​Traveling abroad this summer? Assessing your best smartphone options

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon breaks down best ways to use your smartphone while overseas without breaking the bank.

It's that time of year again when adventurous souls dust off their passports and venture abroad for a summer vacation. But what should you do if you don't want to leave your smartphone or tablet behind?

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This is a question that I am asked throughout the year, but it comes up most often as summer approaches when many people prepare for summer vacations overseas.

The bottom line is that travelers no longer have to leave their devices at home or keep them turned off for the duration of their trip for fear of coming home to phone bills larger than the cost of their plane tickets. While we still aren't at the point where globetrotters can be completely carefree about their phone usage while exploring foreign lands, it is getting easier and less expensive to use a smartphone or tablet while on the go in another country.

Most of the advice I've given in previous years still holds true today. But in this Ask Maggie, I've included some updated information, as well as a general overview of which methods are best for different types of travelers.

European vacation and the smartphone dilemma

Dear Maggie,

My 16-year old daughter is going to France for two-weeks this summer with her friend's family. We are planning to send her on the trip with her Galaxy S4 smartphone. I've heard that it is less expensive to buy a local SIM card while traveling abroad. Is this the best option or should we simply sign up for our carrier's international roaming plan? Any tips you can offer would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks,

Lisa

Dear Lisa,

This is a great question. But deciding which is the best option for any international traveler depends on several factors. This includes how long you plan to be abroad, how many countries you plan to visit on your trip, and what you expect to be doing with your device while out of the country.

To give you a sense of your options and when they're most appropriate, I'll explain what these options are and who is most appropriate to use them. Then I'll answer your question more specifically for your daughter.

Let's start with the basics: There are four main options when it comes to taking your smartphone abroad. Each choice has its pros and cons.

1. Turn off cellular data and use Wi-Fi exclusively.

Pros:

This is the least expensive option you will have while you're traveling. If you simply put your device in airplane mode and keep the Wi-Fi radio turned on you will not roam at all while traveling internationally. This means you won't be charged anything if someone tries to call your phone or sends you a text message while you're away, because the domestic service will basically think you're phone is turned off. Depending on where you are traveling, you may be able to access free Wi-Fi hotspots in your hotel or resort, at local cafes or in public parks.

Access to Wi-Fi will allow you to check emails, upload pictures to social media sites, surf the Web to look up tourist sites, and local restaurants. You can even call folks at home using a voice over IP or video conference app, such as Skype or Apple's FaceTime.

Cons:

The biggest downside to this approach is, of course, Wi-Fi's limited range. By going exclusively with Wi-Fi you will be limiting your Internet access to times when you are in a hotspot. This isn't ideal if you want to use your smartphone for turn-by-turn navigation or if you think you'll want Internet access everywhere you go.What's more, because you are essentially turning off all cellular service, friends and family will not be able to reach you via phone call or text message while you're away. But I suppose this could also be seen as a pro for some travelers.

Who should choose this option?

This is a good choice for people who are on vacation for one or two weeks and don't mind being "disconnected" from life back home. While these may not be travelers who are looking to completely "unplug" from their digital lives, they don't need to be constantly connected and are satisfied with occasional Internet access for checking in with family and friends via email, Skype or whatever form of Net-based communication they prefer, updating social media with gorgeous holiday photos, and browsing the Web as they look up restaurants, information on local attractions, or directions to their next destination.

2. Subscribe to your domestic carrier's international plan.

Pros:

The biggest benefit to simply signing up for your carrier's international data plan is the fact that it is the easiest option available and keeps you the most connected to loved ones back home. Because your phone isn't turned off and you are able to use your existing phone number, friends and family can still reach you the same way they would if you were down the street in the US. It is less expensive than not having an international plan at all if you plan to use it for phone calls or Internet access while away.

Another advantage is that you don't have to worry whether your phone is unlocked or not. Whether its locked or unlocked, your device will still roam on a foreign network.

Cons:

It's still pricey compared to other options. I'll use AT&T as an example. The carrier offers three separate international services that require additional fees to your regular monthly service. You will need an international calling plan, which will provide you with a set bucket of minutes for your phone calls. This starts at $30 for 30 minutes of talk time. You'll need a text messaging plan, which will cost you another $10 for 50 messages. And you'll need a data plan. This starts at $30 for 120MB. If you plan to talk more, message more or use more data, you can pay for additional buckets of usage.

As you can see, these limits are pretty small. But keep in mind, most travelers don't need the service for an entire 30-day period. Most people traveling abroad go away for a week or two. So even though the amount of data, for example, is small, you won't be consuming as much as you typically do in this two week period as you would consume in an entire month.

