Ask LH: What’s My Best Strategy For Cheap Roaming In Europe?

Ask LH: What’s My Best Strategy For Cheap Roaming In Europe?

Dear Lifehacker, I am planning on taking a working holiday for 2+ years working all around the EU and it’s time for me to look into getting a new phone. I will be traveling a lot (a new country every two months or so) and I don’t want to be paying a lot for roaming. I have had my eye on either an iPhone or a dumb phone/iPad combo as I will also be studying and will need Internet access. What is the best course of action? Yours truly, Disconnected In Europe

Dear Disconnected,

Europe is always a challenge for the roaming traveller. While there are EU rules in place which limit how much different carriers can charge for Internet access, we’ve yet to encounter a SIM that offers a really good multi-country rate for people who move regularly. (The SIM available from Tru has OK rates, for example, but is still better value people who will be returning to Australia regularly and does have charges that vary depending on where you are.)

If I was in your position, this is the strategy I’d adopt:

  • Take a Wi-Fi enabled iPad (or Android tablet or netbook) as my main data access device, and rely on Wi-Fi for most online access. As we’ve detailed before, it’s relatively straightforward to find free Wi-Fi in many places (in addition to the tips offered in that linked post, check out the Free Wifi Wiki for some specific ideas in each country.) If you’re working, you may also get net access at your workplace, depending on the job.
  • Buy a new prepaid SIM in each country I was spending more than a couple of days, and use that for calls rather than for data. If you’re going to want to use your phone to stay in touch with the new friends and colleagues you’ll meet in each country, this is easily the most economic option. (Because of the time difference, a lot of your contact with people in Australia will be via text or using your tablet/netbook anyway.) When I changed countries, I’d acquire a new SIM.
  • While I wouldn’t use it much for 3G data, I’d probably want to have a smartphone of some sort anyway, since I could still use that with free Wi-Fi. An added advantage: that way I could store contacts locally on the phone, and hence avoid having to re-enter numbers each time I changed SIM.

While there’s some nuisance value associated with having to change your phone number, this is definitely the cheapest approach, though I’m sure there are others. If you do want to include data on your phone, check out the Pay-As-You-Go SIM With Data Wiki for information on the best deals in each country. It’s pretty typical of working holidays that your initial plans will change as you move around, so flexibility is important whatever you decide.

What tactics have readers faced with similar challenges adopted? Tell us in the comments.

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • I’ll have to agree with Lifehacker. A year ago, I headed off on a 10 week European trip, changing countries every few days.

    Before I left, I attempted to do some research to find a decent global SIM that had reasonable data rates. There wasn’t any. Truphone was one I’d considered, but they were still in their infancy a year ago, and ended up not being the best deal for me.

    In the end I used only WiFi for data (phone & laptop) and restricted my SIM use to sending & receiving calls & SMSs.

    I still can’t believe that even for European residents there isn’t a useful, reasonably-priced Europe wide roaming option that has good call & data rates.

    • There are telecommunications cartels all over Europe and moving across borders with even the same vendor will hit you for ridiculous roaming rates.

      Some vendors offer add-on roaming packs, but they’re usually only good for calls and not data.

  • Ahh damn, I’m heading to Europe early next year and was hoping this article might have revealed the holy grail of cheap data roaming…

    ahh well, I’ll just wait and see what happens over the year.

  • In my experience always good to have a good old fashioned Aussie phone number for folk to be able to get you on regardless of how you’re making do whilst abroad… not everyone you know is a geek.

    I go pre-paid SIM in most countries and use, they give you an Aussie number that gets routed through to whatever your overseas mobile number is (or even routed to your Skype account) providing you can get online whilst you’re away and keep your details uptodate.

    Can’t beat using free wifi where available and if you know you’re going to have internet access most of the time then I suppose you could just buy a SkypeIn (if its still called that) number. Prepay and Rebtel always done the trick for me though.

  • I’m just back from a month in Europe (London/Spain/France/Italy). I wanted data roaming for skype, email and to back up travel docs to the cloud. All the travel SIMs I looked at were not good value so I didn’t get one. But I found free wifi nearly everywhere we went. It is pretty much standard with your hotel/apartment but I always checked before I booked. The exception was Italy – wifi was rare (I believe it is something to do with their legislation – you need to hand over your passport at internet cafes).

    I also noticed you can buy a SIM with 250/500M Data for 10 pound/euro just about anywhere. But if you do, first check a) the carrier has reasonable coverage and b) you can get a data connection (as well as a phone connection). In Italy, TIM fails on both counts :(.

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