When I first went on a major long-haul trip to Tanzania in 2000, I didn’t have a mobile phone in the UK let alone have one abroad, and I was only just getting to grips with email. I wrote a lot of letters and went to the post office to collect notes from family and friends. Nowadays, for better or worse, mobiles and things like Skype make staying in touch much easier when abroad. Here are some tips and details about how Steve and I stay connected on the road.
Nightmare phone bills are something a lot of us have come home to after a trip abroad where we used our mobile phone without realizing the pricy fees. It’s often the case that you not only get charged for making calls, but also to receive them. Plus the roaming charges you get when using data are nearly always horrific. It’s pretty much always a good idea to turn off data roaming as soon as you leave your home country unless you’ve chosen a special tariff.
For short trips, many networks offer a scheme where you pay a daily fee to use your home tariff abroad. However, this soon adds up if you’re going on a longer trip like us. There’s a good comparison of call charges and network options in this Money Saving Expert article.
Keeping your old number
When we left the UK, we both had mobile phone contracts. We swapped these to pay-as-you-go phones and were able to keep the same number (you just need to get a PAC code from your network provider). This was useful as I’ve had the same number for more than ten years so didn’t need to go to the hassle of changing it. Of course, due to international call charges, that phone isn’t very useful when I’m abroad. I just use it when I’m back in the UK, and occasionally switch it on to check for text messages. It’s also useful for verification processes (such as online banking), where it’s necessary to have a UK number for from time to time.
Local SIM cards
When we’re travelling, we buy pay-as-you-go SIM cards and use them in our unlocked UK phones. I tend to only buy a SIM if we’re going to be in a country for a month or more. I only use these SIMS for local calls / text messages. I also rely on wi-fi for all my iPhone apps rather than pay extra for a data plan. However, if having the internet easily accessible is important to you then data plans are nearly always available.
Three’s Feel at Home
I recently heard about Three’s Feel at Home plan, which sounds great and is definitely something I’d use if I was travelling to one of the 11 countries covered by it. It essentially allows you to use your phone and its existing tariff abroad without any extra fees. The only calls that cost extra are ones made to local numbers within the country you’re visiting. I imagine other providers will soon follow suit.
The app I use most of all to stay in touch is Skype. I use it to make video calls with friends and also to make calls to landlines / mobiles by using Skype credit. Other apps Steve and I use are Google Hangouts, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Viber.
In some situations, it might be necessary to use a portable wi-fi device like a hotspot / dongle. I have personally found dongles to be very temperamental, but I recently used a Vodaphone hotspot in Malta and found it very useful. Both tend to be quite expensive so are best used as short-term solutions. For those who are interested, there’s an article on Lifehacker, debating dongles vs hotspots.
Skype wi-fi picks up local wi-fi networks and allows you to pay a small fee to connect into them. It can be a useful tool for times when other networks are unavailable.