How to avoid bill shock when you’re abroad

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You don’t have to be greeted by a huge mobile phone bill when you arrive home from your holiday. Here’s how

Returning from a perfect summer break abroad, the last thing you want to find on your doormat is a huge mobile phone bill, but it happens all too easily.

While we go on holiday to get away from our daily routines, we can’t seem to leave behind our smartphones. The minute we touch down in a foreign country, we’re prone to switching our handsets back on to check messages and map our way to the hotel – potentially incurring high network charges in the process.

Despite the steady decline in domestic mobile calling rates in the UK, and the EU’s ongoing battle to eradicate roaming charges entirely, the spectre of foreign data rates and call prices continues to haunt us.

As recently as June, two cases popped up in the tabloids about hapless holidaymakers who had unwittingly fallen victim to rampant roaming charges. One incident involved a teenager racking up a £3,000 phone bill using her mother’s mobile to access the internet. A not-so-young man found a £1,500 bill waiting for him upon returning home from the US.

Both cases show that it is no longer just call charges you need to be wary of when travelling abroad. The killer is mobile data. Unlike calls, data consumption and cost are difficult if not impossible to keep track of. An app running in the background, a podcast automatically updating, push emails you never read – we’ve all heard the stories.

Hurrah for the EU
Thankfully, the EU is breaking down the barriers of roaming charges, in conjunction with mobile network operators. In April, members of the European Parliament voted in favour of banning roaming charges from the end of 2015. The reforms came in the wake of a European Commission survey earlier this year that found 94 per cent of Europeans were forced to restrict their use of mobile browsing due to the cost of roaming.

This followed MEPs voting in 2013 to cap browsing costs at 45 cents (39p) per megabyte, compared with 70 cents (60p) the year before. The new law, however, still requires approval by individual EU states.

Meanwhile, more immediate changes to roaming charges are being led by mobile network operators such as Three, which recently announced it is scrapping mobile roaming charges in five more countries. As part of the company’s Feel At Home service, it abolished roaming rates in France, Switzerland, Israel, Finland and Norway. This brings the total number of countries that Three’s service is available in to 16, and also includes the USA, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Macau, Australia, Italy, Austria, Hong Kong, Sweden, Denmark and the Republic of Ireland, where the service has been available since 2013.

The charging rackets
Despite these initiatives, there are still many countries outside the EU where roaming charges can spring up unawares. All it takes is for you to switch on your phone, automatically connect to a local provider, and before you know it you’re racking up charges.

So what’s the solution? The first option available to travellers is a network add-on. Depending on whether you’re a pay-monthly or pay-as-you go customer, you can access various bolt-ons that can reduce your roaming charges (for a comprehensive list of the add-ons currently available to you, see opposite). When travelling abroad, keep in mind that WiFi hotspots can be your smartphone’s best friend. Make sure you grab the WiFi password from your hotel and save it to your phone.

Airports often include a free WiFi service, too – perfect for all that waiting around. And try to stick to using free, online messaging apps when in your room to avoid huge data costs (see our guide below).

If you can, make efforts to do the same when you’re out and about. If you’re lucky, the bar, pub or even restaurant you’re in could have a wireless signal you could use to keep in touch with friends and family back home. All you have to do is ask.

Oh, and remember to charge your handset or tablet before you travel, following recent security changes.

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