A few weeks after graduating from college, I packed my bags for a seven month job contract touring Asia. While I was a fairly independent and self-sufficient, the thought of being so far away and so cut off from my family and friends for such a long time rattled me. Not wanting to rack up an enormous communication bill during my travels, I left my cell phone with my parents when they dropped me at the airport. Upon arrival in the Philippines, I made a very expensive phone call from my hotel room to let them know I had landed safely.
Thankfully, I was working with people who were much more experienced and well-educated than I was on affordable overseas communication. They soon introduced me to Skype. I spent the entirety of my seven month stay in Asia talking with my loved ones for just $10 worth of Skype credit.
Skype is an Internet calling and messaging system. If both parties are connected to Wi-Fi and using the Skype application, then calls (including video calls) and instant messages are free. If you want to make a call to a landline or cell phone, you can do that by purchasing Skype credit, which only costs a few cents per minute rather than the $1 to $3 per minute you'd pay on your cell phone roaming abroad. I used Skype credit sparingly, mostly to check the voicemail on my cell phone and to call my friends and family and tell them to log on to their Skype accounts online so we could chat for free.
While that system worked well for me six years ago, my need for connectivity has admittedly increased. Before traveling to Europe last month, I did a bit of research on what other communication options were available. Now that I have a smartphone, I figured there must be a way to use it to communicate more effectively while abroad.
Sure enough, Internet-based communication apps have grown exponentially. From Skype to Facebook to Viber to Whats App to Google Hangouts to Voxer, there are endless ways to communicate without relying on traditional cell service. But even with these great resources, the charges can accumulate quickly if you're not careful. If you bring your smartphone abroad, make sure you're not accidentally connecting to data, which could cost you a fortune in data charges.
To avoid this, I put my smartphone in airplane mode when leaving New York and didn't take it off airplane mode until I landed back home in New York a few weeks later. I could still use the functions on my phone such as camera and calendar, and most importantly, I could still connect to Wi-Fi to use all my newly downloaded free communication apps, but I was never at risk of connecting to data when pulling up an email or looking up directions or a city map.
While the Wi-Fi dependent communication apps served me just fine during my latest trip abroad, if I were anticipating a longer stay, I might consider using international SIM cards to allow for non-Wi-Fi reliant calling and texting capability. Local SIM cards allow your phone access to a carrier's network overseas at local rates. Before leaving, you'll have to make sure your phone is unlocked and able to accept other SIM cards. Once you arrive at your destination, switch your SIM card for a local one at any phone shop. Once the minutes have expired, you can reload the card almost anywhere, even convenience stores.
Before committing to a local SIM card, however, consider how often you'll be crossing country borders. If you only plan to be in a country for two days, it might not make sense to load up on prepaid minutes.
Finally, if you're going to be away from home for an extended period of time, you might want to consider freezing your account so you're not stuck paying a monthly cell phone bill for service you're not using while abroad.
With all these options, resources and ways to save, there's no reason to fear losing connectivity or racking up major roaming charges when traveling abroad. Consider your itinerary and specific needs to find the communication strategy that best suits you.
Stefanie O'Connell is a New York City based actress and freelance writer. She chronicles her struggle to "live the dream" on a starving artists' budget at thebrokeandbeautifullife.com.
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