Avoid a huge mobile phone bill when travelling

Beat the global roaming bill shock with these expert strategies.

A huge mobile phone bill is the last thing anyone wants to think about after returning from an overseas trip, and there are ways to avoid it.

By David Flynn @DJSFLYNN

Passport, business cards, laptop and smartphone – that’s pretty much the essential packing list for today’s business traveller.

However, staying connected on that overseas trip can see you take a heavy hit in global roaming charges for voice calls and data. Here are some expert strategies to beat the global roaming bill shock.

How the Australian carriers compare

The natural baseline for your roaming options is to stick with the same mobile phone carrier you use when you’re at home and rely on its global roaming services.

I rate Vodafone’s A$5-a-day global roaming as the bee’s knees for business travellers.

Its “roam like home” system allows me to use my Australian plan’s data, text and voice allowance for a flat A$5 a day in more than 50 countries throughout Asia and Europe, plus the US, Canada and the UK.

This includes free calls and texts to numbers within that country, as well as to standard landline and mobile numbers back in Australia. Even better: if I nip across to New Zealand, the roaming is completely free. The only caveat is that my roaming is nominally limited to 90 days per year.

Telstra’s dominance of Australia’s mobile phone market – it had a 41.8 per cent share in June 2016, according to Kantar Worldpanel – means it’s the default carrier for many Australians heading overseas. However, it is well off the pace for global roaming.

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Customers on a pre-paid plan with Telstra need to buy a Travel Pass for the country (or countries) they’re travelling to.

New Zealand needs a Zone 1 pass, which starts at A$15 for three days of unlimited talk and text but offers only 225MB of data. A more useful 1GB of data is available with the 14-day A$70 travel pass.

Most other countries in Asia, Europe, the UK and the US are covered by Telstra’s Zone 2 pass, but once again the data rates are way below what a typical traveller requires. The three-day 225MB Zone 2 travel pass costs A$30, with a seven-day 525MB allocation at A$70, then 1GB for 14 days at A$140 and 2.2GB across 30 days for a whopping A$300.

Optus adopts the same travel-pack approach as Telstra, although it works only in a single set of countries, lumped together as Zone 1. This includes North America, Europe, the UK, Asia and New Zealand.

A handful of apps let you keep in touch by using wifi networks at any hotel, cafe or airport lounge.However, each A$10 travel pack lasts for just one day of unlimited talk and text plus an almost laughable 100MB of data.

Need five days of coverage for your next business trip? That means buying five Optus travel packs for a total of A$50, with just 500MB to spread across your working week.

Countries outside Optus’ Zone 1 – including those in South America, Africa and the Gulf states – attract their own rates, which are typically A$1.50 per minute for calls, A50 cents per sent SMS and A$1 per MB for data.

If your company has a business plan, it’s worth contacting your account manager to check on the availability of premium plans, which can be more expensive than a personal scheme but may come with a more generous monthly serve of roaming data.

Go local

The other option for travellers is to replace your domestic SIM card with a prepaid SIM card from the country you are visiting. These are almost always far cheaper than roaming and include much more data.

The longer you spend in any given country, the more sense it makes to invest in a prepaid SIM card. On each return visit you can buy a recharge card – often sold at convenience stores – and you’re back on the air.

The downside? The new SIM will come with a new phone number. People won’t be able to contact you on your usual mobile number, and that’s a deal-breaker for many business travellers.

“If you’re ... in Asia, consider adding WeChat to your app arsenal.”

Sadly, there are only a few smartphones – and none from Apple – that have dual SIM card slots to let you use your domestic SIM card and overseas-purchased SIM card in the one handset at the same time.

You can usually pick up a local SIM card on arrival at the airport or phone stores in the city, but this can take up valuable time (don’t forget to bring your passport with you, as this is often needed as a form of ID).

In Australia, a time-saving alternative is to buy overseas SIM cards in advance from online store SIM Corner.

Europe drops roaming charges

Europe abolished roaming charges within the EU in June 2017, so most of Europe has now become a single phone zone. This means smartphone users pay the same for voice calls, text messages and data usage, regardless of which country they’re in.

The change has greatly simplified things for travellers in Europe. They only have to pick up one pre-paid SIM card in any of the EU’s 28 countries and can use it throughout the eurozone without any excess roaming fees.

Clever ways to stay in touch

A handful of mobile apps let you keep in touch without eating into your mobile phone’s data allowance. Instead, these piggyback onto wi-fi networks at any hotel, cafe or airport lounge.

With its support for video calls and voice chats, Apple’s FaceTime is the poster child for such apps, but the downside is you can only use it between Apple devices running iOS. 

If you need to video chat, Apple user to Android user, the cross-platform go-to is Skype. You can connect for free to Skype apps on distant desktops and laptops.

If you’re doing business in Asia, consider adding WeChat to your app arsenal. It’s mainly used for SMS-style chats, but also supports walkie-talkie-style short voice messages. 

David Flynn is editor at Australian Business Traveller.

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