If there’s one part of traveling that remains a “pain point”, it’s staying connected to those at home or back at the office without either running up a horrendous mobile data bill or exposing personal data to dubious Wi-Fi access points. In today’s installment of our Tips for Travelers 2019 series, I’ll talk about how to stay connected at the least possible cost as well as how to keep yourself safe while using the mobile Internet. This article is one of a series we’re running this summer to make your travel with technology as smooth as possible. Posts so far include:
The Current Situation
We’re almost into the 2020s, so you’d think that ubiquitous, fast and cheap Internet service would be available everywhere you go. Sadly, that’s not the case. On the trip that I just returned from, spending 11 days in Canada more than doubled my monthly AT&T bill. Why? Well, that company makes a big point of telling you that you can use your own data, voice and text plan in the “True North Proud & Free” (Canada) for just $10 per day. That’s true, but $10 per day is per device and per person, not by account. For two people and two iPhones, that cost us $220 during our trip.
Wireless data and roaming is less expensive with some other carriers, and swapping SIM cards in your phone can also reduce costs. If you don’t need the convenience of having that 24/7 cellular data connection, you can rely on fairly fast and free Wi-Fi at almost any hotel, restaurant or bar.
The winner for low-cost connectivity while traveling (particularly overseas) is Wi-Fi. When you go to a breakfast spot, restaurant, tourist attraction, visitor centers, hotel, or even gas station, check for Wi-Fi availability. You can spend a few minutes downloading email or sending pictures, then be on your way. Overnight at a hotel, your iPhone and iPad can back up to iCloud.
I’ve used FaceTime to make voice and video calls while out of the country, and Skype provides a way to make low-cost voice calls to just about any phone number. Making calls with these service works best on Wi-Fi and calls from Skype to a landline or cellular number might not be free, but it’s a lot less expensive than using roaming services on many carriers.
If you’re going to be using Wi-Fi hotspots on your trip, then do yourself a favor and get a Virtual Private Network (VPN) account to keep your data secure. Earlier this year, we discussed the pros and cons of using VPNs and also compared a number of top VPN providers. For international travelers, a monthly account with NordVPN ($11.95 for just one month, $2.99 per month with a 3-year plan) is an excellent idea as the company has over 5,100 servers located in 60 countries.
Want to spend a lot of money? Doing data roaming overseas can be a way to rack up a big cellular bill, even if you’re using one of the “special deals” provided by the big American mobile carriers. As I mentioned above, my wife and I used AT&T’s International Day Pass service while in Canada so that we could use our home data, voice and text plan while traveling. That plan is $10 per day per device, and works only with AT&T unlimited or Mobile Share plans. For the privilege of using our existing plan for the 11 days we were in Canada, we ended up spending $220 in addition to our usual bill. Was it worth it? I think so — we used our iPhones for navigation, geocaching, phone calls home, and posting our trip pictures on Facebook. For people on a budget, data roaming might not be that good an idea…
AT&T also has what’s called AT&T Passport, a plan that provides a limited amount of data (1GB or 3GB), unlimited texting, and phone calls at $0.35 per minute for a price tag of $60/month (1GB) or $120/month (3GB) per device. Go over that data limit and you pay $50 per extra GB you use.
T-Mobile customers on their Magenta and Magenta Plus plans get up to 5GB of 4G data in Mexico and Canada included in their monthly fee at no extra cost. Go to any other country in the 210 covered by T-Mobile’s international plans, and you get unlimited text and 2G data speeds (128kbps) for free. Want faster data rates? The Magenta Plus plan gives you unlimited data at 256kbps.
For even faster LTE data speeds, T-Mobile offers International Passes. With the 5GB International Pass, you get up to 10 days to use 5GB at LTE speeds for $35, and with the 15GB International Pass, you can use your phone for up to a month with 15GB for $50.
Note that I am not including Sprint in this section on data roaming, as they are in the process of merging with T-Mobile and it is expected that T-Mobile’s plans will expand to cover former Sprint customers.
Verizon’s plan sounds great — if you have an Above Unlimited plan, you get unlimited talk, text, and data in Canada and Mexico. Read the fine print, though, and suddenly it doesn’t look that wonderful — once you’ve used a paltry 512MB of 4G LTE data, you’re at those 2G data speeds (128kbps). This is even the case if you purchase one of the Verizon TravelPasses (the Above Unlimited plan includes five each month) for $10 per day; use more than .5GB of data per day and you’re throttled to 128kbps speeds.
SIM Swaps on Unlocked iPhones / eSIMs on iPhone
When I refer to an “unlocked iPhone”, I mean one that is not tied to a particular carrier. For the most part, iPhones that are specifically designated as “unlocked” and those that are sold by Apple through the iPhone Upgrade Program are carrier unlocked. It’s also possible to have your carrier unlock your iPhone when certain criteria are met — note that this varies depending on carrier, as some require you to complete your current contract obligations prior to unlocking while others will do it with no questions asked.
What’s the benefit of an unlocked iPhone? You can purchase subscriber information modules (SIMs) that give you a lower cost for data and/or voice service, and swap out the new SIM with the one from your carrier (just remember to keep the carrier SIM as you’ll need it when you get back home). All iPhones since the iPhone 5 have used a nano-SIM form factor, although most carriers supply SIMs that can be “snapped out” to fit traditional, micro, or nano-SIM form factors.
