Nothing makes the heart beat faster than seeing that word on your phone screen. Instantly you should be wondering what is your phone bill going to be when you get home. The horror story of kids running up $1000+ phone bills on a trip out of country still gets regularly reported in the daily news.
But what can you do to prevent it, and more importantly stay connected with the best service and cheapest prices. With more and more hotels charging for Internet, it can be easier and definitely cheaper to carry your own wifi network with you.
This is written from a Canadian travelers standpoint, who travels regularly to the United States, the UK and Europe
First thing you have to decide is if you just need data, or voice with texting.
One Option is to contact your local carrier and see what they offer for US and International roaming plans. For a one time trip, for the non-techie people this can be the preferred option. While expensive, it is still cheaper than straight up roaming, and will give you peace of mind.
If you are a regular traveler and need Voice and Texting in the US, here are your options.
* Simply buy a prepaid phone when you arrive. An old style flip phone can be purchased very inexpensively and will allow you to call and text locally. Forward your original phone to your new phone and you will receive all your calls . Original texts are not easy to get though, but simply share your new number with those who need it and carry on. Best trick is many providers allow you to receive texts by email, so you can get your texts another way. Give the new number to friends and family who may need to contact you in an emergency, and enjoy your quiet time.
* Get a US sim card for your phone. Changing out a sim card on an iPhone takes less than 30 seconds and you can be instantly on a different network for phone and data as long as you have an account setup. Different US providers have different promotions. ATT has a Pay as You Go service called GoPhone while I use one available from Walmart called Straight Talk. Using a Pay as you go service means there is no contracts and when your service is over at the end of the current billing period, you are done. Forget about it if you never plan to use it again. Or keep it handy to reactivate 6 months later when you are traveling again. The important thing is you are not paying for the many months you are not in the country.
Data Only Options
If all you need is data, the first question is what device and how many devices are needed to have access.
* Single Device. The same as above, if you have an individual device you can simply get a pay as you go sim card and use it on your Cellular equipped Ipad or tablet. My Sim of choice has been ATT. They are happy to give you a free sim card when you stop in at one of their stores and you can activate it right on the device. And easily reactivate it again 6 months later. Two tricks though, you must activate it using wifi connection. Best setup at your hotel or at home before traveling. Second quirk is payment, and I will cover that below for all devices.
* Multiple devices. With every kid and family member having multiple devices, it is not cost effective to setup everyone individually. As an example ATT has a Pay as you go Mifi router. A Mifi is a small device that creates a mobile wifi network that accesses the Internet through a cellular connection. This allows everyone in your group to connect to the Internet via wifi through one device and payment plan. You can slide it in your pocket and have your own personal network wherever you go.
This is probably the biggest pain in the *** as you try to pay for plans of any type. Many companies go to great lengths to force people to roam and use international plans rather than the cheaper domestic options. To use ATT and their sim card pay as you go service as an example, here is the work around.
Because they require a credit card with a US address that matches the ATT account you just setup, there is no way to easily do this if you are a traveler. Even having accounts at a US bank are no good because you still have a Canadian address that doesn’t match. First stop when traveling is to get a VISA gift card in the country and currency you are traveling in. In the US every CVS and Walgreens have racks full of them. Buy a card (and another you can use for next years trip in advance from home) and then activate online by providing a zip code to that Visa gift card. You now have a functioning Visa credit card with a zip code that proves you are a US resident in the Cellular carriers eyes.
When setting up an account with the pay as you go service, you don’t need a real address you have access to since they wont send anything to you anyways. Many times just use the hotel address or the phone store or whatever you like. The important thing is to have the zip code match the Visa card you activated, as that is the only thing that has to match for the transaction to go through.
This past year I had to do this exact same process in the UK for an O2 mifi with a UK gift card, so it can be done anywhere
* Make sure no one downloads videos or music. This will use up your plan in a short period of time
* Keep track of all the website URL’s, logins, made-up addresses , account ID#s and everything you can think of for next time.
* Be sure your phone or device is “unlocked” before attempting to swap sim cards.
* What to do with unused amounts on gift cards? You can purchase specific amount Amazon gift cards using Visa gift cards and that amount will be applied the next time you buy an item on Amazon
* Instead of texting, use a data based service like Skype, or maybe your kids will show you how to use SnapChat..
* Forward all you home phones and cel phones to a web based call answer/fax service. I have been using Kall8 for more than a decade as a web based fax service that forwards everything as an email, and it also works perfect as a voice message service. Get your own 800 number and centralize all your messages in your InBox
* Ignore all the funny looks from people wondering why you are dismantling your phone and devices on your airplane tray table
I hope that helps, and if you have any suggestions let me know on twitter @webfarmer