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A budget traveler's guide to staying connected while traveling abroad

Having a phone with a data plan at your disposal while traveling can be a literal life saver, but international phone service is notoriously expensive for unwary travelers. Fortunately, there are ways to prepare for, and even avoid, these steep charges.

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    Flowers are seen in front of the Eiffel Tower on a sunny spring day in Paris, France (May 8, 2016).
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What good is an international vacation if you can't Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat your way through it to make everyone back home jealous?

Well, that and there's the practicality of checking in regularly with friends and family for safety reasons, or staying in touch with the office while you're traveling, or the ability to pull up a map on the fly when you're lost in the street maze of a foreign city, or a quick translation when you don't speak the language. Having a phone with a data plan at your disposal while traveling can be a literal life saver.

International phone service is notoriously expensive for unwary travelers. Heck, I've been hit with horror story roaming data charges myself. Look up one map online, get hit with an outrageous data charge when all of your apps seize the opportunity to sync up. (Yep, that happened.) But it doesn't have to happen to you! Today I'm going to take you through all of the different ways you can stay connected while traveling internationally.

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Get your international phone plan in order before you go.

With a little advance planning you can maintain the level of service you're accustomed to without running up a bill worthy of its own horror story. If you forgot to adjust your calling plan before you left and now are freaking out about a $300 charge for five minutes of roaming data, step back from the ledge, my friend. Call your carrier and ask them to upgrade your plan retroactively. Most of them will do it, no questions asked. I have personal experience with that one, too.

How much data do you actually need?

Before we dive into the individual plans offered by the major carriers, you need to have at least a rough idea of what your actual data needs are going to be. If you're not sure, grab your last phone bill, look up your monthly data usage, and apply this formula. My model assumes that your data usage is slightly higher while on vacation as you take more photos and check in more frequently than you would in your day to day life back home.

(LMD / BCD) * (TL + (TL/5)) = How much data you should plan for

LMD = last month's data usage
BCD = number of billing cycle days
TL = trip length

Looking at my own bill, I used 1.7GB data last month. Divided by 30 days for the billing cycle, that works out to .056GB/day. If I'm planning a seven day trip, and assuming that I'll use the equivalent of 1.4 more days of data than usual (seven days/five), then I'm going to be looking for an international data plan that can accommodate .4777GB, or 477.7MB of data.

I'll add the caveat that while my formula is meant to give you a pretty good guess, you should take a gut check on whether or not to adjust up or down. Personally, I would still opt for at least 1GB of data if it's available since I am a very heavy data user on vacation, documenting every attraction, meal, and tiny detail to social media as I go. Others may take the opportunity to go completely off the grid, using no data at all. The mandate here is to know thyself.

T-Mobile

If you're a T-Mobile customer, the Simple Choice Plans at T-Mobile offer data and texting in more than 140 countries starting from $50/month for 2GB, on up to $95/month for unlimited data. That makes it the best travel-friendly package for calling and data across the major carriers. While we wouldn't advise anyone to switch their carrier just for the sake of a single trip to Paris, it's well worth considering for frequent international travelers who have good T-Mobile coverage in their home cities.

Verizon

Verizon's best deal for international travelers who want to use their data plan just like they do at home is TravelPass. A new addition to Verizon's international options as of November 2015, TravelPass lets you take your domestic plan with you abroad with all of the same talk, text, and data limits for $2/day for Canada and Mexico, or $10/day in more than 100 countries - just about anywhere that most people would want to go, really.

Verizon also offers monthly pricing for international travelers for as little as $15/month for travel to Canada and Mexico and from $25/month elsewhere, but heavy data users (in other words, just about anyone who checks email and Facebook on their phone) will run up against the 100MB data limit pretty fast, especially if it's been a few days since your phone last synced, and overages can cost as much as $25/100MB.

The pay-as-you-go rates are such an awful option for most travelers that it's not even worth reviewing. If you go for this one, you're going to want to disable all data and leave your phone turned off entirely except in case of an emergency.

AT&T

AT&T Passport is similar to Verizon's monthly international packages. At the low end, $30/month gets you unlimited texting, $1.00 per minute talk, and 120MB data with overages running $0.25/MB. At the high end, it's $120/month for unlimited texting, $0.35/minute talk, and 800MB data with overages priced at $0.15/MB. Overall, these packages are pretty underwhelming compared to what you can get from T-Mobile and Verizon.

One bright spot, however, is that you can use your AT&T phone in Mexico for free so long as you opt in to a special Mobile Share Value plan with at least 15GB data, which starts at $100/month.

Sprint

If you're a Sprint customer traveling to Canada, Mexico, or just about anywhere else in Latin America you can get unlimited talk and text and 1GB high-speed data for free as part of Sprint Open World. It's a free add-on to your current plan, with no plan restrictions. Cross an ocean, however, and you'll pay $0.20/minute for calls and $30 per GB of data (though unlimited texting remains free.)

If you're traveling beyond Canada and Latin America, make sure you're signed up for Sprint Global Roaming, which offers free unlimited texting and data up to 2G speeds. To kick your data up to high-speed, you can buy a 3G data pass. You can opt for a one-day pass including 100MB for $15, a seven-day pass including 200MB for $25, or a 14-day pass including 500MB for $50.

Or use a local prepaid SIM card instead

If adjusting your phone plan is too pricey, consider buying a prepaid SIM card once you arrive at your destination. Since this is not something I have personally done, I asked the Brad's Deals team to weigh in.

"First you need to be sure your phone is 'unlocked' - which just means carrier-unlocked so that you can use it with any carrier," says Jeff C., Brad's Deals Creative Director. "Usually all it takes is a call to your carrier, if that’s who you bought the phone from."

