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Strategies to minimize costs for cellular data on international trips

by Philip Sellers

My wife and I have both been traveling internationally some this year.  She took a trip to celebrate a milestone birthday.  I have had some business trips abroad.  We’ve learned a few things about both Verizon and AT&T and international phone and data plans.  Hopefully you can use the information to save money and have the familiar services you rely on (like us).

Have a plan.

Do not just assume that you’ll be ok because that’s a recipe for very high bills afterwards.

Strategy #1 – Disable Cellular Data while traveling.

This minimizes the costs of international calling by ensuring that the data portion of your phone is disabled.  WiFi exists in many countries and works well as an alternative.  Most hotels also have WiFi available also.  For calling, you can use Google Hangouts or Skype to allow VoIP calling back to home.

This strategy is good for anyone traveling – no matter how often.

Strategy #2 – Enable International Day Passes.

Both Verizon and AT&T offer the International Day pass, however as I learned with AT&T – it is not an automatic program.  You have to opt into the International Day pass and there is no cost for it each month unless you travel abroad.  When you get into another country and connect, your International Day pass will activate and you’ll have access to your normal domestic calling and data plan.  The cost for both Verizon and AT&T is $10 per day.

This strategy is best for the occasional International traveler or a traveler with an expense account whose company will cover those costs while working abroad.

Strategy #3 – International Calling Plans

The old-school strategy that still exists is using a dedicated international plan.  This is best for the repetitive traveler since many of these plans are add-ons that rebill on a monthly basis.  Some providers offer one-time bill International Options that give you access to minutes and data for a one-time fee.

Strategy #4 – Google Fi

Google’s Fi (formerly Project Fi) is a great plan that charges based on data usage up to a maximum amount.  The maximum amount is based on the number of users on the plan.  Plans start at $60 per month max, but for light data users it could be even more affordable.  Google Fi also prefers any open WiFi to using cellular, enabling users to avoid cellular data usage when WiFi is around.  All of the WiFi usage is for free.

The international portion of Google Fi is also included in the base charges for 170 countries.

Google also recently announced support for Apple iPhone with its Google Fi plans, although some native iPhone features like Visual Voicemail do not work.

Strategy #5 – In-Country SIM

During my last trip, a friend of mine had his phone stolen.  Being a social media coordinator for a major tech company, he needed the ability to have Twitter and things on a phone – so he was able to borrow a phone from a mutual friend (by the way, who travels with a spare phone?  @geeksroom does!).  He was able to pickup a in-country SIM for just a few Euro.  It includes 10GB of data for about €8 and was good for a month – much longer than our trip.  He could have opted for a local number with text and voice service – but he only needed data – so that was also an option.

These are surprisingly affordable and with the introduction of dual SIM phones and/or e-SIM phones, this method may be your best bet if you are looking to retain your normal number but have data from the in-country SIM.   There are kiosks and stores selling SIMs in just about every train station or Metro station of a major city where I have traveled.  You can often find them in the airport, also.

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