How to beat high mobile charges abroad

Chances are you’ve already been on holiday this year and, if you weren’t careful with your mobile, you might in the past few months have been forced to pay a bloated bill for using your phone overseas.

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The simple message is – you can avoid this happening again. If you’re still planning a late getaway, or want to make sure you don’t get stung next year, there are much cheaper ways to stay in touch while you’re abroad. And you can use the internet to see who you’re talking to as well.

But first, here’s why you might want to shun the mobile in favour of cheaper or even free alternatives for phoning home.

When in roam…

One of the UK’s biggest mobile networks, O2, has recently been sending texts to some of its customers to announce price hikes for texting and calling from outside Europe.

From the end of November, 10million O2 UK customers will pay more for using their mobiles in the three non-Europe regions: US and Canada, Asia Pacific and the rest of the world.

The cost of receiving a call in the States will go up from 29p per minute to 90p per minute and making a call will go up from 90p per minute to £1.10. Texts go up to 40p from 25p and data will be charged at the new price of £6 per Megabyte.

In the Asia Pacific region, including (for example) Singapore, call charges are going up from 60p to 80p while receiving calls will cost you 37p more than before at 80p per minute. The cost of a text also quadruples to 40p per message.

The rest of the world region, which includes popular holiday destinations such as Egypt, will pay £1.50 per minute to make a call, up from £1.20 and £1.25 per minute to receive a call, up from 85p per minute. Texts will still cost 40p.

Costs with other networks vary massively, but whichever one you’re with there are definitely cheaper ways of staying in touch and getting online while you’re away.

Cheaper alternatives

If your holiday accommodation has wifi and you have a smartphone or tablet with a front-facing camera, there are far cheaper alternatives to costly mobile phones charges.

Skype, FaceTime and Google+ Hangouts, for example, each allow you to video chat with your friends and family back home, provided they also have a webcam of some kind and a broadband connection.

Skype can be downloaded for free to your computer or as an app to your smartphone or tablet, whereas anyone with a free Google account can take part in a Hangout. FaceTime is Apple’s native video chat app and found on the iPhone 4 and higher, as well as iPad 2 and higher.

Skype to Skype calls, FaceTime over wifi and Google+ Hangouts are free regardless of where you or the person you’re calling are in the world. I regularly use Skype to talk to friends in Germany and family in Dubai at no cost other than the monthly broadband fee, which I’m paying anyway.

Skype might be the most widely used of the three, boasting 250million monthly users, but FaceTime could be hot on its heels, given the popularity of the iPhone. Google+ has a smaller user base, but is very user friendly.

Alternatively, there are free instant messaging smartphone apps like WhatsApp which allow you to send free text messages to other WhatsApp users over wifi.

With Skype, you can even just make calls over the web to a landline or mobile. This isn’t free but is cheaper than using your mobile. So, just how much does it cost?

Calls to Canada and the US from the UK (and vice versa) cost 1.6p per minute including VAT. Calls to and from Singapore cost 1.6p per minute including VAT and calls to and from Egypt cost 12.4p per minute including VAT.

You can buy Skype credits directly from Skype itself or you can buy pre-paid Skype cards from supermarkets and newsagents, complete with a code which, once entered, credits your account with the required amount.

World-wide web

Perhaps if you travel a lot and find yourself in places without wifi connections, there are personal, pocket wifi devices such as Tep Wireless’ which allows you to connect to the web anywhere using the local 3G connection.

You rent the pocket-sized box from Tep Wireless and connect your smartphone, tablet or laptop to it. Tep covers 55 territories worldwide and you can get 15 days’ worth of access, with a 2.5GB data allowance for £55 (£3.60 a day).

This doesn’t sound particularly cheap, but Tep says the equivalent data usage on international plans Three and Vodafone would cost you £7,500 and £505 respectively.

Keeping bills down

Whatever you do, and wherever you are, be sure to turn off data roaming on your phone otherwise you could be incurring roaming charges without even realising it, and turn off any push notifications to be on the safe side.

If you’re likely to make the odd, short phone call or send a few texts from the beach, it’s probably worth speaking to your provider before you go as you may be able to pay a small fee for a week or two to give you additional allowances for international use – it could save you money.

As of summer 2014 you’ll have the option to shop around for separate mobile providers for roaming. When you land at your destination and turn on your phone, it’ll make the switch to the separate (and likely cheaper) network.

But it can’t be stressed enough; the cheapest option is probably always going to be Skype to Skype calls, FaceTime or Google+ hangouts using wifi, unless your accommodation is charging extortionate prices for access.

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