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When in Roam

How to get the most from your smartphone when traveling internationally

Author TOM SAMILJAN

ILLUSTRATION BY NEIL WEBB

IT SEEMS WE CAN DO almost anything on our smartphones these days, as long as we stay within our network. When we go outside it — as anyone who’s tried updating a Facebook page in real time with photos from the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro knows — the roaming charges can pile up, making the decision to bring a phone along on our trip look less than savvy. Fortunately, there are plenty of money-saving solutions available to the international traveler. Here are some of the best for staying connected while on the move.

GET A GLOBAL ROAMING PLAN
Only Verizon and AT&T offer bulk international data packages, and for as little as $25 per month for 50 MB (which should cover the occasional weather or news check, but anything more will require a higher limit). By contrast, without a roaming plan you’ll wind up paying around $6 for each Facebook message you read while traveling. Even better, these plans can be activated and deactivated instantly.

TURN OFF DATA ROAMING AND TWEAK YOUR SETTINGS
With or without a data plan, make sure to switch off your phone’s auto-sync (Android) or push (iOS) email settings and disable data roaming before you leave, to avoid any surprises on your phone bill when you get back home. Because international plans have data limits, I turn on data roaming only when I need it. And if I absolutely have to check my webmail, I do it via the website on my smartphone’s browser rather than the built-in email client — I use much less data that way.

FIND A HOT SPOT
Most smartphones let you flip on the Wi-Fi when they’re in airplane mode (and yours should be, if you don’t want to get charged just for hearing your phone ring), which means you’ll get online access via hot spot. This is crucial for bandwidth-hogging activities like checking email, streaming video and making calls with Skype. To ensure access to as many hot spots as possible, I have subscriptions to Boingo Wireless ($8 per month, boingowireless.com) and FON ($49 one-time charge, fon.com). These services give me access to millions of paid hot spots — many of them in airports and hotels — across the globe for no additional charge. And when those aren’t available, I can always use single-serving paid Wi-Fi hot spots or check jwire.com for free ones.

BRING A HOT SPOT WITH YOU
If my trip is 10 days or shorter, I’ll rent a portable MiFi device from XCom Global (xcomglobal.com), which blasts out a mobile-broadband Wi-Fi hot spot with unlimited data for as little as $15 a day in more than 195 countries. With this nifty gadget in my pocket and my iPhone’s Wi-Fi turned on, I can use my smartphone as I would at home, whether I’m streaming the latest episode of “Parks and Recreation” dubbed in French or navigating my way to the Apple store in Tokyo’s Ginza district. As a bonus, the MiFi hot spot saves me from paying hotel Wi-Fi charges, since it can deliver 3G speeds to my laptop and iPad simultaneously.

RENT LOCALLY
When I need friends or co-workers in, say, London to be able to reach me easily, I’ll rent a local SIM card and insert it into any quad-band unlocked GSM phone (available for as little as $40 on cellhut.com). If you plan to check email or use Spotify, be sure to opt for the special prepaid supplementary data plan (usually about $3 to $4 per day); otherwise, you’ll burn up all your mobile credit in minutes. On the plus side: Outside the U.S., incoming calls to prepaid local mobiles are usually free.

Phones aren’t the only rental option, either. On a recent trip to Japan, I could have rented a local iPhone for about $80 a week, which sounded like a great deal until I found out that the unlimited data plan costs about $32 a day extra. Instead, I rented a high-speed WiMax MiFi with unlimited data for $80 a week from rentafonejapan.com, complete with delivery right to my hotel the day I arrived in Tokyo. It remains to be seen, however, whether they plan to expand delivery — to Kilimanjaro, for instance.

Hemispheres tech columnist TOM SAMILJAN once tried the most effective way of avoiding roaming charges: leaving his smartphone at home. It didn’t end well.

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