Vacationing abroad this summer? Keep iPhone charges in check

Planning a big international trip this summer and wondering how to make sure you don't get surprised with a shockingly high phone bill when you come home? Ask Maggie offers some advice.

Summer is here. And for lots of people that means it's time for a vacation abroad. So what should you do about your smartphone to ensure you don't get surprised with a massive phone bill upon your return?

If you're planning to leave the U.S., you might want to consider taking a few precautions before you leave to make sure you don't end up spending more on your phone bill than you spent on your plane ticket.

You could rent or borrow a phone for your trip with local service in the country or countries where you'll be traveling. Or you can pop in a local SIM card if you have an unlocked GSM phone for similar savings. This will save you money by allowing you to use local prepaid services while traveling. But it's not always the most convenient solution, especially if you're visiting multiple countries or you want the added convenience of using your own phone with your own phone number.

In this edition of Ask Maggie I offer some advice to iPhone subscribers who are planning international trips and want to avoid surprises on their monthly bills.

Want to save a buck on your travels? Disable data roaming and cellular data.

Dear Maggie,
I am traveling to China later this month for two weeks with a tour group. I don't think that I will need my iPhone while I am traveling, but I don't want to leave it at home. I'd still like to listen to music on the flight and maybe even e-mail friends while I am away. And in an emergency it would be nice to have a phone that I can use to call home if I absolutely need to do so. But for the most part I don't anticipate needing it, since I'll be with a tour guide and tour group most of the time.

I know that you have to be careful with iPhones while traveling overseas. I've seen stories about people who come home to huge phone bills. What's the best way to make sure this doesn't happen to me?

Thanks,
Margie

Dear Margie,
You are absolutely right about people getting surprised by hefty iPhone bills after they return home from a trip abroad. Most smartphone customers are on a fixed monthly service plan for voice and data. You're given a certain amount of voice minutes and a certain amount of data to consume each month. If you exceed these limits, you're charged overages.

Apple

In the U.S. this same flat rate plan generally works even if you happen to be in an area where your carrier doesn't have coverage. Today, most wireless operators offer free domestic roaming onto other carrier networks.

But when you travel outside the U.S. with your phone, you are no longer on your carrier's network. And roaming onto a foreign carrier's network is not included in your existing package. This means you will be charged for any voice minutes, text messages and data usage you incur while outside the country. And as you mentioned, these charges can be hefty.

If you're not careful, you could be charged for international roaming even if you don't mean to use your phone. For example, visual voicemail is actually a data service. So if you are listening to or even receiving voicemail messages while traveling in another country, you will be charged data roaming, which is considerably more expensive than voice services.

Here's how you can prevent these charges: Turn off data roaming and/or cellular data service.

You can turn off data roaming on your device by going to Settings>General> Network> Slide "Data Roaming" indicator to "Off."

This will make sure that your iPhone won't connect to a 3G network while you're traveling.

You can also turn off all cellular data. Go to Settings>General>Network> Slide Cellular Data indicator to "Off." This will turn off all cellular data, so when you return home, you'll have to remember to turn your data service back on to get a signal.

Turning off data roaming or cellular data still allows you to use your iPhone in Wi-Fi hotspots. While you're in a hotspot you can check e-mail and Facebook. You'll be able to surf the Web and you can even use voice over IP services, such as Skype to make phone calls to friends and family back home.

If you're calling another Skype user via the Skype app, it will be a free call. If you're calling a cell phone number or regular home phone number, you'll need a Skype Out account and you'll have to pay for the calls. The good news is that Skype Out's prices are far less expensive than a regular voice call made over the foreign carrier's network.

You can also use the iPhone FaceTime app while in a Wi-Fi hotspot if you want to make a video call. But as you are likely aware, you can only chat with other iPhone FaceTime users. And you'll be able to iMessage other iPhone users while in a Wi-Fi hotspot.

