Four hours into my trip to Spain, I got a scary message from T-Mobile (www.t-mobile.com) customer support. "You have already spent $50 on data," the text said. I immediately turned off the data connection on my phone. But nowadays, it's hard to be disconnected, especially if you're traveling for business.
Fortunately, you now have plenty of options, as long as you plan a bit in advance. Both AT&T (www.att.com) and Verizon Wireless (www.verizonwireless.com) offer more reasonable data roaming plans than they used to. Several independent companies offer roaming phone plans that work for a trip abroad, and rentable hotspots can spread the Net to all of your devices.
When you're outside the U.S., you shouldn't bury yourself in your phone. But a smartphone and laptop can be tremendously useful to travelers, whether it's for downloading maps, checking menus, or calling your travel companions when you're delayed. Here's how to do it without breaking the bank.
#1. Use the right apps to reduce your data footprint.
Megabytes cost more when you're on the road, so use fewer megabytes. Some apps compress the data you use on your smartphone, so those expensive megabytes can go much farther. Use Opera Mini for Android or iPhone to cut Web page data usage by up to 80 percent. For an even bigger overall boost, download Onavo for iPhone or Onavo Extend for Android, which both compress almost all of your Internet traffic.
#2. Consider your carrier's service plan.
At the time of this writing, AT&T is offering 120MB of roaming data for $30 and Verizon charges 100MB for $25.
That's enough if you limit your data usage. On a 10-day trip to the U.K. and Spain earlier this year, I turned off background data on my Android phone, preventing it from syncing apps without my knowledge. I tried to hold off on checking my e-mail until I was in a Wi-Fi network. But I surfed the Web and used Maps when I needed to. I ended up using about 80MB, well under Verizon's $25 limit.
But AT&T and Verizon still get you with high voice call rates (usually 99 cents and up per minute), and Sprint and T-Mobile don't have affordable roaming plans.
#3. Local SIM cards can save money on single-country trips.
Local SIM cards slot into AT&T or T-Mobile phones, or inexpensive unlocked phones, to give you very low rates in individual countries. Unfortunately, foreign cellphone shops can be difficult to deal with because of language barriers. (I once ended up with a SIM where all the documentation and support was only in Chinese.) If you don't speak the language of your destination country, Telestial sells single-country SIMs for many countries with an English-language support staff. The company can also help you get an unlocked phone, or figure out how to unlock yours.
#4. Roaming SIM cards can be a good solution for multi-country trips.
Individual country SIM cards don't work well for multi-country trips, though. For broader roamers, Telestial's Passport SIM connects you with calls and data at much lower than your carrier's standard rates. Using it for two weeks in Europe with about 80MB of data, 43 minutes of calls, and 32 outbound text messages, I spent about $104.
More frequent callers and texters may prefer Maxroam, which charges lower rates than Telestial for outgoing calls and texts in some countries but higher rates for data. Other competitors, including OneSimCard (www.onesimcard.com) and WorldTravelSim (www.worldtravelsim.com), also offer similar deals.
#5. For unlimited Internet, rent a hotspot.
Relying on free Wi-Fi hotspots can be chancy; I found almost none of them in the city of Granada, for instance. When I need a reliable connection, I carry a hotspot with me. I've found hotspots from XCom Global to be the absolute best way to stay connected on business trips. The key: For $14.95 per day, you get unlimited access on all your phones, tablets, and laptops in 40 European countries. That's a good deal if you're a heavy Internet user. And it comes with an extra battery so you can take the hotspot with you while you sightsee and not have to worry about running out of juice.
A hotspot becomes even more valuable when combined with Wi-Fi calling. T-Mobile calling plans let you make ordinary U.S. calls over Wi-Fi, with your standard American phone number, at no extra charge, just like if you were at home. If you don't have T-Mobile, you can use Skype (www.skype.com).