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Travel without tears, Pt 2: Bill-beaters

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In the second part of a guide to reducing the stress of travel , ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK offers practical tools for avoiding cellphone bill-shock on return.

One of the most traumatic moments in overseas travel is the cellphone bill that arrives well after the trip is over. ‚”Bill-shock‚” is the term that’s emerged to describe the effect of exorbitant roaming charges on data. The costs are based on ‚”reciprocal‚” agreements between networks, but that is really a euphemism for mutually exploiting customers.

The European Union has clamped down on this abuse. In July 2012, it mandated a price cap on roaming charges within member countries. But, because its jurisdiction does not extend beyond its members, it allows them to continue ripping off foreign visitors.

The typical cost of international roaming for Vodacom customers is R128 per Megabyte (MB) of data downloaded. For MTN customers, it is a relative bargain at a ‚”mere‚” R108 per MB.

The roaming rates for MTN are quoted in increments of R2,70 per 25kb. Multiply that by 40 to get the real rate.

Vodacom’s website, under a heading that reads ‚”Why should I use data roaming?‚”, blithely soothes the customer with this line: ‚”You will receive real-time Data Roaming notifications which will be sent to you at every R5000 of data spent.‚”

Talk about ‚”ouch‚”. The question is, what to do about it?

The previous column in this series looked at how to make travel more convenient. This time, it’s about how to save as much as the cost of the plane ticket.

The most obvious advice, but not always the easiest to follow, is to buy a local SIM card. This is not ideal for business travellers who need to be contactable on their normal numbers, or if they have to spend so much time trying to find the appropriate SIM deal and a store – that they lose valuable productive time.

The solution to keeping your number is to obtain a portable WiFi router, such as the Vodafone R205 WiFi Router (R879) or Huawei E5331 (R998) or E585 Router. These are usually available on contract, but can also be bought upfront. Then, a local SIM card with data included can be inserted into the router, and both phone and tablet or laptop can be connected to the router simultaneously.

In some cases, you can insert the SIM into a phone and set it up as a WiFI hotspot. It’s called tethering, and many networks specifically don’t allow it on their pre-paid SIMs.

The best pre-paid data deals I’ve come across for key travel destinations are:

United Kingdom: the 3 network (three.co.uk) offers a pre-paid SIM for ‚Ǩ15, which includes 300 voice minutes, 3000 SMSs and ‚Ķ unlimited data. You can buy the SIM card from a vending machine at Heathrow airport when you land. The price there is ‚Ǩ20, but it comes with adaptors for the three main sizes of SIM slots on smartphones. The 3 SIM won’t work as a hotspot on a phone, but provides unlimited data when used in a portable WiFi router.

United States: T-Mobile (t-mobile.com) offers a Pay By the Day option, which provides unlimited data for $3 a day. It’s paid upfront in multiples of $10, $25 and $50, and credit is only used on days the service is used. Only the first 200MB used per day is accessed at 4G speed, though: after that, the user is throttled down to a lower speed. The package includes unlimited talk and SMSs if you’re using it in a phone.

The beauty of both the UK and US options is that there is no hassle about topping up or going back to the beginning when you reach a cap.

If getting a SIM card in every country is too much for you, a locally-originated option is offered by execMobile (execmobile.co.za). It isn’t cheap, but it isn’t bill-shock either. It provides an online account management portal and a post-paid roaming service that uses global partners who’ve negotiated ‚”near local rates‚” in various countries. That translates into R8.50 per MB for ad hoc use in the USA, but opting for a large bundle upfront can bring it down to as little as 26c below ad hoc charges in South Africa.

A package called GigaZONE offers bundles starting from R2.49 per MB for Europe and R4.99 for most other countries, including 21 in Africa. Still expensive? Not for the time-stretched executive, says execMobile founder Craig Lowe.

‚”For corporate travellers who travel with multiple devices and may do multiple countries on a trip or make several trips in a year, the convenience outweighs the costs.‚”

* Readers are invited to make their own suggestions for sites, resources and options to reduce the cost of international data roaming.

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