Just recently, I was told by a prominent travel writer that he was working on an article regarding what the best international data and voice service is for travelers. He also said that he had just 1200 characters of space in which to write his article. We both agreed that condensing a good answer into just 1200 characters was a very ambitious, if not impossible feat. Having said that, I am not going to attempt to do this either as it is like trying to say where the best vacation spot in the world is, which for me is probably the Amalfi Coast because I love the food, the sun and the beauty but, if you don’t like pasta, burn badly and are blind, then you are not going to agree with me. OK, I admit, this is an improbable scenario but the point is, there is NO SUCH THING as a definitive “best” data or voice plan for the international traveler. Having said that, there are a few solutions that will address the needs of 80-90% of all travelers. First, in order to show my point, here is an example of a traveler whose needs ARE fairly unique – me.
I travel to Italy every year for usually 4-5 weeks. If I could, I would not bring half of what I bring with me for my communication needs but since I need to keep in touch with Cellular Abroad, I don’t have that luxury. So, here is my personal arsenal. In the US I have a Blackberry with T-Mobile. T-Mobile offers unlimited data in Italy. The problem is that the data speed is only 2G which is too slow to do anything but check and send emails. This works great for my emails but since I don’t want to pay the $0.20 per minute (plus tax) for the calls, I forward my calls from my US phone to my Italian cell phone through a service we provide. That costs me $19 for 6 hours of calls or about $0.06 per minute. I need to Skype and I want to browse the internet so I can read news and watch videos so i take my iPad with me and I put in an Italian data SIM card. This gives me unlimited data. If I need to make a phone call to the US, I typically use Skype on my iPad for 2 1/2 cents per minute or I will use my Italian cell phone for about $15 cents per minute. So, for about $250 I am able to email, call and browse the web as much as I need to which is usually about 2 hours a day, for my entire trip. If I did not have these solutions, there is no way that I could take such an extended trip to Italy every year. Again, not everyone needs to stay in touch as much as I do so here are a couple more solutions that are more suitable for the vast majority of travelers.
National Geographic Travel Phone
The most economical solution for travelers who just need an emergency phone for their yearly trip is to buy the National Geographic Travel Phone. Many US and Canadians phone DO work overseas but, even if you do not intend to make many phone calls, anyone who has that number can call you. Yes, you can turn the phone off but that kind of defeats the purpose of having an emergency phone. The Nat Geo phone allows you go have a new number but also to keep your existing phone number. Having a new number that you can give to select individuals is not a bad idea.
Country Specific Solutions
If you are traveling only to one country and/or need data, using a local solution (i.e., using a SIM card for that country) is the way to go. Many travel writers advocate this solution. They say to go overseas and buy one locally. Those that know that you can buy them before you leave will tell you to go to Cellular Abroad or elsewhere (there are very few companies that carry local solutions) in order to save the hassle of trying to locate on there. I will also add that some countries do not even allow you to buy them locally and, in any event, if you don’t know the language and if you want something as soon as you land, buying one before is the way to go. Also, why would you even want to wait to see what is available overseas when you can get one before your departure?
Use your Own Cell Phone
This is what I call the Rich Man’s Solution. The great thing about this is that you don’t have to do anything. The bad thing is that it is expensive and also, oftentimes, it is not clear what you are getting. A great example is the “free international data” offering from T-Mobile and now Sprint too has joined the band wagon. The problem with this is that it is 2G and the problem with 2G is that most people reading this won’t understand what, “the problem with this is that it is 2G” even means. To make it plain and simple, 2G is too slow to do anything but send emails and use apps such as Twitter or Whatsapp. We get a lot of feedback from customers complaining about their frustration with going overseas and planning to have free data when instead they couldn’t even use their phone to Skype or browse the internet or use Google Maps and by that time it was too late to do anything about it.
Another problem with using your own phone is that anyone and everyone who has your number will be able to reach you. If you are a business traveler, you probably want that to happen. If you are on vacation, you are probably trying to get away from everything and do not want that.