Who should choose this option?

Even though this is likely the most expensive option, it's the easiest and most convenient choice. So if you are only planning to be away for a week or two, it may be worth it to pay a little extra so you don't have to deal with the hassle of being limited solely to Wi-Fi, finding a local SIM card, or pre-purchasing a SIM before your trip. It's also the best option for people who are only taking their cell phone on their travels so that loved ones or work colleagues can reach them in an emergency.

AT&T has tried to sweeten the deal for its subscribers traveling abroad by offering an additional 1GB of data Wi-Fi usage for anyone who subscribes to the $60 (300MB) or higher international data package. This provides access to Wi-Fi at no additional charge via AT&T's international partners in addition to the data roaming offered as part of the package.

T-Mobile also offers a great deal for international travelers. The carrier now includes unlimited data roaming and text messaging in 120 countries for anyone subscribed to its $50 unlimited talk, text and data plan on its domestic network.

But there is a catch. This data service is not offered at top speed, so video and audio streaming may be difficult with this service, the company says. The speeds should be good enough for checking email and social networking sites as well as some GPS navigation and looking up local attractions on the Web. T-Mobile also offers higher speed network access for an additional fee. But pricing for the additional speeds can also get quite hefty.

Also, don't forget that you can still apply some of the strategies used by folks relying entirely on Wi-Fi. This means using Wi-Fi wherever it's available instead of the cellular network to do all of your heavy data lifting. And again, if you have Skype, you can make your longer phone calls back home while in a hotspot rather than using up your precious voice minutes.

3. Purchase a local SIM card once you arrive.

Pros:

As with many things when you're traveling, if you live more like a local, you're likely to save some money. This is also true for cell phone users. Using a local SIM card in an unlocked device can save you significant amounts of money. CNET blogger Danny Sullivan wrote last summer that he was able to find a local SIM card when he traveled to the UK that offered him unlimited data, 300 minutes of talk time, and 3,000 text messages for $30 on the UK wireless service 3.

Cons:

The inexpensive price tag of a local SIM sounds very enticing, but there are also several drawbacks.

-You won't be able to use your existing phone number. When you pop in a new SIM, you'll get assigned a phone number from your local country. This means friends and family won't be able to call or send you a text message without the new number.

-You'll have to find a store or vending machine that sells local SIM cards. In Danny Sullivan's story he found a local SIM in the UK easily in a vending machine at the airport. Depending on which country you are in, SIM cards may not be so readily available. You may have to take precious time out of your vacation or business trip to hunt down a local wireless shop or some other retail location selling SIM cards.

-Operator access and instructions for your new service will be in the local language. If you only speak English, getting a local SIM in the UK, Ireland, or Australia should be simple since they speak English. But if you're in France, Spain, Germany, China or any other country that doesn't speak English, you may have a difficult time setting up your new phone number or even getting operator assistance, since they will be speaking the native language.

-You also need to make sure your phone will work with the local SIM. First, you'll have to make sure your phone supports the technologies used while you're abroad and is unlocked. So-called world phones with GSM radios will operate in most countries. But you should check your phones specifications before you leave just to make sure.

Then you need to make sure that the phone you're using is unlocked by your US carrier. The carriers have different policies about unlocking devices, so check with your operator to see if you can get your device unlocked. It's important to note that if you have a Verizon 4G LTE smartphone, it will be unlocked out of the box. This is not the case for other 4G LTE smartphones sold by other US carriers. They will have to be unlocked by the carrier, even if you have bought it at full price.

Lastly, you want to make sure the SIM card you are buying fits your phone. Full-sized SIMs or Mini SIMs aren't used much anymore, instead many of the newer smartphones use micro SIMs. Some phone manufacturers are using nano SIMs, such as Apple's iPhone 5 and iPhone 5s. When you are purchasing a local SIM, you'll want to make sure you are buying a SIM that will fit into your device.

-Your local SIM will likely incur roaming charges if you travel to another country. European wireless operators charge each other hefty roaming rates when subscribers travel among various countries. So depending on the carrier and local prepaid SIM that you're using, you could still rack up roaming fees if you are planning to visit more than one country.

Who should choose this option?

This is a good option for people who will be spending an extended period of time abroad. For example, a student studying in a foreign country for a semester or a business traveler who returns to the same country several times a year. These are travelers who are also more likely to actually use the local voice calling minutes. And they will also have a greater need for more text message allotments and bigger buckets of data.

But this option may also be a good for the tech savviest traveler even if he or she will be away for a shorter period of time. The main reason is that you local SIM plans often give you the most data for the least amount of money, making this a good deal for people who plan on using a lot of data and don't mind the hassle of locating a local SIM.

