Roaming: what a glorious word, redolent of wandering wherever you wish in a carefree fashion. However, since the mobile phone became commonplace, it has taken on a more sinister meaning. Over the past two decades the price of international telecommunication has, in many circumstances, fallen to zero. But unwary travellers who use their mobile phones abroad will find that careless talk costs a fortune.
Customers of Vodafone in Brazil for the World Cup might be inclined to phone home. For a three-minute call, that'll be five pence short of £5. Merely answering the phone costs £1.30 per minute. And while receiving a text is free, sending one from South America costs 35p.
Mobile telephony is a business with high fixed costs and extremely low marginal costs. Roaming has traditionally been seen by the providers as an excellent way to extract large amounts of cash from unsuspecting customers. Don't take my word for it: Dave Dyson, Chief Executive at Three, says: "Roaming charges are a rip-off."
However, if you are a Three customer, how ripped-off you feel depends where you roam. In Spain or Portugal this summer you will pay 19p a minute to call home, and 5p for each text. Internet data costs 20p per megabyte.
Going to Turkey? These fees rise seven-fold or more, with each three-minute call costing £4.20, a text increasing to 35p and data charged at £3 per megabyte. The BBC says streaming video for one minute can use 2MB, so in theory a football match could cost over £500.
The costs to Three of providing the service is not significantly different between Spain and Turkey. So why the the sharp difference in costs? Because Europe caps charges that can be levied within EU member states. On 1 July, the maximum levels are cut again, with call and text costs reduced by a quarter and data fees halved. By December next year, all roaming charges will be banned in Europe – the deal you have at home should apply across the European Union.
To be fair, Three has already eliminated roaming charges for visitors to a number of European nations, including France, Ireland and Italy. Other countries, including Australia and the US, are also roam-free territory. Subscribers can use the internet, send texts and call home without incurring what the firm calls "nasty roaming charges" – though they still apply in other popular destinations, including Greece and Morocco.
Reduce or eliminate roaming charges by taking some simple steps. When you can hook up your laptop or smartphone to free Wi-Fi, make as many calls as you wish. I have made free calls from a city square in Funchal, Madeira and the middle of a park in Hong Kong. FaceTime, between users of iPhones and iPads is free and easy. Less elegant, but also free, is Skype with optional video – so long as the other party is signed up and logged in. Skype also offers calls to landlines (about 1p/minute) and mobiles (5p/minute), so you can call home cheaply any time.