Roam around to avoid bill shock

10 May 11 10:00AM EST
Post by Sam Butler
Osaka on Google maps

Disclaimer: I am an idiot. I’ve been working for a fine consumer organisation for almost three years now, during which time I’ve come across several bill shock horror stories from members stung by exorbitant global and data roaming charges for postpaid mobile phones.

So what’s the one simple step I didn’t take on my recent trip overseas – a tip that’s actually recommended on my iPhone itself – that will cost me hundreds of dollars on my next phone bill?

I did not switch off data roaming.

Worse, for the first few days I regularly used Google Maps, a very data-thirsty GPS app, to navigate my way around Japan and Vietnam. “We won’t have to stuff around with paper maps anymore,” I boasted to my partner on the flight over. “We’ll never get lost with this.”

And sure enough, we didn’t. But if I’d known that using Google Maps for just a minute at a time was costing me $50 a pop, frankly I would’ve taken my chances getting lost in Hanoi or Osaka and following the sun back to our hotel.

Few things can sour a holiday like a text from your network provider telling you to get in touch with them as your monthly dollar spend is into the thousands and your account is about to be suspended. Although, as I told my network’s very unsympathetic customer service rep, it would’ve been nice if they’d got in contact with me or suspended my account sooner, say when I hit the $500 mark. I may have been without a phone for a day or so until I paid up, but at least I wouldn’t be unwittingly spiralling any further into debt.

What can you do?

In the US, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is proposing laws to reduce bill shock, such as compelling carriers to alert consumers when they near their monthly quota for voice, text and data services, similar to what several ISPs already do. Here, the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) is demanding similar options for Aussie consumers . But until such laws are in place, a business won’t have much interest in preventing its customers accumulating a big debt with them. So it’s up to consumers like you and me to outwit our charge-happy providers.

Here are a few strategies:
  • Turn data roaming off and leave it off. Millions of international travellers managed to get by in those dark pre-smartphone days when mobiles simply made and received calls. Accept that you’ll have to use a fold-out map after all, save your emails, check-ins and status updates for your hotel’s internet stations and keep any calls you do make nice and brief.

  • Use a prepaid global roaming SIM card. It’s likely to be much cheaper than your carrier’s global roaming charges. Simply replace your existing SIM card with the global card before hitting the skies. Because it’s prepaid, you won’t have any nasty bill shocks waiting when you get back home. You’ll just need to check that whichever SIM card you get has coverage in the country or countries you’re travelling to, that the handset itself works in that country and that it can be unlocked from your network.

  • Turn off push notifications once you’ve touched down overseas. These are the notifications your phone sends you without you asking for them, for example an email coming through even though you’re not specifically checking your email at that time. Leave them on and your phone will be downloading data – and therefore piling up your roaming bill – without you even knowing.

  • Look for free wi-fi hotspots. The Wi-Fi Finder is a free iPhone app that allows you to find close to 500,000 wi-fi locations in more than 144 countries.

  • Use cheaper alternative map apps. OffMaps2 for the iPhone ($1.19 to download) allows you to freely download maps and display your position on the ground using your phone’s free, non-data-consuming GPS abilities.

A cursory glance at online forums reveals how passionately people feel about this issue. For some, bill shock is greedy telcos trapping consumers into outrageous charges through unclear contract terms and conditions. For others, avoiding bill shock when overseas is simply a matter of personal responsibility and basic research before boarding your plane.

I’d say responsibility is a two-way street here. In retrospect I certainly should’ve paid closer attention and used more common sense. However, I struggle to see how telcos can justify letting you rack up close to 20 times your usual monthly spend before getting in touch with you and/or suspending your phone until you’ve paid up.
Either way, this is a game you can only expect to win by fully understanding the rules.

Update 23 May, 2011 - Bill slashed following complaint

This story comes with a semi-happy ending. After receiving some advice from the good folk at ACCAN, I took my case to my network provider. After some initial reluctance, I was offered a credit of $700 and an acknowledgment that I had not been sufficiently warned about the charges before heading overseas or warned in good enough time about my skyrocketing bill while I was travelling.

Three things I learnt from this:
  • Don’t be afraid to make a complaint, even when you know (as I did) you’re partly at fault.
  • Try giving yourself a few days between your first shocking bill and contacting your provider, as by then you’ll probably have calmed down a bit and can argue your case logically and dispassionately.
  • Even the providers themselves know these sorts of charges are not defensible or necessary. If they’re prepared to wipe $700 off their bottom line just to appease one customer, that would suggest their margins are big enough to afford it.

What’s your experience with using your smartphone while overseas? Have you suffered bill shock or do you have any more tips on how to avoid any nasty surprises?


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