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Travel Haven Tips — Avoid International Roaming Charges

Meagan Drillinger has great advice on staying connected abroad without spending a fortune. Last year alone, companies paid $7.3 billion to keep their employees connected with Wi-Fi and roaming data, according to Amba Hotels. The average U.S. business traveler spent $15.10 per day in Wi-Fi and roaming fees. In other words, whether you’re traveling on business or simply want to share your vacation in real time on social media, everyone spends way too much on cell service.

Here are Ms. Drillinger’s suggestions.

Use your existing plan
Some U.S. carriers do make it affordable to use your phone abroad. T-Mobile, for example, includes data roaming in 120 countries on its Simple Choice Plan. Other carriers offer affordable options if you’re willing to study the fine print.

Rent a device
Renting a cell phone that works abroad is another way to avoid data roaming charges. Cellular Abroad has a range of phones that work internationally, from the most basic device to an iPhone 4s. Weekly rental starts at around $40. With cloud-based storage of contacts, you can download your information and use the rental like your own.

Act like a local
If you’d rather take your own phone, you’ll first need to make sure it’s “unlocked,” meaning it can be used on any cellular network not just the one you typically use. AT&T lets you unlock your device permanently once your contract expires or up to five times per year for international travel. Some Verizon phones are sold unlocked.

With your phone unlocked you can purchase a local SIM card for a few dollars in your destination and use your phone on the local network. Typically you can get good local pre-paid rates this way. Vodafone, for example, sells SIM cards that provide 100 megabytes of data anywhere in a 35-nation “Europe Zone” for about $4.50 per day.

Try a travel-specific plan
MTX Connect, a mobile operator that provides data-only plans, has launched a new pay-as-you-go service for U.S. travelers going to any of 30 European countries. Prior to departure, you request a free MTX SIM card for your unlocked tablet or smartphone. Upon arrival, your device will connect to the local cellular network and work as usual. A basic plan costs about 10 cents per megabyte—enough to send about 10 emails without any attachments—and there’s also a daily plan that offers unlimited data for 24 hours for €10 (about $11). For heavy data users—or those on longer trips—a one-gigabyte plan is available for €49 ($53).

Go Wi-Fi only
Of course, you could always just turn off your cellular data and remain connected. Simply switch your phone to airplane mode to prevent any background downloads then enable a Wi-Fi connection to freely access the internet using hotspots in your destination. Apps that let you talk and text as if you were on a cellular connection have proliferated, and some of the most popular include WhatsApp, Kik, Viber (for texting) and FaceTime, Skype, and KakaoTalk (for voice). Europe has more than 44 million hotspots, and the number of wireless access points in Asia has increased nearly 300% since 2013.