you can scroll through the list of apps, checking and un-checking which you permit to use background data. For Android phones the same functions can be found in Settings > Data Usage.
The Wonderful World of WiFi:
If you are struggling to find an international cell-phone plan(s) that works for your needs, one solid last resort option is to turn off data roaming entirely, and only use your phone when you have access to a WiFi connection, say, in your hotel room for instance. As cost effective of a method as this can be, it's highly limiting, and many travelers need more active usage of their phone. This is where Auto Europe's industry know-how comes into play - we now rent palm-sized portable MiFi units providing a high-speed internet connection to travelers headed to Western Europe, allowing travelers to forgo purchasing potentially expensive data-plans, instead using our portable MiFi device to save on international data costs.