Updated July 21, 2022
Published March 4, 2022
Can’t bear the thought of a digital detox on your next holiday? Don't fall for expensive mobile roaming charges. Here’s what you need to know to avoid running up a huge bill abroad.
In the days before Brexit (and how long ago that seems), EU 'fair usage' rules introduced in 2017 let you 'Roam Like At Home' throughout the EU, using your UK allowance of minutes, data and texts without incurring roaming charges.
Now that we've left the EU, fairness to roaming customers seems to be less of a priority for British phone companies. Many British phone companies have grabbed the chance to boost profits by hiking their roaming charges, and some have also cut their data limits, with hefty charges of up to £3 per gigabyte if you go over the limit.
There are some honourable exceptions – kudos to Virgin Mobile and O2, though there is no guarantee they won't introduce roaming charges in future. If they do, other smaller providers that use the networks of the big suppliers could also be driven to re-introduce roaming charges.
For most of us – stuck in the UK by Covid-19 travel restrictions – this hasn't been such a big deal up until now. But as we flock back to beaches, ski slopes and European cities this summer, roaming charges of as much as £2 per day could seriously jack up the cost of our holidays by more than £100 for a family of four on a two-week break. Britain has, however, capped roaming charges to £45 per month, and your provider should warn you when you're nearing that limit. After that, you can opt to continue paying for data.
Vodafone, EE and Three all introduced charges for some customers visiting the EU in 2022. Other suppliers may follow suit – though we can hope that market forces will deter some and even persuade the 'big three' to change their tune if enough of us find ways around paying them extra – such as switching to a provider that does not charge extra for roaming when your current contract is up for renewal.
As well as O2 and Virgin Mobile, these providers currently include BT Mobile and Plusnet (both use the EE network) and iD Mobile and Smarty, both of which use Three.
Is ‘Roam Like At Home’ already included in your contract? Let your plan roll over instead of renewing. Depending on when you signed up to you contract, you should be able to keep your current inclusions on a rolling contract. Vodafone and EE customers have broadly been able to do this, but MoneySavingExpert reports there have been some Three customers who have been ‘forced’ to renew. Check with your provider.
To their credit, some mobile suppliers are offering deals to help customers avoid excessive roaming charges. EE offers a 30-day 'Roam Abroad' pass for £10 – a fair saving on the £28 you'd pay in daily charges on a fortnight's holiday. Vodafone has a similar 8-day and 15-day roaming passes for £8 and £15 respectively. If you don't choose to cancel such passes when you get home, however, you could end up paying them monthly by default, so don't forget.
Older readers who remember a time before mobile devices may be tempted to suggest just switching off your phone while you're away – after all, aren't holidays supposed to be about getting away from it all?
With mobile devices now virtually essential for everything from airline check-in to renting a car or confirming your Covid-19 vaccination status, that's not a realistic option. But there are other no-brainer steps you can take, like switching off your voicemail so you won't pay extra to pick up messages. You're on holiday, remember? And your phone will still flag up missed calls so you can call back if you need to.
Buying a local pay-as-you-go SIM card to slot into your phone – or even buying a cheap burner phone from a local store in your resort – will offer you cheaper web browsing and local calls. For those travelling for longer periods, it often works out much cheaper than roaming add-ons.
A more high-tech solution for families is to rent a prepaid MiFi portable 'pocket hotspot', which allows you to connect up to 10 devices with fast 4G speeds up to 50Mbps downloads. In Spain, for example, this typically costs €7 per day for the first five days and €2 per day thereafter, so for several people with multiple devices it offers a considerable saving over paying roaming charges. This can also be a good fix if you're renting a villa with a group of friends.
This one seems simple but if you use your phones or tablets to keep the kids entertained on holiday, use your home wi-fi data allowance to download movies and books to your devices before leaving home.
The easiest and cheapest way to dodge roaming charges in EU countries is of course to use wi-fi. Happily, this is steadily getting easier. Free wireless internet access is pretty much standard in most resorts and city hotels in Europe, though it's worth checking hotel review sites to see if your hotel lives up to its wi-fi claims. Too many hotel owners (large as well as small) invest as little as possible in their on-site wi-fi, so you may find that while there's decent access in your hotel lobby connection from your room, or from poolside, is patchy.
You'll almost certainly want mobile access while you're out and about, too, so look for free public wi-fi hotspots – funded by local or national governments – in many destinations. Spain leads the way with more than 90,000 free hotspots at resorts and in popular city break destinations like Barcelona and Madrid. In Italy's most popular cities you'll find free wi-fi courtesy of the local municipality. Portugal's nationwide, government-funded Espaço Internet system has more than 60,000 hotspots in cities and resorts, allowing visitors as well as residents seamless access. Greece (with help from the European Regional Development Fund) is busily creating a nationwide network of free wi-fi spots in cities and island resorts.
From nabbing the best views to sweet talking your way into an upgrade, improve your chances of getting the best hotel room – without paying through the nose – with these expert tips.Read moreabout Ask the experts: How to bag the best hotel rooms