Revealed! How to avoid sky-high mobile phone charges on holiday

October 10, 2017

By Joey Tyson

There was a time when turning off your mobile for a few weeks wasn’t that big a deal. In fact, it was one of the plus points of going away – the hallowed digital detox, and all that.

Today, smartphones are as much a part of a holiday as sun-cream and midday beers by the pool. We use them for getting around, finding interesting places to eat and drink, checking museum entrance times and attraction fees, managing money… it’s a miracle we ever got anywhere without them.

So, if you can’t bear the thought of a holiday without your phone, here are the things you need to know to avoid running up a huge bill abroad.

Check whether roaming charges apply in your destination

Inside the EU

As of June 15, 2017, roaming charges within the EU became a thing of the past. No longer do you need to worry about driving up excessive fees for checking emails or uploading those all-important Instagram snaps – it’s all covered at the same cost as it would be on your tariff back home. The same goes for calls and texts.

The best part is, you don’t have to do anything as your network provider should have automatically made the changes for you – it’s likely you’ve had a message or an email updating you already.

It’s worth noting that you may still be charged for excessive data use – if you burn through MB streaming your favourite series while abroad, check the small print on your contract before you go.

“Hurrah!”, we hear you cry. “Thanks EU! But wait, aren’t we leaving the EU?”

Yes we are - although the negotiations are ongoing and currently set to end in 2019. And like everything else with Brexit, it’s unclear what will happen to the roaming charges.

It’s possible a deal could be struck to keep the rules the same. It’s also possible we’ll go back to how it was last year, eye-watering fees and all. Watch this space.

Outside of the EU

If you are planning to holiday outside of the EU, roaming charges still apply with a vengeance. That means popular long-haul destinations such as the USA, Thailand and the Caribbean, but also places closer to home such as Turkey and Morocco are affected by the charges.

Accidently leave your mobile data on and fees can rack up quickly on calls, texts, voicemails – some tariffs charge for this – and app and internet usage. This table of sample EE charges highlights some of the costs we’re talking about.

EE usage costs (based on a pay monthly plan):

  Making and receiving calls (including voicemail) Texts Data
USA £1 per minute 40p per text £4 for 500MB
Thailand £1.50 per minute 50p per text £5 for 500MB
Turkey £1.50 per minute 50p per text £5 for 500MB

Please note: This is just a guide, each provider will charge differently. If you intend to use your phone abroad, contact your provider to find out what the costs are.

There are certain caps in place to ensure you don’t go too overboard. Providers are required to apply a €50 (excluding VAT) cut-off limit on data, regardless of where you travel in the world, according to Ofcom.

You should also receive an alert when you hit 80% of your agreed data limit, while it should cut off completely at 100%. Be aware that some plans or bundles may opt you out of this – again, read the small print.

But hitting your limit is not all you need to worry about. As of November 1, 2017, these charges will get even pricier as providers apply 20% VAT on top of roaming outside of EU as a result of new government regulations – this will be across the board, no matter which provider you use.  

So, what’s the best way to avoid a colossal phone bill to go with those post-holiday blues? Turn off your phone.

But for those of us who can’t live without their mobile companion, there are a few other ways.

Always look for wi-fi when you’re abroad

Looking for that sweet social media fix? Can’t keep your work and play separate? No worries, it’s your holiday – just save your browsing for when you can connect to the internet, for free.

Hotels, restaurants, bars, public wi-fi hotspots, and even museums are your best bet for free internet. Connect here and browse to your heart’s content. Big brands and chains are often a good bet for free w-fi. Apple Stores, McDonalds and Starbucks the world over often provide it – it just depends on where you are on holiday.

Do be aware though that open, public connections can be less secure than password protected ones.

Look out for special add-ons (but always read the small print)

Your mobile provider may offer special add-ons for frequent travellers to limit charges abroad. Often they are still quite expensive, but they can be cheaper than the normal usage rates.

For example, EE has the Travel Pass, which gives you “all-day access” for £4 (in reality, all day is 500MB, so be careful!). Passes are bundles that run from midnight to midnight UK time – some bundles may include calls and texts.

O2, meanwhile, has a similar offering in O2 Travel, where you are charged a set fee (£4.99 a day) for your usage. Unlike EE, this bundles calls, texts and data into one – the standard tariff gives you 120 minutes, 120 texts and unlimited data for that day and you are charged the daily rate as soon as you make a call, send a text or use data.

Of course, there are limits to everything – read the small print before agreeing to any add-on and make sure it’s really worthwhile.

Never stream or download

Everyone's obsessed with the latest Netflix show and you don't want to miss out. That's all well and good, but downloading or streaming anything on holiday is a serious no-no.

Doing this will soon rack up hefty bills. Streaming a long video on 3G, for example, could easily use up two to three GB. When you take into account that O2’s standard charge for data in the US is £6 per MB (there are 1000 MB in a GB), costs rack up quickly.

The best bet is to download a few films or episodes of your favourite series before you travel - or, alternatively, take a book with you. They use barely any data.

Consider using a local SIM

The tried-and-tested travel mantra “do as the locals do” doesn’t have to stop with food, drink and culture – you can take a leaf from the country’s residents by getting a local SIM card.

You’ll usually get these on a pay-as-you-go tariff (remember those heady days of 10p texts?), so you won't be able to spend any more than you put on the SIM. Plus, as you’re paying local rates, it’s often cost-effective for frequent users or travellers who plan to be away for an extended period.

If this is your plan, remember that your phone will need to be unlocked to do this and you’ll be using a different number when abroad. Usually, you will need to get a local SIM in your destination.

For example, if you’re travelling to the US, you should be able to track down a SIM at your nearest mall – AT&T and T-Mobile are useful providers for travellers in the US, with shops in most major cities.  

Of course, each country will be different so it’s vital that you look into SIM options before you travel.

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