If you don't have access to a Wi-Fi hotspot and you need to make a phone call, just change the settings on your phone. You will then be able to connect to a Chinese carrier's network. You can make your call and then once again turn off roaming or cellular data on your device.

I hope this advice was helpful. And enjoy your trip!

Get an international data plan

Dear Maggie,
I am taking my son, who just graduated from college this spring, on a tour of Europe this summer. We'll be gone for three weeks, and we'll be visiting several countries, including France, Italy and England. We both have iPhone 4S smartphones from AT&T.

I don't think we will need to use our phones all that much. And I know we should use Wi-Fi hotspots when we can. But we may split up on some days, and it would be nice to have phones so that we can contact each other. Also, I am sure my son will want to stay in touch with all his friends via Facebook, Twitter and whatever other social networking sites he uses. I know using our phones while traveling internationally can be expensive. How can we make sure that the cost of our phone bills doesn't surpass the cost of the entire graduation trip?

Thanks,
Carol

Dear Carol,
That sounds like a terrific graduation gift. You are wise to start thinking about your smartphone strategy now before you get on the plane for Europe. There are quite a few awful tales of people who returned from vacations to foreign countries to find humongous phone bills. You definitely don't want to be one of those people.

As I mentioned to Margie in my response to her question, you can turn off data roaming and cellular data for those times when you know you won't need to use your iPhones for phone calls. If you want to search for something online or check e-mail, upload pictures to Facebook, or tweet about your adventures, it's best to do those things in a Wi-Fi hotspot where the data usage is free or you pay a flat fee for access with pretty much unlimited data usage.

But since you plan to use your iPhones at least some of the time to make phone calls and access data while not in a Wi-Fi hotspot, I recommend switching to an international data roaming package for the month. Remember that you must keep this plan in place for the duration of a billing cycle. This way, you will be able to get the full benefit of the plan.

If you cancel the plan before the end to the billing cycle, your carrier will prorate the cost of the service. But it will also prorate the full benefit of the plan. So if you were supposed to get 10GB of data for the month, you may only end up with only a fraction of that allotment.

You can sign up for the international plans online with your carrier or you can call customer service. Make sure you do it before you leave for your trip. With AT&T you can set up the plan to expire at the end of your billing cycle or you can call when that billing cycle ends and cancel it. This will not affect your contract terms, and you won't be renewing or restarting the clock on your contract. It also won't affect the status of your unlimited data plan if you are still hanging onto one of those plans.

For $6 a month you can get discounted voice service while traveling abroad. You will still have to pay per minute charges, which vary by country. But AT&T claims the rates are less expensive than if you made these calls without the international voice service.

As for the data service, AT&T just announced new pricing for its international data package . And even though the cost of the plan has come down, it's still not cheap.

You can get 120 megabytes of data for the month for $30 per month, 300MB of data for $60 a month, and 800MB of data for $120 per month. If you exceed these limits, AT&T will charge you another $30 for an additional 120MB of data. Keep in mind, these charges are in addition to your regular voice and data fees for your device.

Previously, AT&T charged $25 for 50MB, $50 for 125MB, $100 for 275MB and $200 for 800MB. Overage rates were billed at $10 per 10MB.

These international data plans are available for any device on AT&T, which includes smartphones as well as tablets and laptops. And because AT&T uses a network technology known as GSM, it's devices can offer data roaming in 130 countries around the world with voice service available in 225 countries worldwide.

Verizon Wireless offers similar international plans. Voice calls are also charged at high per minute rates, which vary depending on which countries you travel. And the data services are also similar to AT&T. That said, Verizon offers only one tier of data service. It offers 100MB of international data for $25 a month. If you want to add another 100MB of data, you pay an additional $25.

Keep in mind that the data in these international plans is at a much lower limit than the domestic data plan. On AT&T's plan 120MB of data costs the same amount as 3GB of data on a domestic data plan. So use your data allotment judiciously. If you sign up for one of these plans, you should also use Wi-Fi wherever you can to avoid going over your limit.

Have a great time on your trip. Bon Voyage!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. 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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