Stay connected while traveling overseas, but save money using phone, Internet

Posted October 13, 2015


You’re planning the international trip of a lifetime. Flights and hotels are reserved and excursions are booked. The only decision left to make is your phone service. International plans are infamously expensive, but you know you’ll need your phone for work. So, which plan do you buy? None of them – you can keep in touch for free.

As you may know from experience, major phone service companies charge at least twice as much for international plans as regular plans. AT&T’s cell phone package is called “passport.” The prices range from $30-$120 per month. Verizon’s international plans are similar in pricing, with two monthly options between $25-$40. Sprint’s prices range from $40-$80. Pricing for these companies are seemingly low, but they come with hidden fees. Each plan includes charges for data and calls per minute.

“You have to buy an international plan when you travel, or at least that’s what I thought,” said Matthew Ross, a backpacker from New York. “I thought I would be paying my flat fee, but boy was I wrong. I used all my data in just five days, and I was unknowingly paying for more for the rest of my trip.”

The only way to prevent these hidden fees is to not use your phone. This doesn’t mean it has to be off, though. Airplane mode is a hidden benefit available on all smart phones. While your cellular service is turned off, you still have Wi-Fi capabilities. The best part about this? Wi-Fi is free!

“I often suggest using Wi-Fi only to my clients,” Ada King, a travel agent at Connoisseur’s Travel, said. “I think it’s more important to spend your money on the experience, not the phone plan. It is unbelievably easy to survive without one.”

Wi-Fi can be found almost everywhere. Hostels, hotels and restaurants often offer free Wi-Fi for patrons. Some cities, including Florence, Taipei, Paris, Tel Aviv and Perth offer free Wi-Fi throughout the city. If you’re in a city without Wi-Fi and you need to reach someone, look for a McDonald’s or Starbucks. Those chains are guaranteed to have free Wi-Fi, King explained.

As helpful as free Wi-Fi is, it’s impossible to connect everywhere. For Americans who are used to constant Internet powered by data, a spotty or slow connection will take some getting used to. Some apps, though, are still usable without Wi-Fi. Google Maps is one of them.

“In order to get directions to a new destination, you have to be connected to Wi-Fi,” Ross said. “Most people don’t realize that you can continue using the app when you leave the hostel or restaurant. The smart phone’s GPS system will track your movement without Wi-Fi as long as you don’t put in a new destination.”

Since you won’t be paying for cellular service, you have to use apps other than iMessage to communicate. The most popular apps are Viber and Whatsapp. Viber allows users to make free phone and video calls, as well as send free messages. Whatsapp also offers free phone calls and messages, but only for the first year. The following years are $1 per year.

“I prefer Viber,” Sarah Aschebrock, a student from New Zealand studying at the University of Miami, said. “The service is usually pretty good, making it really easy for me to keep in touch with family and friends back home.”

Whether your international trip lasts four weeks or four years, your phone is the one trip necessity you don’t have to pay for. Remember to keep your smart phone on airplane mode at all times, and connect to Wi-Fi when you see a safe network. Getting around and staying in touch will be easy and, better yet, it will be free.