We saw a great advertisement tonight for the iPhone. It featured a U.S.-based,college-aged student who was touring Europe and using iPhone applications to book rooms at hostels, buy tickets, make reservations, post photos to the Web and just about anything that you could think about related to travel. It looked inviting and it appeared like a hassle-free way to solve arranging travel on the road. However, our advice is not to try this with your iPhone! As a matter of fact, the best use of your iPhone during international travel is to leave it at home.
Why? Well there is the little issue of the expense of international data roaming. When you use your iPhone outside of your home country, in this case, outside of the U.S., Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands (for either voice or data) international roaming rates apply. So if your are in Canada, Mexico, Europe, Asia or anyplace other than the U.S., you could find out that opening an email with a 5 megapixel photo in it, or downloading a three-minute video on YouTube, each take about two megabytes of data. AT&T indicates that the cost for this harmless task could be $40, based on pay-per-use international data rates of $0.0195 per kilobyte of data. In fact, we know travelers who have forgotten this little tidbit and racked up charges over $2,000 on brief, international visits.
The poor man’s approach (and the one we practice if we absolutely need to take our iPhone) is to turn off the settings that are going to consume data. Your best bet is to go to the settings screen on your iPhone, look for the button labeled “general” and turn “data roaming” off. In addition, turn off 3G. Finally turn off “fetch new data” under the email setting. Note, that even if you take all of these precautions, it will not guarantee that some data might squeak through, as these actions do not block text or picture/video messages.
AT&T has a page that describes these issues in detail and we urge you to follow their advice, which can be found here.
In short, taking your iPhone abroad can be a real liability. If you forget to make the changes above, you can return home to a very big bill. In addition, even if you do turn off all the data functions, you never know when somebody is going to call and you will be paying international rates for the call, regardless of its point of origination.
AT& T does offer international data plans (described in the page referenced by the link above), but they are expensvie for relatively limited amounts of data. If interested, order one of these before you depart, measure your usage closely while abroad, and cancel the service on your return.
You can use Wi-Fi on the iPhone without charge and this is the low cost way to use your iPhone when traveling, since you can often find free Wi-Fi access points at airports, coffee shops and in some hotels. In addition, you can use Wi-Fi with Skype to call at reduced rates, but there is the problem that someone may call you and the price of that conversation could be more than you were going to spend on hotels for the next few days.
While it is not our intent to beat up the iPhone or AT&T, if you have one of those snazzy new iPads with 3G, turn off the 3G before you take it international or you will run into the same extraordinary data costs that plague the iPhone, although you won’t have to worry about anyone calling you on it.
We have several articles about alternatives for calling home in the ThereArePlaces section on Travel Tips.