UPDATE 15 June 2017: EU Abolishes Roaming Charges
Starting today, if you have a European SIM Card, either prepaid or on a plan, you can travel throughout the EU and a few other countries with access to your home country's minutes/text/data, and pay no roaming charges!
Before heading on a trip to a different country, many people wonder "what is the best way to have internet access and stay connected while I'm traveling?" Posting cool photos to your Instagram story aside, it's often important to have access to Google maps, your e-tickets, and iMessage or WhatsApp to message your family and friends. I'll share a few methods I have used on different trips in the past, along with my preferred method now.
1. Stick to WiFi
In today's world, if you're traveling between cities, WiFi is nearly omnipresent. Almost every hostel, hotel, coffee shop, and tourist info center has a free hot spot nowadays. I would also argue that if a hotel is going to charge you to connect, you shouldn't stay there! When in doubt, ask around for the local Starbucks; they always have a high speed connection, a restroom, and a warm cup of Pike Place.
2. Switch to Google's Project Fi
I personally haven't used this method because I love my iPhone too much, but it seems like an amazing deal! If you're willing to ditch your current phone and provider, you can use Google's Project Fi and get data for $10/GB, calls for $0.20 per minute, and texts at no extra cost.
3. Use your current wireless provider (and pay international charges)
Most cell phone companies have some sort of international plan that offers a reduced rate on roaming usage, or even the ability to keep your existing call/text/data features for a daily rate. For example, Verizon and AT&T charge $10 per day, and you can use your phone with the same allowances as if you were in the US. This option is good for those that may only want to connect in emergencies, or a few days during their trip, and choose to use WiFi the remainder of the time. It's also the lowest effort.
4. Buy a local SIM Card
A few minutes on Google searching for "pre-paid SIM card in < insert city/country >" should yield a few leads on local cell providers. Nearly everywhere will offer a local company with a prepaid plan that can get you connected continuously for less than your native provider. These prepaid plans require you to travel to a local cell shop and purchase, what is usually, a 30-day plan. Often it will include 1-4GB of data, several hundred local text messages, and a similar number of minutes; and now with the new EU regulation, pay no roaming fees when you move from country to country. For example: TIM in Italy, or Vodafone in Spain both have good pre-paid plans. With pre-paid, when you reach your limit there is no need to worry about expensive overage charges, it will simply stop working and you just need to re-charge!
5. Use Three UK
My preferred method of staying connected is with the Three UK prepaid SIM. It's a magic little SIM card that gives you 12 GB of data, 3000 texts, and 300 minutes in 40+ countries. You can bounce around Europe with their "feel at home" feature, and your phone just works! No need to change SIM cards or call your home provider and let them know you will be in a new country. The only downside is that outside of the UK the data speed is only 3G. For me, this isn't an issue at all; if I need high-bandwidth, I wait until I am at the hotel or on another WiFi connection. Now that I live in the UK I have a continuous contract with Three, but even when I lived in the US I always had my prepaid Three SIM card waiting for my next European adventure. Whenever we planned to travel abroad, I would top-up in advance, switch my SIM card in the air, and land with a local cell connection. Send us an email if you want a pre-loaded Three UK SIM and we can send it to you before your trip so you can arrive connected!
Well this one isn't a way to stay connected at all, but a reminder that you really may not need to! I will admit, I've only done this once. It is more valuable to me to have a connection with Google to search, ask questions, and use maps. But if you are craving a break from technology, I'll say this: plenty of people before you have traveled and survived without a data connection! In fact, it's easy to get around, find the local attractions, and eat lunch at the best pub without data. Nearly every city in Europe has a tourist info center where you can talk with a local and usually get a free map. So again, if you're feeling brave, give it a try. Just make make sure you let your friends and family know where you'll be traveling!
Choosing between one of the methods above to stay connected really depends on three things:
- How much connectivity you actually need
- How much you are willing to spend
- How much effort you want to go through
The table below should help as a guide!