"Then once in the new country, you just buy a SIM card that fits your phone," Jeff continued. "I’ve done this at airports, or in malls, or in little shops that I found via Google. Drop in the new SIM, and you get a new local phone number and local data plan. The key here is to get a pre-paid SIM card. That way you’re not attempting to sign up for a regular monthly plan, and you can reload the SIM card at-will just as you can here in the USA with pre-paid SIMs."

SIM cards can indeed wind up costing less than some international plans. This one from Orange gets you a French phone number with 120 minutes, 1000 texts, 1GB of data, and free unlimited Orange Wifi throughout Europe for 40€, or roughly $45 USD as of the date this guide was published.

What's up with Wifi?

The Starbucks logo doubles as the international sign for "free wifi."

All of the guides you read about staying connected on a budget in Europe and beyond toss out Wifi as an option as though it were as ubiquitous and free flowing as it is here in the United States. Ha. Hahaha... that's cute.

The truth is that free wifi can be really tough to find abroad. Where Americans treat complimentary wifi almost like a public utility, expecting to find it in every cafe, bar, salon, library, laundromat, and sometimes even on public beaches, privacy-conscious Europeans tend to keep it pretty locked down. I won't even consider renting an Airbnb unless wifi is included.

But spotting a Starbucks or McDonalds while abroad is like sighting land after being adrift at sea. Do I really want McDonalds coffee in Italy where coffee is basically an art form unto itself? Or Starbucks pastries in France where the patisseries are the stuff of legend? Not even a little, and I kind of hate myself for walking in the door, but that free wifi works the same everywhere I've been and it's a life saver when I need some quick directions from Google Maps. It's not 100% guaranteed (I can't speak for every Starbucks everywhere in the world), but it's worth a shot when you're in a bind.

The fix for your data problem: Pocket Wifi Rental

Let's say that updating your phone plan isn't an option, and your phone doesn't play well with SIM cards. Or maybe all that business of unlocking your phone and researching where to buy local prepaid SIM cards is too much of a hassle? Set your phone to airplane mode and hook it up with a portable wifi device.

"Last summer I rented a TEP device so I could work remotely in Europe the week before my friend's wedding and it worked out really well," says Katie C., a graphic designer for Brad's Deals. "The connection wasn't lightning fast and it got pretty spotty in rural areas, but I could say the same thing about using Verizon data abroad."

Our accounting manager Anthony agreed that having his own personal wifi hotspot made it easier to explore Tokyo. "All we did was throw it in our backpack and use our phone like normal. Occasionally, it would time out and we would have to re-boot it and if we were out for a while, we would have to stop somewhere and recharge it. But in general, it was a really brilliant mechanism to have while we were traveling there since we were able to use our phones and not have to waste a ton of time using maps or getting lost."

There are several companies that rent pocket wifi devices to international travelers:

Best Coverage Map: Xcom
The service with the largest offering, Xcom runs $14.95/day. Indeed, Xcom has coverage in a lot of places that other portable wifi services just do not. We especially appreciated that they cover the U.S. Virgin Islands, which no other service like it does.

Best Value: HipPocketWifi
Previously only available in France, HipPocketWifi now covers most of Europe. The service includes 500MB per day, which is a pretty generous cap. Rental costs are figured on a sliding scale: the longer you rent it for, the cheaper it is per day to do so. A three-five day rental runs 7.90€/day, while 14-30 days is priced at 4.90€/day. Plus, you can tailor your package to your needs. Add unlimited data for an additional 2.50€/day, or go beyond France's borders for an additional 4€/day.

As of May 2016, 1€ costs $1.12, so it's pretty clear that for most of Europe, unless the dollar completely tanks against the euro, this is the plan that will give you the most bang for your buck.

TEP Wireless
One day with a European TEP device was priced out at $19.90. Data is technically unlimited, but the speed is throttled significantly if you exceed 350MB in a single day.

Skyroam
Rent a Skyroam device with unlimited internet for $9.95 per day. Or you can buy the device for $99.99 and buy day passes as needed, a more economical option for frequent travelers that also eliminates the extra step of returning the device after your trip.

Use apps instead of calling and texting.

"Hey ma, you won't believe where we are right now!"

Got wifi? You're golden. Check in with friends and family back home, show them the view from your hotel balcony in real time. Or use your pocket wifi to brag to your friends that you're standing next to the Eiffel Tower right now! (And don't forget to check in on Facebook, too. Of course.)

  • FaceTime
  • Skype
  • Google Hangouts
  • Viber

We also like WhatsApp, Snapchat, and  Facebook Messenger for texting friends on a wifi connection.

Then of course, you'll want to keep your family and friends posted on your adventures in real time on Facebook, Instagram, etc. That's hard to do without wifi (or a T-Mobile plan), but you can get close.

One trick I found for expediting my end of day photo uploading is to take photos through Instagram. If there's no wifi connection available, Instagram saves them in a neat little column with everything labeled as "upload failed." As soon as I'm back in wifi range, I can pop into the app and quickly run down the column hitting "retry."

Which option is right for you?

Personally, I'm excited to give the pocket wifi rental services a try on my next trip out of the United States. My phone service is with Verizon so TravelPass looks like a best bet for most of Europe, but for any forays into France HipPocketWifi would cost less. And the next time I visit our St. Thomas office, where Verizon service is all roaming, I'll be giving Xcom a try.

This article first appeared at Brad's Deals.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best personal finance bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. To add or view a comment on a guest blog, please go to the blogger's own site by clicking on the link in the blog description box above.

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