5 secrets for avoiding sky-high cell phone bills on the road

When it comes to “gotcha” fees, the cellular phone industry makes travel companies look like rank amateurs.

Take what happened to P. Morgan Brown when his wife decided to take a spur-of-the-moment vacation to Indonesia. Her Verizon bill came to a staggering $8,000. Text messages home cost and astounding $2.50 each and the meter was running at an eye-popping $1.75 a minute for phone calls.

“We almost missed a mortgage payment when the auto-withdrawal for the first bill came through and wiped out our checking account,” says Brown, who works for an Internet company in Aliso Viejo, Calif. “What a waste of money.”

Stories like his are becoming more common, according to cellular industry experts — despite some governments’ best efforts to contain these exorbitant fees. “The main reason is that people are using their phones more for data than voice calls,” says Azita Arvani, a wireless industry consultant based in Los Angeles. With a conventional call, users can gauge the cost per minute and adjust their talk time. But gauging data use isn’t as straightforward. An e-mail, Web site or video can gobble up a lot more bandwidth than you’d think.

The European Union limited roaming charges two years ago. And this month, a new set of regulations go into effect that cap text message costs to 11 cents, limit data rates to a reasonable €1 per megabyte, and boost requirements for billing transparency. No comparable laws have been proposed in the United States, where the guiding philosophy behind this almost total lack of regulation is that market forces alone will stop wireless carriers from overbilling their customers.

Here’s one way those market forces work: Brown dropped Verizon at his first opportunity and signed up with AT&T. He doesn’t auto-pay his cell phone bills anymore and rents a cell phone when he’s abroad. “My American cell phone is now for strict emergencies,” he adds.

There’s probably only one way wireless companies could make more from their roaming fees, and that’s they printed money in their basement. A recent Harris Interactive survey found international roaming fees cost U.S. businesses an average of $693 per trip per traveler. In Europe, the typical wireless company generates between 3 percent and 10 percent of their revenue — an annual total of 5 billion euro a year — through roaming fees, according to the GSM Association.

Why? Because they can, says Ken Grunski, President of San Diego, Calif.-based wireless company Telestial. “When you roam, you are using your phone on another company’s network, not the network of your own wireless company,” he says. “These other companies generally charge high wholesale charges to your company for using their network.”

In other words, it doesn’t actually cost $2 a minute to use another wireless company — not to that carrier, not even to yours. It’s almost pure profit.

But what can you do?

I asked myself that very question after landing in Vancouver recently. I had fired up my AT&T iPhone, called home to tell everyone I’d landed safely. I had checked out the roaming rates on the ATT.com site before leaving, and they seemed pretty reasonable. I assumed they would apply to me. Wrong. After checking a few e-mail messages, a friend warned that AT&T would charge me a bundle if I didn’t have a calling plan that included Canada.

Once I checked into my hotel — which offered free wireless service, thank goodness — I did a little research and found scores of AT&T customers who had paid thousands of dollars in unexpected roaming fees. I could feel the color draining from my face. I contacted AT&T immediately, told a representative I was turning off my cell phone, and said I was deeply concerned about my next phone bill.

Don’t let this happen to you. Here are a few strategies you can use to make sure you aren’t hammered by these ridiculous fees:

1. Buy another phone
If you’re going to be away for a while, maybe you need a native cell phone. Bruce Molsky, a musician based in Washington, buys a network-unlocked phone when he travels overseas. “The total charges are usually less than a quarter of what AT&T would have charged,” he says. “Plus I have the luxury of making and receiving calls in the country I’m in for normal rates.”

2. Get a plan
If you’re attached to your cell phone — and let’s face it, if your life is on your phone, you probably are — or if it’s just a short trip, then you might consider keeping your phone but switching to an overseas calling plan. “You should be able to switch to that plan on a temporary basis which would give you favorable rates abroad,” says Mark Asnes, the executive vice president and chief operating officer of the cellular company Wireless Zone. Typically, the rates are between 99 cents and $1.99 per minute. (Still not cheap, but about half what you’d pay if you were plan-less.)

3. Go VOIP
Voice Over IP — using a PC or other Internet-connected device to make phone calls — is a popular alternative to making cell phone calls overseas. Michael Brein, a psychologist based in Honolulu, uses a VOIP service called Skype to make inexpensive phone when he’s in Europe. “So long as you have wireless access, then calling from your laptop to phone numbers using Skype-out can be as little as two cents a minute,” he says. He’s also downloaded a Skype app for his iPhone, which allows him to make VOIP calls when he’s near a high-speed wireless network.

4. Swap cards
You might be able to have it both ways — that is, keep your phone and get a lower rate than the one offered by your wireless carrier. Andy Abramson, who edits a telephony blog swaps out the SIM cards on his phone when he travels. A SIM card, shorthand for a Subscriber Identity Module, effectively lets you change your phone number to a local one when you’re traveling. “I buy local SIMs in country or a travel SIM from SIM4Travel or MaxRoam,” he says. “Both offer competitive rates.”

5. Leave your phone home
It’s the only way to be absolutely sure. The moment you power up your phone, you’re in danger of passively checking e-mails or voice mails and incurring unconscionable roaming charges. So the best way of avoiding overseas roaming charges is to not bring your handset at all.

Which isn’t to say you can’t fight these fees. Steven Frischling, a New York travel consultant, returned from a recent trip to Detroit to find a $500 international phone bill. “I was unaware that my T-Mobile Blackberry was repeatedly hitting the GSM towers across the river in Canada,” he recalls. But after supplying T-Mobile with sufficient documentation that he was in Michigan, the wireless carrier corrected his bill.

My run-in with AT&T had a happy ending, too. After a month or two of polite correspondence with a customer service representative, the charges were promptly removed “as a courtesy.”

Next time, the iPhone stays home.

Share this story
Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share on Facebook

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Enterprise Holdings

A family-owned, world-class portfolio of brands. A global network that spans across more than 85 countries. Some 97,000 dedicated team members sharing common values. And more than 1.9 million vehicles taking our customers wherever they need to go.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.