May 17, 2012 / 12:35 PM / 8 years ago

The $1,000 vacation cellphone bill

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Using my cellphone to check e-mail while traveling internationally has always made life easier - until my last trip, that is.

Workers cross London Bridge, with Tower Bridge seen behind, during the morning rush hour in London September 30, 2011. REUTERS/Paul Hackett

I returned from a relaxing weekend to find $1,000 of extra charges on my phone bill. Experts call this ‘Bill Shock,’ and that’s how I felt after my two-day trip from Dubai, where I was living at the time, to Oman, a neighboring country. It turns out that the global data-roaming package I purchased before relocating to Dubai didn’t cover Oman.

Others likely will make the same mistake. Americans are expected to spend 11 percent more on travel this summer than in 2011, with nearly half of all travelers going abroad or taking a cruise, according to American Express’ Spending and Saving Tracker.

International calls can cost up to $5 per minute and just one megabyte of data (say, the amount used to stream one minute of video) used during roaming can cost up to $25. It can easily cost $100 to post one picture on Facebook.

(For a Reuters chart of how much different data uses can cost, please double-click: link.reuters.com/juf38s )

To add to consumer confusion, costs differ by country. Furthermore, travelers tend to use additional data while they are abroad because they’re busy using their devices to find directions, upload photos and stay in touch with folks back home.

“Consumers say, ‘I want my phone service switched so I can make international calls,’ but they forget to cover the data plan,” says Rod Davis, a senior vice president at the Council of Better Business Bureaus.

Users often do not understand how charges accumulate, says Daniel Rudich, a senior vice president at Tangoe Inc, an Orange, Connecticut-based telecommunications expense management provider. Some users mistakenly think domestic unlimited data and calling plans can be used abroad, but they can add thousands of dollars of charges.

Many smartphone applications like e-mail and maps work in the background, racking up charges because the programs constantly pull data from the network - even if they are not actively in use, says Rudich.

Due to an effort by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, by April 2013, U.S. phone companies must do more to educate consumers. Under a voluntary agreement, phone companies will send warning messages to consumers about incurring charges.

Many companies already send texts and e-mails to warn consumers about charges. For example, AT&T sends messages like “International rate of up to $19.97/MB applies. International data allowance does not apply in this location.”

STAYING CONNECTED ABROAD

So how can you avoid overage charges when traveling? Here are a few ways to avoid costly mistakes:

- First, contact your carrier. Before you leave, find out about your international add-ons and call forwarding options; mention all the countries you’re visiting and how you’ll use your phone. Information can be found online, but it’s better to call with more complicated questions, says Pamela Papner, executive director of international services for AT&T Mobility.

- Keep your phone turned off. Use other options when you can, says Joe Basili, managing director at the Telecom Expense Management Industry Association, a trade group. If you’ve got access to a wireless network in your hotel, consider using Skype, Fring or Truphone to make phone calls. Each Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service lets users log on from their laptops to make calls through the wireless network, and it’s free if the person you’re calling is also online. Calling home can cost as little as 2 cents per minute.

- Buy a SIM card. To make cheaper calls on the go, consider purchasing a local SIM card; these are memory chips that fit into some phones and allow visitors to prepay for calls from the local network.

Not all phones can take a SIM card, so make sure you are using an unlocked phone that works on what is called the GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) network.

Some cities rent compatible cell phones with SIMs, says Basili. You’ll get a temporary local number and most incoming calls are free. For an additional charge, you can also forward your usual cellphone number to the rental phone.

Companies like Boston-based Telestial Inc sell global SIM cards that work in 180 countries. Many SIM card providers also sell prepaid data plans. You really have to shop around,” Basili says. “This stuff is unfortunately very complicated and tricky.”

USE YOUR PHONE, CAUTIOUSLY

If you need access to your U.S. cellphone, here’s how to avoid bill shock:

— Keep track of data you use, because charges may not appear on your bill right away. New apps available for smartphones like Data Usage for the iPhone and Onavo Count for Android help keep track of your data usage. Data apps can help you better estimate roaming data costs, says Ken Grunski, president of Telestial. For example, uploading one photo to Facebook takes about 5 megabytes of data; that can cost $100 if you’re roaming outside of the United States, he says.

— Find wireless hotspots; they are free. To avoid charges, turn off the data roaming so all of your apps are running on the wireless network, says Tangoe’s Rudich. Just switching from the phone network to a wireless network can leave some apps running on the phone network.

— Watch for sneaky smaller charges. Travelers to some countries, for example, are charged for voicemail messages, even if the voicemail account remains unchecked. Incoming texts can also be charged at roaming rates. It’s best to keep your phone turned off when you arrive in a new country until you understand the charges that will apply there.

- Read your messages, and keep the lights on. Most carriers send texts and e-mail warnings regarding pricing per megabyte of roaming data. Don’t ignore them. If you rack up charges, your data services may get suspended. AT&T and Sprint suspend consumer data at $500 of overage charges and the customer must contact the company to restore access. (AT&T allows $1,000 for corporate accounts.) Phone service is not suspended, so use the free international number provided by each company to give customer service a call right away, says Basili.

- If all else fails, wheedle. If you’ve already been slammed with a high bill, you have very few options. Most carriers have a mandatory dispute resolution clause requiring consumers to pursue arbitration, says BBB’s Davis. Calling customer service to negotiate is easier. It took me a few phone calls, but my carrier ultimately cut my $1,000 bill down to $200. That leaves $800 I can use for my next weekend getaway.

(The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his/her own.)

Editing by Jilian Mincer, Linda Stern and Dan Grebler

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