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.


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