10 ways to save on roaming charges when traveling with your smartphone

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One of the joys of  a road trip is that it gives you a chance to have something of an adventure without breaking the bank. But any savings you get from taking a car instead of a plane can easily be wiped out by a single massive cell phone bill. I’m not the only battle-scarred traveller who can tell tales of a cell phone bill that topped $1k after just a few days on the road (SXSW 2010, I remember thee well. As does my wireless provider.)

That’s why it pays to begin your web-savvy road trip with a little data planning:

  1. Buy a roaming plan. I login to my wireless account or call my wireless provider every time I leave the country, because roaming plans change frequently and I want to choose the best one for each trip. I find the Rogers customer service folks to be exceptionally helpful in choosing the right plan or combination of options, but if I’m already on the road it’s often easier to do the job myself by logging into the Rogers website.
  2. Get another set of SIM cards. We have a separate set of US SIM cards; when we’re travelling in the US, we pop out our Canadian SIM cards and re-activate our US accounts. (We’ve been using AT&T thus far, but will get Verizon cards next time we’re in the US so we don’t suffer the lack-of-service problems that plagued us during a recent trip to New York.) It’s way better to pay $30 for a generous iPad data plan than $75 for a really tiny amount of roaming data on our iPhones, so we turn off cellular data on our iPhones (to make sure we don’t use data accidentally) and then rely on the iPads.
  3. Turn off “push”. If you leave your phone’s data plan on, set your email program and other apps to “pull” only so that your email only downloads if you tell it to. Otherwise your email will download as it arrives, using up your data plan.
  4. Reset your usage stats as soon as you leave your roaming area. The best way to track your usage is to zero your phone or tablet’s stats on phone minutes and data usage. That way you can track any roaming minutes or data used, and make sure you don’t go over your plan. The first time you do this, check your data after your first task or two — you’ll be amazed at how much data you can use with a simple Google search. Once you have a sense of how quickly your data is getting used up, check your usage once a day, and even more often once you get close to your limit.
  5. Get a cheap phone. If you’re traveling outside your coverage area, consider buying a cheap pay-as-you-go phone that is native to the area you’re travelling in, so that you won’t run up you roaming plan making calls to sort out travel logistics. We have an AT&T Go phone that tells us exactly how much each call costs us, and try to stick to local calls only.
  6. Coordinate by text. If you’re anything like us, you are used to coordinating with your sweetie or travel pals through an endless succession of phone calls (“I’m out front — pick me up!”, “What corner did you say you were on?”, “OK, got a table, can you bring my sweater in from the car?”) This is probably what cell phones were invented for, but at roaming rates, it gets expensive. Buying a text message package is a lot cheaper, and makes it possible to connect by text instead of voice.
  7. Load your tablet and smartphone before you hit the road. Fill your phone or tablet with essential travel apps, music, podcasts and videos — many apps and podcasts are too large to download unless you’re on wifi, or else use up your data plan! I’ll provide some recommendations in my next post.
  8. Lock your phone after each call. Rob and I spent $76 to buy a block of 40 roaming minutes on each of our phones, and on the second day of the trip, used up all those minutes with ka butt call from him to me. I answered the butt call and hung up immediately, but since my iPhone touchscreen isn’t working properly, the phone didn’t hang up until Rob noticed and hung up the call an hour later. From this I learned how important it is to be sure you have ended each call, which you can do by locking your phone each time you hang up.
  9. Cancel your roaming plans after your trip. If you set up new SIM cards, phones or data plans for your trip that automatically renew, make sure to cancel them when you return home. Better yet, when you’re setting up the plan, ask if you can specify a cancellation date.
  10. Get a refillable credit card. Depending on where you’re travelling, you may find it hard to pick up a pay-as-you-go SIM or phone without a local credit card. I maintain a refillable Green Dot Visa account, linked to the US post office box that I use for occasional online purchases (for retailers who won’t ship to Canada). Between my US address and US credit card it’s not a problem to set up US-based devices.

Obviously, we’re getting into some extreme measures here, especially when you get to the point of establishing a separate credit card or post office box. If you’re taking a one-time-only trip to a new country, you probably won’t go to quite these lengths (though it may still be worth picking up a SIM card or pay-as-you-go phone, if it saves you on roaming charges and/or hotel rates).

But a road trip is, by definition, something you’re likely to do close to home. For many Canadians, US road trips are an easy getaway; setting up US connectivity can be worthwhile not only for the family driving vacation, but for US business trips. And Americans, I’ve got even better news: not only can you enjoy a beautiful drive through your favorite province (or two), but up here you won’t have to deal with AT&T’s lousy connectivity!

4 Comments on this site

  1. Tris Hussey

    Alex did you have to unlock your iPhones/iPads to use AT&T SIMs? I was tempted to do the SIM switch when I was in the States for a couple weeks.

  2. Anonymous

    Rechargeable credit cards definitely help in “roaming situations.” I use a prepaid card for almost everything. I even encourage my visitors to buy a prepaid credit card for purchases

  3. Kimberly Travaglino

    Great tips- definitely going to share these! thanks 

  4. Alexandra Samuel

    The iPads are unlocked by default. Our current iPhones aren’t unlocked, and while one of our iPhones is a first-gen that we bought in the US and unlocked, I’ve never had luck getting it to run on a US pay-as-you-go SIM, because I couldn’t get pay-as-you-go data. I haven’t tried in a while but I can’t imagine why I would at this point; it’s way easier to just use the iPad.

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