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How to get cheap internet access abroad: roaming data and pre-paid SIM cards explained

Buy a pre-paid data SIM to save money on holiday

Internet access abroad

Jetting off to warmer climes this year? Taking your smartphone? Of course you are: it’s tough to be separated from our umbilical cord to the internet, even for a few days.

The trouble is, while business hotels are geared up for in-room Wi-Fi it seems tourist hotels didn’t get the memo. And those that did appear to have universally decided to charge the earth for it, regardless of their star rating.

See also: Taking the iPhone abroad? Avoid data roaming charges

Roaming on 3G or 4G

The alternative is to use the 3G or 4G data connection your smartphone already has, but roaming is almost always a bad idea. Even now in 2014, roaming charges are still extortionate and even checking emails is likely to run up a large bill.

The only UK mobile provider to offer free roaming is 3, but the list of countries on its Feel at Home deal Feel at Home deal is not only short, but also not particularly useful if you’re holidaying in Spain, France, Germany and other European countries. It comprises USA, Italy, the Republic of Ireland, Austria, Australia, Sweden, Denmark, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Macau.

Also, if you’re on a Pay As You Go SIM you need to buy an Add-on to give you a data allowance, so only those with a contract get free roaming.

If you’re on O2, Vodafone, EE and other networks, you’ll pay up to 38p (0.45 Euros) per megabyte of data. This is a cap imposed by the EU, but countries outside the EU – such as Turkey and Egypt – can charge more. Also, don’t forget that you’ll pay extra to make calls and send text messages, as you can’t use your usual UK allowance when roaming.

From July 2014, these caps will be reduced to 0.19 Euros per minute for calls, 0.06 Euros for text and – importantly – 0.19 Euros per MB of data (roughly 16p). Proposals are under review to scrap roaming charges entirely (in Europe), but this may not become a reality.

Some providers offer roaming add-ons that give you much more affordable roaming data while you’re on holiday. However, this tends to be for customers on expensive contracts: those on PAYG are often left out in the cold to pay either the 38p top rate.

Pre-paid SIM cards

If you want to keep costs to a minimum, you could look for bars, restaurants and other public places that offer free Wi-Fi, but this isn’t particularly convenient. You could also pay for a single day, or even a few hours of Wi-Fi access to check emails, Facebook and news, but again it’s not ideal.

An alternative is to buy a pre-paid SIM card which will work in the country to which you’re travelling, and will give you a data allowance that you can use while you’re there. Bear in mind that you’ll need an unlocked device, otherwise the SIM won’t work.

Typically, you pay an initial fee for the SIM, and then top it up with data as and when you need it. For example, a European pre-paid SIM card might cost £15 and come with 50MB of data. Make sure you order the correct SIM size for your device (it will work in a smartphone or 3G / 4G tablet) and away you go.

If 50MB isn’t going to be enough (and it won’t unless you’re merely checking emails sporadically over a week), you can add data bundles which work out at as little as 6 pence per MB.

A popular option at the moment is Globalgig, reviewed.

Globalgig’s European Data SIM is ideal for those who want to use the internet abroad as if it was their home broadband. You can get bundles of 1GB, 2GB and 5GB, and the data lasts 30 days, so is ideal if you’ll be away for a while, or have multiple trips close together as you can use it in 40 countries.

DataroamI recently took a 1GB Globalgig SIM, kindly supplied by Dataroam.co.uk, to Cyprus. This costs £39, which might not sound particularly cheap, but it’s roughly 10 times cheaper than roaming with an operator that charges the maximum of 38p per MB. This assumes you actually use all the data of course. I used less data than I thought I would: just under 300MB. This puts the cost at 13.5p per MB.

However, you can continue using the data back in the UK until your 30 days are up. It’s up to you to work out how much data you need, and that’s the tricky part. Too little and you’ll run out leaving you with either no access, or more expensive additional data costs. Opt for too much data and some will go to waste, ramping up the cost per MB.

You get several emails which warn you as you’re approaching the 1GB limit, and after that extra data is charged to your account (you need to set up a credit or debit card as part of the activation process). Bear in mind that you are automatically billed for subsequent months unless you cancel two days before the next billing date. You can either opt for a 'holding account' which lets you keep the SIM for future use (but which costs £3.50 per month) or fully cancel the account and throw away the SIM.

Had I opted to use the hotel Wi-Fi, it would have worked out at £70 for the week (£10 per day), and I wouldn’t have been able to use my phone as a satnav with Waze or Google Maps in the hire car.

Mi-Fi hotspots

Another popular offering is to pair a pre-paid SIM with a Mi-Fi device. This is basically a portable Wi-Fi hotspot which allows you to share the data allowance between friends or family travelling with you.

ZTE MiFi MF60 Wi-Fi hotspot

One of the disadvantage of using a Mi-Fi device, apart from the extra cost, is that apps may not realise they're on a metered 3G connection, since the smartphone or tablet is connected via Wi-Fi.

This can quickly use up your data allocation if the apps automatically update themselves or download content such as videos, magazines or podcasts.

If you do take your phone abroad with your normal UK SIM, make sure you disable both roaming and mobile data to avoid charges internet use.

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