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Use your phone abroad without breaking the bank

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET’s Marguerite Reardon sorts out value options for accessing the internet while abroad.

The last thing you want to come home to after a once-in-a lifetime family vacation abroad is a $2,000 phone bill.

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We've all heard the nightmare stories of people who travel internationally and then get a ridiculous cell phone bill upon their return. But it doesn't have to be that way. Here's some advice on using your smartphone while traveling abroad without breaking the bank.

Dear Maggie,

Our family is traveling to Europe this summer for a two-week vacation. What's the best option for using our phones? We won't really need it to make calls (Unless there is an emergency, of course.) But we would like to be able to use Google Maps, Uber and look up restaurants or information about local tourist attractions. Do you have any tips so we don't come home to a bill that is a gazillion dollars?

Thanks,

Travellin' Band

Dear Travellin',

I hear you. Who uses a phone to call people anymore? Today's smartphones offer the internet in our pockets. And once you come to depend on that always-on access, it's hard not to have it -- even if you are on vacation and trying to relax. But if you think about it, apps like Google Maps are even more valuable when you're someplace you've never been.

Here's a look at different options for getting data service while traveling abroad. And I also throw in a few tips to help you conserve data while you're gallivanting through Europe.

Google Project Fi

If you're already a Google Project Fi customer, you're in luck. Google's wireless service, which uses both Wi-Fi and cellular networks to offer phone and mobile internet service, offers one of the the easiest and most cost-effective solutions for international travelers.

The plan is structured so you only pay for what you need. You start with $20 for basic phone and text messaging service. Then you add data in 1GB increments for $10 a month. The beauty of the plan is that regardless of whether you are in the US or somewhere else in the world, that data charge is the same.

But there's a catch. You need a Google device to get the service. This means either a Pixel, Pixel XL or a Nexus 6 or Nexus 5. Google does offer Project Fi subscribers up to 10 data-only SIM cards that can be used in other unlocked devices like an iPhone. But you can only get the SIM through someone who is subscribing to Project Fi

Local SIM card

SWITZERLAND-TOURISM-OFFBEAT

Tourists in Switzerland use their smartphones to take "selfies" while on vacation.

Fabrice Coffrini / AFP/Getty Images

Depending on where you're traveling, buying a local SIM card may be your least expensive option. This is especially true in Asia. In cities like Singapore and Taipei, you can pick up a tourist SIM that offers lots of data at a very low price for a short period time, according to CNET Australia reporter Claire Reilly. These SIM cards are often available in airports so you can pick one up when you land or sometimes your hotel will be able to sell you one.

But it can be tricky setting up and using a local SIM in your phone, especially if you don't know the local language.

Reilly also suggests making sure you do your homework before you leave to figure out which telco is best in the country you're visiting. And make sure the phone you plan to use isn't locked.

Use an existing plan from a big carrier

All four of the top US wireless carriers offer special international roaming plans for the most popular destinations in the world. While this isn't likely to be the cheapest option for you, it will be the most convenient.

T-Mobile includes unlimited text and data in more than 140 countries. But there's catch. The "free" version of this service only allows for data speeds up to 128 kilobits per second, which could be painful if you're trying to use it for turn-by-turn navigation. T-Mobile also allows you to upgrade this service for $10 a month to get slightly faster speeds.  And for 4G LTE speeds, T-Mobile allows you to purchase international data roaming passes, which start at $20.

AT&T and Verizon offer international service plans that let you pay $10 a day to access your unlimited talk, text and data service that you already subscribe to at home when you're traveling internationally in more than 100 countries. It's a nice convenience, but certainly not cheap.

Sprint also offers a day pass. It charges $5 a day to let you access your home data plan or you can pay $25 for the week. But it caps the speed of service to 2G speeds.

A good way to make these plans more economical is to only allow one phone on the trip to be "smart."

Free Wi-Fi

When in doubt, use Wi-Fi. If you can find an Apple Store, Starbucks and McDonald's, you can get access to free Wi-Fi while traveling. Some cities, like Paris, also offer free Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the city.  If you're having trouble locating hotspots, you can use apps to find Wi-Fi. Your hotel might also offer Wi-Fi but sometimes it charges outrageous fees and access is slow.  

Still, you should be careful when using free Wi-Fi. Hackers often "sniff" these unprotected networks looking to steal information, like IDs and passwords, from unsuspecting users. You could use a virtual private network app to encrypt your session, but the safest option is to avoid free hotspots altogether.

Here are some tips from CNET on how to stay secure on public Wi-Fi.

Wi-Fi subscriptions

There are other Wi-Fi options that could be useful while traveling. For instance, Boingo offers a secure Wi-Fi service with more than a million hotspots throughout the world for $10 a month. (The company is currently running a special where you can get the first month for only $5.)  But remember that Boingo charges monthly, so make sure to cancel it when you return home.

AT&T also offers its wireless subscribers secure Wi-Fi access while abroad. But you have to sign up for the company's international roaming packages, which offer more limited amounts of data usage. (NOTE: This is different from the daily pass service.)

While Wi-Fi is great because you can get speedy, unlimited access to the internet, it's limited in range and you won't be able to rely on it alone if you need ubiquitous and constant access to the internet.

Rent a Mi-Fi

Companies like XCom Global let you rent small wireless hotspots you can take with you. These devices provide secure Wi-Fi using a local cellular network for your entire family. To avoid charges from your US carrier, turn off the data on your phone but keep Wi-Fi on. XCom charges $7.77 for its Mi-Fi rental and service. If you need to text or make phone calls, you can always use apps like Skype, Whatsapp and Viber. But keep in mind this is another device to carry around and keep charged. And anyone using it has to be within range at all times to get the Wi-Fi signal.

Conserve your data

Those are your main options for service. Here are some additional tips for conserving data usage:

Download what you need in advance
Apps like Google Maps or Google Translate will let you download information on your device that you can use offline. Now with Google Maps, you may not be able to get turn-by-turn directions, but you will have the maps to see where you're going.

Apps, such as Trip Advisor, will allow you to download guides to countries you're visiting so that you can look up restaurants and other useful tips without going on the internet and churning through data.

You may also consider downloading or taking a screenshot of your electronic boarding pass or train ticket so you can pull that up when boarding without having to download it at the gate. If you're renting a car, use a GPS device in the car instead of relying on your phone so you don't eat through all your data.

Get smart about your apps
Turn off all the push alerts and background data your apps are using on your device before you go away. This will eat up your precious data and kill your battery.

Limit the amount of time you spend on social media to one hour or so a day. And only do it when you're in a Wi-Fi hotspot. Loading pictures and videos and commenting on all your friends pictures from home sucks up a lot of data. Doing this might also help you enjoy your vacation a little more.

Limit which devices get access
Designate one phone in your group to access the internet while you're out and about exploring. This might mean signing up one person for Google Project Fi or using the a day pass from your wireless carrier. Everyone else can keep their devices on airplane mode and use free Wi-Fi at the local Starbucks when they want to get online.  

The bottom line

Using your phone while traveling abroad has gotten easier and cheaper. But you still need to plan ahead to make sure you don't come home to a hefty phone bill. 

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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