Those of you that know me know that I can be, well, let’s just say “thrifty.” I like to save money in any way that I can, and I don’t believe in paying more for things than I have to. I also research everything exhaustively, and I tend to only pull the trigger on something when I’m sure.
So when I was planning my recent 15 day trip through Europe, cell service and data was very important to me. It was a solo trip, so I was concerned about being in touch with folks back home, and concerned with having data to use things like Apple maps, just in case I happened to get lost (because, you know, that tends to happen to me sometimes!) From my research I found a few viable options, and I’ll tell you which ones I went with.
- The least expensive solution that provided data and talk/text seemed to be purchasing an unlocked GSM quad band phone here in the states (Craigslist or something similar) and buying a prepaid SIM card when I got to my destination. This works really well if you’re going to be in one country for an extended period (which I wasn’t, sadly.) It also works if you get a newer model of phone (like an iPhone 4 or above) but depending on what’s available, this can get a bit expensive. Finding a phone shop to purchase a SIM is usually pretty easy, there are shops in most airports and in most major shopping areas – in Rome I was able to find two phone stores within a 5 minute walk of my apartment. You can purchase the equivalent of a month’s worth of service for about $30 and use it during your stay. The pros: cheaper, no worries about overage as it’s prepaid, and the promise of good service. The cons: You have to use a different phone number and an unfamiliar phone, it can be difficult to “top up” your phone if the menu is in a different language, and it doesn’t work too well if you’re travelling to multiple countries, because then you need multiple SIMs.
- The next option I found was an extension of your current plan on your current phone. This seemed the easiest, but definitely not the cheapest! For my carrier, AT&T, the add on was a $30 fee for the month, and included 100 minutes of talk time, 50 text messages, and 500MB of data. Good in a pinch, but definitely not my only line of defense for phone usage in Europe. The pros: Easy, easy, easy, you use your current number and don’t have to do anything additional to get service. Also, for AT&T it was a 30 day plan, you sign up and forget it, as it expires in 30 days, so no need to cancel. The cons: It’s expensive, and you don’t get much for the money. They had other plans that went all the way to $120 for 30 days, but even with that there wasn’t much included.
- Another option I considered was free wifi. There are many places where wifi is free, so this is a good inexpensive option. If you stay in a hotel, you’re almost guaranteed to have access to wifi. Most of the apartments I looked at on Trip Advisor and Air B&B also include this with their properties. However, if you’re on the streets and need your map app, it’s less than convenient. The pros: Free! Not too hard to find if you’re at a coffee bar or café. The cons: Not mobile, and not always available when you need it.
- The final option I considered was mobile wifi. There are a number of companies that will sell or rent you a small device that you keep in your purse that provides you with a mobile wifi hotspot. This was the best of all possible data scenarios for me, as directions and general information was what I was looking for, and it needed to be mobile. None of the devices or service charges were what I would call cheap, but they were much preferable to data overages that could climb into the thousands of dollars if I was not careful. Also, even though this only covered data, there are many apps in use, such as What’s App, that allow you to use wifi to make calls or send texts. The pros: It’s mobile and fixed cost. Convenient and you get to keep your phone and number. The cons: Not the least expensive method, and requires apps to make this work for calls and texts (unless you’re an Apple user using iMessage)
So what did I finally go with? I used a combination of two options. While it might not have been the rock bottom cheapest solution, it brought me total peace of mind. I added on a coverage plan with my carrier, AT&T, I chose the least expensive option, the $30 plan. This way I could send a few texts a day to my nearest and dearest, and had the option to call and get calls in case of an emergency. And it made me feel good because, in a real emergency, no one would think to call my temporary number if I’d gone with a local SIM. Easy peasy.
The other option I used with the mobile wifi hotspot. I was REALLY afraid of getting lost on my own (not that that’s every happened before…ahem…) So I went with Skyroam for my mobile wifi. You can either rent or purchase the device (I purchased one for $100) and you use wifi in 24 hour increments called “daypasses.” You can buy daypasses for $10 each or 5 for $40, and when you purchase the device it comes with 5 daypasses already loaded. Skyroam proved invaluable to me overseas, and I only activated it when I was sure I would need data for the day, so I only wound up using 4 of the 5 daypasses that had been included. The service was flawless and unlimited, certainly not 4G, but fast enough to keep my phone going and finding what I needed. It completely saved me a number of times, including once when I got lost in the middle of Krakow while carrying about $20 worth of groceries in my arms, trying to find my hotel. But more on the fun stories later. If you’re considering mobile wifi at all, I highly recommend Skyroam for this purpose. (Full disclosure – The previous link is a referral link. It actually saves you $30 on purchase, and earns me 3 daypasses if you do purchase. There is no obligation and you pay nothing extra for using this link, in fact it saves money for you!)
So in the end, the combination of these two services was right for me. My situation was unique because I was traveling alone, long term, and over four different countries. Depending on your situation, you may find other solutions that are right for you. The key is to research before you go, so you’re not at the mercy of your carrier once you get there, or worse yet, find yourself with no service at all.
What do you think? How do you use your phone when you’re overseas? Until next time, friends, Travel Joyful!