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The Secrets to Lowering International Voice & Data Costs

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Cell phone fees abroad continue to skyrocket, especially as data use increases. As the bills climb, so too do the potential solutions. Gadget and Gear expert Phil Baker shows you the best  alternatives that U.S. carriers are hoping you don’t discover.

At this time of year, when many of us are planning our summer vacation travels, figuring out how to stay connected while overseas needs planning as well. Data usage and phone calls could exceed the price of your flight if you’re not careful. It’s not uncommon to see cellular bills of thousands of dollars. That’s because cellular carriers and airlines are a lot alike. They both relish the opportunity to pile on extra charges.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Visitors from most other countries pay only a modest premium over their local rates when they travel. I’ll explain to you what our carriers don’t want you to know.

Short trips

First, you don’t want to use your cell phone overseas with the SIM card provided, unless it’s for just a few days where you can limit your calls and avoid using the phone for data (receiving email, using Google maps, going onto the Internet, etc.). Calls typically cost $1.49 to $3 per minute and data is $20 per megabyte, the equivalent of sending or receiving a couple of dozen of photos. My advice is to turn off the phone’s cellular and roaming data connections and connect to WiFi once or twice a day and use Skype to make calls.

Long trips

For traveling for more than a few days, you can save hundreds of dollars by using an unlocked cell phone with a country specific prepaid SIM card that you can buy before leaving or from a cellular store in the country you visit. You’ll pay 20 to 50 cents per minute of talk time, instead of a few dollars per minute. Some don’t charge for incoming calls, while others have a small connection charge. The rates are low for both calling within the country or anyplace in the world.

MiFi portable WiFi hotspot

If receiving calls is not important, I recommend renting a MiFi data device from XCom Global. This creates a portable WiFi hotspot that connects your computer or phone to the Internet. It costs about $15 per day for most countries for unlimited data. I’ve used it to avoid WiFi charges in my hotel and to get email, access Google maps, and make Skype calls on my phone.