In the United States, a broadband data service for your smartphone, tablet, notebook, mobile hotspot or other device can be relatively affordable. To vastly oversimplify, plans run from $30 to $50 or so per month, or about $10 to $15 per gigabyte.
But if you’re traveling outside the U.S., mobile data isn’t that cheap — and not that simple. For internationally roaming travelers, network charges — not just for data, but also for voice calls, GPS signaling, and any other interactions with the carrier networks — can be ultra-expensive. Data can easily cost fifty cents a megabyte — or more.
For example, in October 2011, PCWorld reported) that a Florida woman whose brother brought her phone with him to Canada ran up a $200,000 bill over two weeks. Uploading a few photos or watching a three minute video can ding you for $100; if your GPS keeps checking location, or apps check regularly for updates, that sound you hear is your bill going wild. (And it’s not just data — even a few short international cell phone calls can quickly run up about $400 of charges.
You can get better — and more controlled — phone service by either getting a local SIM card (assuming your phone is “unlocked), or renting a local-country phone.
You can do your best to minimize data usage. When in doubt, turn it off: turn off apps, turn off “data roaming” and “fetch data” and automatic synching, turn off anything that does automatic updating. And turn off network and GPS services, other than WiFi. (If you’re willing to turn off WiFi, you can set the phone to “Airplane mode,” although on some phones this also disables Bluetooth, which you may still want to use.)
But that doesn’t solve the problem of affordable — and controlled — data service.
Renting or Buying a Mobile WiFi Hotspot
A “mobile WiFi hotspot” is a pocket-sized device that talks to a mobile broadband carrier, and includes an 802.11 WiFi router — i.e., it creates a local WiFi hotspot area. Novatel introduced its MiFi, the first of these compact products, in 2009. Today, AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and other carriers offer MiFis, and Novatel offers MiFIs that can be used in over 200 countries. Other companies, like Option XYFI and Zoom Telephonics, offer “unlocked” mobile hotspot products that accept SIM cards and can be used in many countries.
But you don’t even have to buy one. You can now rent a mobile WiFi hotspot just like you can rent a local cell phone — and the price may be hard to beat. Xcomglobal.com, for example, offers rental MiFis for use in over 175 countries, with unlimited data, for around $15/day for most countries. (A given MiFi won’t necessarily work in all the countries you may be visiting in a trip, always confirm usability and pricing.) Thought the company currently has pickup/drop off only in Los Angeles and New York, but you can pre-order a rental unit via the web site.
And, of course, other companies are getting into the international MiFI rental business, such as MiFiRental.com.
So while you definitely need to master turning off cellular, GPS and other data usage for your smartphone and any other devices you carry (e.g. a broadband enabled tablet or notebook), you’ve got options other than “being cut off” or “going broke staying connected.”
Don’t Overlook Local WiFi
Depending on where you’re going to be, another option may be relying on WiFi. While not as exorbitant as international carrier data service, local hotspots can still get costly, especially if you’re moving around and would have to buy an hour at your hotel, an hour at the coffee shop, another hour at the airport, a day at your next hotel, and so on.
One way you may be able to slash your WiFi costs — and certainly control them — is through Boingo.com, which offers access to hundreds of thousands of WiFi hotspots around the United States and internationally. Plans include options for multiple devices, so you wouldn’t have to purchase separate access for your smartphone, tablet and notebook.
So plan ahead:
1) Learn how to turn off data-using activities on your devices
2) Look for affordable devices and plans for where you’ll be going.
And enjoy being able to afford to stay connected.