Get smart about phoning home
We've all heard the horror stories of people racking up huge bills using data roaming on their smart phone overseas and, unsurprisingly, it's a prospect which causes many travellers considerable anxiety. I've even met professional travel writers who worry about it.
Happily, it’s very easy to avoid this kind of “bill shock”. At the airport, before boarding your plane to depart Australia, go into your phone’s settings and disable cellular data. If you’re uncertain how to do this, consult your phone company. This will restrict all data use, such as web browsing, email and apps, to wi-fi. (Your ability to send and receive calls and texts will be unaffected, provided you’ve activated international roaming.) And as long as you can find free wi-fi at your destination — it’s offered by an increasing number of hotels, restaurants, cafes and museums; McDonald’s is a good bet if you get desperate — you can keep up with emails, social media and on-the-go research for free.
This does mean you’ll have to be organised in accessing apps and online information on your smart phone. Download apps, books, films, music and other information you’ll be likely to use before you leave Australia, and ensure the download is complete. Look out for useful apps which don’t require a data connection on the go — see the box for some suggestions. You can also pre-load guidebooks and information such as maps and brochures as PDFs to apps such as Apple’s iBooks.
A note, if you do elect to leave data roaming turned on: while most phone companies will send an SMS to alert you to excessive usage, you shouldn’t rely on these. They depend on data coming from overseas network carriers, which can often be delayed.
The other danger-zone in terms of racking up a phone bill overseas is phone calls and texts. These will not be covered by your standard phone plan and will attract roaming charges — even to receive phone calls. When you land, you should receive a text from the local carrier to which your phone has automatically connected. This will outline costs for calls and texts — read it carefully and limit your usage accordingly. As an example, when I went to Dubai in June, the rates from Vodafone were $1/minute to make or receive a call, 75c to send a text (receiving texts was free) and $1/MB for data. Before you leave, you can also speak to your phone company about international roaming deals and packages they offer.
To avoid unpleasant surprises, avoid making calls from your mobile while away, except in emergencies. Ask friends and family to contact you via email or social media (which you can check using wi-fi) and use programs such as Skype using wi-fi if you want to call home and to sort out bookings and the like on the go.
Disable your voicemail before you go to avoid extra charges when callers connect through to leave you a message.
If you’re going away for a while, you might buy either a travel SIM card before you leave, or a local SIM at your destination. To make these work, you’ll either need an “unlocked” phone which will work in your destination (check the status of yours with your phone company, or buy a cheap unlocked one) or a dual-SIM handset such as the Samsung Galaxy Y Duos (about $150), which allows you to insert your usual SIM and either a travel SIM or a local one overseas.
In terms of pre-purchased travel SIMs, Australia Post’s Prepaid TravelSIM is one of the best-known options. It’s a call-back service, so when you dial a number, instead of being connected directly, you receive a call which you answer to be connected.
It costs $49.95 and allows you to receive phone calls free in 115 countries, while rates to make calls vary by country — it’s worth checking rates for your destination at auspost.travelsim.net.au before purchasing.
You can also choose to activate data with this SIM but check the rates first — they vary considerably by country and are not always good value. There’s also a companion smart phone app to top-up credit, access maps offline and keep track of usage.
Another option, particularly if you plan to be in the same country for a while, or frequently visit the same country, is to buy a local SIM card with allowance of calls, texts and data at your destination, and inform family and friends of the number. Note this will only be beneficial in the country in which the SIM has been purchased — if you travel to Canada from the US and use a SIM purchased in the US, for example, you’ll generally still be hit with roaming charges in Canada.
You can also buy country- specific SIMs before you leave. Flight Centre sells a variety, which can include data, as well as multi-country travel SIMs, online at flightcentre.com.au.
Useful travel apps:
- If you’re travelling somewhere where you’re unfamiliar with the language, a translation app which works offline is key. Jibbigo (free for Apple and Android devices) allows you to speak your desired phrase into the phone, as well as type it in, and dictionaries can be downloaded for offline use.
- If you normally use the Google Maps app on your phone to help you navigate, note that without access to wi-fi or roaming data its functionality will be reduced (it will still be able to find your location, though — helpful if you get lost). Consider downloading an offline map app such as City Maps 2Go Offline Maps or Forevermap.
- JiWire’s Free Wi-Fi Finder app (free, for Apple and Android) finds your closest free wi-fi hotspots (there’s also a version of the app which finds both free and paid wi-fi hotspots in your area, called Wi-Fi Finder). Download the hotspot database through the app for offline usage.
- The free XE Currency app updates with live conversion rates when you’re connected to wi-fi, and remembers the most recent rate when you’re offline to make quick currency conversions regardless of whether you’re connected to the internet. It’s available for a comprehensive range of operating systems. See xe.com/apps for details.
- Many airlines now offer apps, across multiple platforms, to allow you to check in, store your boarding card, receive flight updates and more on your smart phone. Some, such as Virgin Australia, offer an app which allows you to stream free in-flight entertainment on your tablet or smart phone on selected flights.
© The West Australian
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