We're all glued to our phones every day, but often, when traveling abroad, that beloved smartphone becomes a brick – or worse, a ludicrously expensive device. Luckily, there are a lots of options for staying connected (if that's what you want) without paying a huge premium. It just takes a bit of planning.
Stick to WiFi
We'll start simple: One of the best ways to avoid roaming charges is not to roam at all. Simply disable your mobile connection and use WiFi to stay connected with your smartphone or tablet. Use a free messaging platform like WhatsApp to stay in touch with friends and family. Use Skype or Google Hangouts for international phone calls. Get a Skype to go number, which gives you a local number so you can make local calls at more reasonable rates.
Using WiFi doesn't mean you're limited to your hotel room or free WiFi hotspots. You can also bring a hotspot along with you. Verizon now offers global-ready MiFi Jetpacks and Keepgo sells a WiFi hotspot that works in 54 countries. Alternatively, you can get one from Cellular Abroad or XCom Global.
Buying an International SIM card
Another way to save is by purchasing a local SIM card so you can access local rates on the road. One downside is that you'll have a different phone number (but a local one at that). Just be sure that you have an unlocked phone and a removable SIM card. (As of February 2015, all four big carriers must unlock your phone, with some caveats.)
You can either purchase a SIM card in your destination country, from a vending machine or at a retail location such as a tobacco shop. You can also purchase one before your trip from KeepGo, OneSimCard, or Telestial. CNET has a brief guide to how it all works.
Get an International Plan From Your Carrier
If you don't want to deal with swapping out SIM cards, you can get an international plan from one of the four big carriers in the U.S. If you're a T-Mobile subscriber with a Simple Choice plan, consider yourself lucky – you may already have one. Most Simple Choice plans include unlimited international data and texting in over 120 countries, with calls going for 20 cents a minute.
AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon Wireless each offer optional international plans for an added cost.
Verizon's options include a Mexico & Canada plan starting at $10 per month, Global plans that cover more than 140 countries starting at $25 per month, and Global pay-as-you-go plans, with various rates for calls and texts. You can also sign up for coverage on over 120 cruise ships. Verizon has a trip planner tool to help you decide which plan you need and to determine whether your phone has international roaming. (Most new phones do.)
If your smartphone isn't capable of international roaming, you can rent a compatible device and charger from Verizon. You just have to pay for shipping both ways (about $20 total) and for any calls you make and receive. Verizon recommends this only if you're traveling for 21 days or less, since you'll have to buy the device at full price if you don't return it within 30 days.
For Sprint you can add International Value Roaming to any plan and get free unlimited data and text, though data speeds are only at 2G. Calls are just 20 cents per minute. For faster speeds (up to 3G), you can purchase Sprint International Speed Data Roaming Passes with daily plans ($15 for 100MB), weekly plans ($25 for 200 MB), and 14-day plans ($50 for 500 MB). Sprint also offers pay-as-you-go international roaming, but prices for calls, texts, and data vary by country. You can use their online tool to see rates.
Finally, AT&T Passport plans start at $30 for 120MB of high-speed data, plus unlimited messaging. Calls are one dollar per minute. Passport Plus and Pro plans offer more data and cheaper calling rates. All plans come with unlimited WiFi at participating hotspots in over 18 countries using the Passport app. AT&T also offers cruise ship packages that you can order by phone.
If you go this route, be sure to turn off push notifications and automatic checking of emails to avoid unnecessary charges.
Before You Leave
Once you have your connectivity set up, check the voltage requirements for the countries you'll be traveling to and make sure you have the correct voltage converters. Bring a portable power strip so you can charge all your devices at once. Save important phone numbers in your phone, such as your hotel just in case you need them. And don't forget – calls to the US from abroad require the prefix +1.
Talk to us. How do you save money on roaming charges when traveling abroad?