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Find the Best Phone Plan When Traveling

Remember what travel was like before cell phones, and now, smartphones? Technological advancements like apps, social networking, and cheap Wi-Fi are transforming the way we travel. Unfortunately, the wireless carriers know how attached we are to our technology and they often make it difficult and expensive to use our phones internationally.

PhonetravelOften, we end up using our phones less for what they were originally intended for (actual phone calls) and more for texting, apps, and social networking. If you still rely on your cell phone for making actual calls, you might try one of these strategies outlined by The Independent Traveler in this article:

  • Using your own cell phone with an international calling plan: To make an international call from a cell phone, your network must be compatible with the country you're visiting, and your phone must be technologically capable of making international calls -- many cheaper phones can only be used domestically. This strategy allows you to keep your normal phone number, but calls can get pricey. Check with your provider for details, or consider using a VoIP service such as Skype, Google Voice, Tango or Line2.
  • Purchasing an international cell phone: Frequent travelers who spend a lot of time in one international location may benefit from this option.  You'll enjoy low rates for calling within that country, but fees may be high for calling the United States.
  • Renting a cell phone: If your cell phone won't work overseas and you're an infrequent traveler, you can save money by renting a phone instead of buying one if you plan to make or receive a lot of calls. Try a service like CellularAbroad, PhoneRentalUSA, or TravelCell.
  • Using your own phone with an international SIM card: If your existing phone is "unlocked" (meaning you can use other carriers), you can buy a country-specific or international SIM card for your phone to give you the benefits of a local phone (try Telestial or MAXROAM). You can enjoy low rates for the country you've visiting, but it may be very costly to call the United States.

These tips are fine for voice calling, but what is the best way use your smartphone without getting charged an arm and a leg for data? This article for The New York Times by Seth Kugel, the Frugal Traveler, outlines the best ways to save money according to the type of traveler you are:

  • The Blissfully Disconnected: Write out your itinerary with hotels and contact numbers and leave it with loved ones. Be aware that some hotels no longer provide phones in rooms, and pay phones may be few and far between.
  • The Semi-Connected: Connect to free Wi-Fi for email, browsing and chat. Use a VoIP service like Skype or Google Voice for phone calls. Bring your smartphone along for emergencies or occasional texting.
  • The Moderates: If your phone is unlocked, get an international SIM card for calls, texting, checking email, and social networing. Or, if you’re an AT&T or Verizon customer, look into their competitive international data plans (although voice minutes will still be more expensive).
  • The Power Users: Buy local SIM cards if you want connectivity 24/7 at a cheaper price but with greater hassles.
  • The Addicts: Try the International MiFi Hotspot from XCom Global, which contains a local SIM card with an unlimited data plan. It's expensive, but cheaper than you'd pay with a US carrier - especially considering the MiFi is unlimited use, and can connect up to 5 devices.

Or try this straightforward plan, again from The Independent Traveler:

  1. Get a U.S.-based VoIP phone number (especially one that forwards voice mail to e-mail and/or converts to text, just for another layer of convenience).
  2. Forward your regular cell phone number to this number (do this while still on your home network).
  3. Turn off cellular data, 3G and roaming, and even put your cell phone in airplane mode.
  4. Research Wi-Fi options where you are traveling, whether it be in your hotel, an Internet cafe, a coffee shop, a pay service like Boingo or BT Openzone, or from a MiFi account. Check out the Wi-Fi Finder from JiWire to find international Wi-Fi spots.
  5. Consider an international text message package from your carrier if this will be important on your trip (although services like Line2 do allow texting over Wi-Fi).
  6. Do your calling and texting on your VoIP number over Wi-Fi.
  7. Accept that the occasional "normal" call will cost some money, but it shouldn't be too much, and will be only about 30 - 40 cents more than if you paid for an international plan.

Do you have any good experiences or horror stories to report from using your smartphone while traveling to another country? Leave them in our comments below.

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