How to keep holiday phone bills down when travelling outside EU

Despite new legislation, keeping in touch can cost more than your flights. But it doesn't have to be this way

Bill Shock: When you come back home from a holiday to surprisingly high roaming charges
Bill Shock: When you come back home from a holiday to surprisingly high roaming charges

Forget the dodgy tummy and the bottles of sticky liqueur, one of the nastiest things you can bring back from your summer holiday is a higher-than-expected phone bill.

The phenomenon has become so common that there’s even a special name for it, Bill Shock. This has affected a quarter of travellers, according to comparison site Uswitch.

Travellers to Europe will get a reprieve this year, when EU rules mean that roaming abroad should cost the same as using your phone at home. However, those who holiday elsewhere may face even higher bills as a result, and there’s no guarantee that the data roaming agreement will continue after Brexit.

If you travel outside the EU, costs can mount up quickly. Most mobile providers automatically cap your data bill at between £40 and £49, and will alert you at this point, but the cap is easy to opt out of and there is usually no cap on calls and texts.

Some mobile phone companies charge as much as £8 per MB for data, for example. Comparison site Uswitch recently calculated that travellers going to the US for two weeks could easily run up bills of £3,000 if they used their phones in the same way as they do at home.

While standard advice has always been to avoid using your mobile while you are on holiday, many of us rely heavily on mobile apps to help us navigate around new areas, as well as finding the best spots to eat and drink. Although you should always make use of free wifi if you can, there are ways of ensuring you can use your phone when you are on the road without coming home to a hefty bill.

Continental concerns

If you are travelling to Europe this summer, you should be able to use your phone as normal without fear, provided that you go after June 15, when the new rules come in.

What’s more, many providers have already announced free roaming in advance of the rules kicking in. However, there are still some loopholes, particularly if you use a very large amount of data in the UK, as the free roaming comes with a ‘fair use’ policy.

Be sure you check this policy with your mobile provider before you go. If you use a great deal of data in the UK, you may find that the amount you can use abroad is capped and you are charged for any extra.

World worries

For trips outside the EU, some providers are better than others for travellers, and some popular holiday destinations are hugely expensive when it comes to roaming charges. These prices might rise even rise after June 15.

“There is of course a chance that providers could increase rates outside of Europe to compensate for free EU roaming,”says Ernest Doku, telecoms expert from comparison site Uswitch.

Kevin Pratt, from comparison site Moneysupermarket, said that using wifi whenever you can is the best option, and to ensure that you don’t stream music or engage in other data-heavy activities when you aren’t on wifi.

However, some mobile providers offer better deals than others when you are abroad. f you are with 3 Mobile, you can take advantage of Feel at Home, a feature that allows customers on all but its Essential plans to travel to selected countries and to use their included data and minutes there.

As well as all European countries, Feel at Home destinations include the USA, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, as well as Brazil and Singapore from next month.

Pay Monthly customers on 3 will be able to use Feel at Home automatically, while Pay As You Go customers will need to convert the credit they have into an Add-On to use this benefit.

Those with other providers are less lucky. For example, if you travel to the USA and use your Tesco mobile phone, you’ll find yourself paying £8 for every megabyte of data. Since one megabyte of data is only enough to put up around three social media posts with pictures, you will burn through that pretty quickly. EE customers travelling to the US will be charged £1 a minute just to receive calls.

Costs in other popular destinations can be similarly high. Virgin Mobile charges £5 a MB when you travel to Australia, and £1 a minute to receive a call.

If you are facing costs like these, the first thing to check is whether your provider offers a special deal that you can buy in advance or in the country to take the price down. These special deals are called add-ons or packages, and can make roaming better value.

Vodafone, for example, allows you to pay £5 a day to roam in 60 other destinations including Ecuador and Jamaica. This allows you to use your existing data and call minutes for no further charge. However, this is only available to those with a new Pay Monthly plan. EE customers can buy a World Select plan for £5 a day offering unlimited calls and texts, while £5 a day will also get you 500MB of data.

The advantage of all of these packages is that you can use your current smartphone and number (even if the phone is locked to one network) and still roam with relative ease.

Other options

If what’s on offer still sounds expensive, you could consider a specialist sim.

If you either travel with two phones, or are willing to remove your ordinary sim for the duration of your trip, these can bring the cost down further.

Sim cards from local providers at your destination may take some time to track down when you arrive in a country, but can be the source of very cheap data and call packages. For example, if you pick up a sim card while on holiday in South Africa you can pay 499 rand – around £29, for 2 GB of data, compared with £5 a megabyte roaming with Virgin Mobile, which would be £5,000 for a GB.

Dave Dean, who runs the blog Too Many Adapters, which focuses on communications around the world, says that many travellers carry an extra, unlocked phone, just for this purpose, and that the savings can be huge.

“The airport is often a good place to find these sim cards,” Mr Dean says. “This is the best place to find someone who speaks English and can do the setup for you, but you won't always get the best deals here -- sometimes "tourist sims" are the only option, typically at somewhat higher prices,” Convenience stores are another good source of local Sims.

Another option is to order an appropriate Sim in advance. Some of these even allow you to forward calls to your normal number to the cheaper sim while you are away. Telaway offers a US Sim for $5.99 a day that includes unlimited data, while 0044.co.uk has a variety of plans, though be aware that you may have little comeback if sims don’t work when you get to your destination.

An alternative is to order a Pay as You Go sim from 3 Mobile’s website before you go, and buy credit to activate it. The Sim costs nothing to order, and you will then be eligible for the Feel At Home tariff mentioned above, costing you 1p per MB of data.

Safe roaming

Last but not least when you are on holiday is the safety of your sim card. Unlike when you lose your bank card, your mobile company has no obligation to refund you if fraudsters run up a massive bill on your phone when it is stolen. So make sure you know where your sim and phone are at all times and call your provider immediately to cancel if they are lost.

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