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Smart phones can be a costly travel companion

Legions of travelers have discovered how costly international text messages and e-mails can be. Here's how to protect yourself.

December 06, 2009|By Terry Gardner

With smart phones keeping many of us connected 24/7, it's hard to drop off the grid while you're abroad. But it might make financial sense to do just that.

Many travelers learn too late that each international text message and e-mail cost far more than they imagined -- as much as $2.50 a text and $20 (or more) per megabyte. The amount of data that fly freely across cyberspace may create an unwelcome surprise when you return home.

You need cellular self-defense.

In the European Union, telecommunications providers are regulated in the amount they can charge traveling Europeans for calls, texts and data use in Europe.

This website explains some of the safeguards (

Its tale of a German traveler who got a 46,000 euro bill (about $69,000) for downloading a TV program in France is an excellent reminder of the kind of trouble an international traveler can get into with a smart phone.

Indeed, the number of U.S. travelers who have run into financial troubles is legion. "I was really taken aback by the number of travelers who have contacted me with their stories of getting ripped off by roaming fees," said Christopher Elliott, travel ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler.

"It happens all the time, and you often don't even have to cross the border. Just get close," he said in an e-mail. "Or try to make a call near a port, and connect to a cell tower on a ship. It's hard to not think of the telecommunications industry as predators when it comes to these roaming charges."

Steven Frischling, a photographer and travel blogger (, was billed $500 for international roaming charges on a two-day trip to Detroit. Frischling thinks his BlackBerry's signal hit a nearby tower in Windsor, Canada, just across the river from his hotel in Detroit. After Frischling produced receipts proving he was in Detroit, his cellphone company waived the charges.

Cellular self-defense also helps when smart phones do the impossible. On a recent trip to New Zealand, I used my iPhone as a calendar and iPod only and kept it in "airplane mode," which prevents incoming and outgoing calls. One morning, however, it rang. Somehow my iPhone took itself out of airplane mode (which Apple insists is impossible).

I dodged the international data charge bullet because I had turned off the features AT&T recommends to limit international data charges ( tional/roaming/iphone-travel-tips .jsp).

Here are some other tips:

* Call your carrier or visit its website for detailed information about international rates. Ask whether you could be billed for data roaming if your phone receives a software update during your trip. If so, ask how to turn off automatic updates.

* Sign up for a data plan if you'll be e-mailing or texting abroad. Without a plan, carriers may charge $15 to $20 per megabyte. With a data plan, you pay less per MB. For example, if you signed up for AT&T's 20 MB international data plan (for $24.99), and then used 25 MB, you'd be billed about $25 ($5/MB) for the overage. Receiving an HTML e-mail or sending a photo can quickly use 1MB of data, so a 20 MB data plan for a 10-day trip overseas may be insufficient.

Many GPS apps use data too. Google Maps, for instance, downloads data when generating a map and directions.

* Adjust your phone settings to limit data charges. Turn off data roaming. If your phone "fetches data" (as iPhones do), turn that feature off and set the data fetch to manual. Set your e-mail boxes to manual.

* During your trip, use Wi-Fi (not your carrier's technology for mobile networking) for e-mail and apps that use data. Be sure you see the Wi-Fi icon on your phone's screen. If you don't see one, you may be using a carrier's data network.

* Make free phone calls using Skype over a Wi-Fi connection for VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) calls.

* Monitor your data use. On the iPhone, you can reset (under settings) to track this.

* Rent or buy a global phone. Companies such as Telestial (, Mobal ( and Eurobuzz ( often have the better rates. And Telestial offers voice and data SIM cards. Such alternatives can let you pay in advance so you don't get blindsided later.

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