Just a few years ago, going on holiday with your smartphone often meant switching it off and leaving it in the room safe, such was the fear of coming home to a huge bill because you accidentally opened your email or checked the weather on a local mobile network.
Today, the situation is much improved. Data roaming charges were scrapped across the European Union in June 2017, meaning it costs nothing to use your phone in much of Europe. Instead, you can access your data, minutes and texts as if you were at home.
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But there are still some caveats to watch out for (such as, is tethering included in your free usage?), only EU countries are covered, and, of course, Brexit could cause this situation to change. Plus, if you want to travel further afield - like to the US, Africa, Middle East, Asia or Australasia - then you’ll have to start paying.
Thankfully, there are plenty of options for you to consider when working out how to stay online abroad.
1. Use your hotel, hostel or Airbnb’s Wi-Fi
First, the obvious options. If you don’t mind being without data while out and about, then Wi-Fi at your hotel, hostel or rental property should suffice. Wi-Fi is free in many hotels, but a faster connection is often offered as a paid-for optional extra, so check what the deal is before you book.
Hotels often limit how many devices each guest can connect, so if you’re travelling with a partner and need to get more than just two smartphones online, you might have to look for another solution. Another shortfall of hotel Wi-Fi is how you usually need to open a web browser and enter your room number and surname to log on; for devices without screens, like a smart speaker, this can be a roadblock.
Rental properties from services like Airbnb are generally more accommodating, offering a regular Wi-Fi router which you can connect all of your devices to, just like at home.
If you only plan to log on at the hotel, then make sure you download any maps you might need from the Google Maps app for iOS and Android. That way, you can switch off your phone’s data connection, while still using GPS and the downloaded maps to navigate.
2. Use public Wi-Fi (carefully)
If you’re anything like us, limiting your internet access to the hotel often won’t cut the mustard. Here, public Wi-Fi can help. You’ll find accessible (and often quite fast) networks in coffee shops, bars, pubs and fast food outlets. Brands like Starbucks and McDonald’s offer networks which are simple to log onto, and the staff won’t mind if you crack out your laptop - just make sure you at least buy something off the menu. No one likes a Wi-Fi freeloader.
If your travels take you further than Starbucks and McDonald’s (and we honestly hope they do), then you’ll want to exercise some care. Well-known global brands can generally be trusted for serving up safe Wi-Fi, but an independent cafe off the beaten track of a far-flung country might not offer you the same protection.
Any networks which are completely open and named something like ‘Free Tourist Wifi Click Here’ should be treated with caution, as hackers are known to use these networks to snoop on your browsing and even install malware on your laptop or steal personal information. For this reason, you should avoid internet banking and logging into your email unless you absolutely trust the network you are connected to.
If the nearest Wi-Fi hotspot isn’t obvious, there are apps to help you find them. WiFiMapper, which works on iOS and Android, claims to know the location of half a billions networks worldwide, and tells you if they are free and open, or require payment and/or registration with an email address.
Another option is the Facebook app for iOS and Android. Tap the three-lined icon in the lower-right corner, then tap See More, then Find Wi-Fi. After giving the app permission to access your phone’s location, up pops a maps showing local public Wi-Fi networks and their names.
As for knowing if the network is safe, Google Chrome now lets you know if your connection to a website is HTTPS or just HTTP (as shown at the start of the website address). The former means someone on the same Wi-Fi network cannot see what you’re doing, while the latter will be labelled by Chrome as “Not Secure”.
Your safety on public Wi-Fi can be further increased by using a VPN, or virtual private network. Check out the best VPNs for everything you need to know about VPNs, and which to use.
3. Skyroam Solis
For regular travellers who need to keep several devices online (so a local SIM card won’t do), the Skyroam Solis is a powerful and convenient option.
This puck-shaped device is a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot and costs £135 up-front, then £7 for each 24-hour period it is used abroad. Alternatively, you can rent the Solis for £9 per day, with that cost including the daily data fee. Unlike most other options, there is no data cap - you can use as much data as you like during each 24-hour period you have paid for.
The Solis works in over 130 countries, connecting to local 4G mobile networks as you travel and letting you connect up to five devices at once.
There is also an integrated 6,000mAh battery pack, which offers enough power to recharge your smartphone a couple of times over, or even power your laptop if it has a USB-C port.
4. Hip Pocket Wifi
Similar to the Solis, Hip Pocket Wifi offers high-speed internet, but is limited to Europe only at the time of writing. The French startup will deliver the mobile router to your hotel room, along with a pre-paid envelope to send it back at the end of your trip.
Up to 10 devices can be connected at once, and unlimited data with a download speed of up to 100Mbps is available from €8 per day. Cheaper packages are limited to 1GB per day, but if you exceed this then you are cut to a download speed of 0.2Mbps instead of being cut off entirely - no good for YouTube, but still enough to help you out in an emergency.
5. Three GoRoam
If you are a Three customer then you can use up to 15GB of data a month in 71 destinations around the world, and at no extra cost. The GoRoam service is available across Europe to customers on a Three Essential Plan, while customers on an Advanced Plan can use GoRoam worldwide.
GoRoam doesn’t cover as many countries as the Skyroam Solis, but does include much of Europe, plus Australia, Brazil, Columbia, Hong Kong, Israel, Macau, New Zealand, Peru, Sri Lanka, the United States, Vietnam and many more.
Three employs a fair usage limit of 12GB per trip for non-European countries, 12GB anywhere for pay-as-you-go customers, and 15GB when visiting Europe.
6. Buy a local SIM card
If you’re going to be in the same foreign country for more than a few days, purchasing a local SIM card could be a good idea.
That way, you can buy a set amount of 4G mobile data upfront and be more in control of how much you are using. This can often work out cheaper than the flat rate most networks charge for travelling outside of the EU, which is in the region of £5 to £6 per day to use your monthly data allowance abroad.