Do a search on Amazon and you can find a number of SIM options from various carriers for almost any country or continent. Even better, once you arrive at your destination, you can purchase SIMs from local carriers at airport or hotel kiosks. Remember to have a SIM extraction tool or at least a paper clip for removing your SIM.
My personal favorite for international travel is GigSky, which has partnered with Apple for Apple SIM and eSIM services. Purchase a GigSky SIM or activate the eSIM on a newer iPhone (see below), and you can pre-pay for data service with a credit or debit card, or with Apple Pay. Note that GigSky doesn’t support text or voice, although you can send iMessages from the Messages app.
Are you wondering about what an eSIM is? It stands for “embedded SIM” and it does away with the need for a physical SIM card in a phone. Think of it as a virtual subscriber information module.
With newer iPhones (Xs, Xs Max, Xr), eSIMs are supported and the phone can actually be set up with two SIMs — the physical one you use at home (which you’ll turn off while traveling), and a second eSIM supporting service in the foreign countries. Not all foreign carriers support eSIMs, but the idea is that you can actually purchase a plan from another provider when you arrive in a country without having to physically swap a SIM card. Apple has a support page showing the carriers that support eSIM service worldwide, and you’ll notice that GigSky and Truphone are listed as global providers.
To add a plan on one of these newer iPhones, launch the Settings app, then select Cellular and tap on Add Cellular Plan. You’re asked to scan a QR code from a carrier, and unless you have that code on hand, you’ll want to use either the GigSky or Truphone apps and load those prior to departing on your trip.
One final comment — most new iPads now support Apple SIM so you can sign up for a recurring monthly data plan or just a short-term plan. To find local carriers, launch System Preferences > Cellular Data, enable Cellular Data, and then use Select a Data Plan to see a list of available carriers and plans.
Cruise Ship Connectivity
In the 2016 version of this series, I reported that “data and voice services onboard cruise ships are a commodity subject to high prices, slow connections, and frustration.” Sadly, that’s still the case although things are getting better on some cruise ships. It all depends on the cruise line, the packages that are available to cruisers, and the importance that the cruise line puts on making connectivity a priority.
For example, Royal Caribbean’s huge “Oasis Class” ships have wonderful connectivity. The cruise line apparently knows that modern-day travelers often want to stay connected, and their ship-board Voom Internet service is amazing. It’s touted as six times faster than most cruise line Internet, and I can vouch for that. The company charges $15 per day for unlimited use on Voom-equipped ships, and it is worth it.
My recent Alaska/Canada trip was on family-friendly Disney Cruise Lines, which gives Internet service much less priority. In fact, I’d speculate that the company is trying to discourage kids from staring at their mobile devices all the time by making the service deliberately slow and expensive. How expensive? There’s no unlimited plan, so you purchase bandwidth by the gigabyte at a cost of $89. Want to sync your travel photos and videos with iCloud? You’ll burn through that gigabyte quickly… Fortunately, we were in US ports in Alaska almost every day, so we avoided using the Wi-Fi and just connected to AT&T when we were docked.
Voice and text service is still provided through your iPhone service called Cellular@Sea. This operates onboard cruise ships as your carrier, and all charges are either made to your shipboard account or to your home carrier account. Note that it can still be more expensive than waiting until you reach a port and then using an international plan to make calls or send text messages, but if you must remain in voice contact with others, it’s a good choice.
One more tip: ALWAYS turn off cellular data service when you get onto a cruise ship. If you don’t, chances are that good that your device will attempt to send data through that same Cellular@Sea service. That is extremely expensive, and I know many cruisers who have inadvertently run up a $100 Internet bill in less than a day. To make things worse, Cellular@Sea sometimes appears with your usual carrier’s name, so a naive traveler might assume that he or she is connected to good old AT&T or Verizon. You’re not…
Be sure to check your cruise line’s Wi-Fi service availability before embarkation day, and if you value constant connectivity, you might even want to make your choice based on those cruise lines that offer free unlimited Internet as an enticement.
The Future Isn’t That Bright Anymore
The last time I wrote about the future of global connectivity, it seemed like the future was bright — we would have a choice of global satellite constellations to connect to anywhere on the planet. Sadly, at least for the foreseeable future, those services won’t be the panacea we had hoped for.
SpaceX, for example, recently launched 60 of its Starlink satellites into orbit for testing. In order to use Starlink, you’ll need an earth station that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk described as “roughly the size of a pizza box”. While that might work on a cruise ship that could theoretically carry a number of the earth stations in far less space than is currently required for big satellite antennas, it won’t exactly work for those who were hoping that they could just pull out an iPhone and select “Starlink” as a carrier. Musk made some announcements on June 14, 2019, at a Tesla shareholder meeting that seemed targeted at making potential users understand the limitations of the Starlink constellation, which could eventually encompass as many as 4,425 satellites in orbit.
Other space-based Internet providers getting ready to start launching satellites include Amazon (3,236 spacecraft with the first launch after 2022), OneWeb (650 satellites initially, with six currently in testing), Telesat (292 satellites expected), and LeoSat (108 spacecraft). Until all of these constellations are launched, tested, and put into service, we won’t know their capabilities or cost.