4. Purchase an international SIM or rent an international MiFi before you leave.

A twist on purchasing a local SIM card is to pre-purchase an international SIM card before you leave for your trip. Additionally, you may want to look into renting a MiFi, which is a device that provides a local Wi-Fi hotspot connected to a cellular data service.

Pro:

-It allows you to hit the ground running with a wireless access as soon as you land.

- If you buy an international SIM, you'll be able to check to make sure your SIM card fits into your phone before you leave for your trip.

-Depending on which provider you choose, you could use the SIM card or MiFi in multiple countries without incurring hefty roaming charges.

-Instructions for device setup and operator assistance will be in English.

-Using a MiFi. you will have data connectivity not only for your smartphone, but also for tablets and other Wi-Fi enabled devices wherever you go.

-You'll also get bigger data allotments for the same price with an international SIM or MiFi than you'd get with your carrier's international roaming plans.

Cons:

-Pre-purchased SIM cards may be slightly more expensive than buying a local SIM card on-site. For instance, Cellular Abroad sells an international SIM card with unlimited voice, text and data for the UK that is $40. As I mentioned earlier, a local SIM from a UK carrier can offer similar service for $30.

-Just like with a local SIM card, if you're using an international SIM, you will not be able to use your existing phone number from your domestic wireless operator with your phone while abroad. You will be assigned a local number for the country you'll be traveling to, and you may also get a US number so that people calling you won't be charged an international rate. But it won't be the phone number you use on a day-to-day basis at home.

-The rented MiFi is charged per day with prices ranging from $5 a day to $15 depending on your length of stay and which service you are using. This could get expensive if you plan on a longer visit.

-The reseller selling you the international SIM card or renting you the MiFi chooses the network you will be using. And the network that is chosen may not provide the fastest speed or best access in that particular country.

-If you do need local support, you won't be able to find an actual person in a shop, who can help you. You will have to deal with support via the Web or by phone. And if your device isn't providing access to either that could be difficult and frustrating.

Who should use this option?

Both the international SIM and International MiFi are appropriate for just about any traveler, whether it's a business traveler or someone on vacation for either a short or extended period of time. Again, this is a good option for people who plan on using a lot of data while overseas. The pre-purchased international SIM and MiFi are particularly useful for people who will be visiting multiple countries on their trip, since plans usually include the option to roam to one or more countries while on the trip. The rented international MiFi is particularly useful if you are chiefly interested in having ubiquitous and unlimited Web access for your smartphone and other devices while traveling.

What should your daughter do?

Since she is going on a trip with another family and will only be gone for two weeks, I would not recommend purchasing a local SIM card for her phone, even though it's likely to be the cheapest option available. The main reason is that it could turn out to be a huge hassle for her and the family she is traveling with, because they will have to spend time locating a vending machine or store that sells the SIM card.

Instead, I'd recommend renting an international MiFi for the two weeks she is away before she leaves for her trip. Cellular Abroad rents MiFis for $5 a day if your trip is between 1 and 14 days. For her two-week trip, it will cost you $70. This option won't require her to get her phone unlocked. And she will have unlimited access to wireless data that she can use to share photos via Instagram of all the cool sites she is seeing, tweet about her experiences in a foreign land or call home via Skype. And since it's a MiFi, she'll be able to connect her tablet (if she's traveling with one) and even her friend's smartphone to the service to get wireless Internet access.

If you go this route, I'd suggest turning off cellular data roaming on her phone for the duration of her trip, but leaving Wi-Fi turned on. And if you want to make sure you can always get in touch with her, she can leave cellular voice roaming turned on. But I would just caution her and her friends back home to go easy on the phone calls and text messaging while she is away. Instead, encourage friends and family to stay in touch with her via an Internet based service, such as WhatsApp. Still, it might not hurt to sign up for an international text messaging package just to make sure you aren't surprised with additional charges on your bill.

If by chance your daughter is a T-Mobile subscriber, then I wouldn't do anything additional. As I mentioned above, T-Mobile now offers its unlimited voice, text and data customers free international data roaming and text messaging in 120 countries, one of which is France. So if she is already subscribed to this plan here in the US, she will be good to go while traveling in France. That said, T-Mobile's international offer doesn't apply to voice calls. So she should still find a Wi-Fi hotspot to call you via Skype. But it also won't cost you too much if you keep the calls short. And of course, you can always communicate with her via text messaging, which for a 16-year old is likely the only way she communicates with you anyway.

I hope this advice was helpful. I hope your daughter has a fantastic trip.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

 

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