Staying connected when traveling abroad

On a recent trip to Europe, members of our team had to consider the ways to stay connected to the corporate office here in Colorado. The main issue was what to do when we were out and away from our computers during the day, as our main lifeline to the office were smartphones (iPhones, in this case). Both voice and data connectivity would be needed. After considering all the alternatives, we came up with a solution that worked for us.

I’ve been following discussions on this topic over the years, and my impression has been that there’s no ideal solution, so our goal was to find something that was good enough. Here are some of the standard suggestions I’ve come across:

  • Buy a prepaid SIM card for the country or countries you’ll be visiting. This usually provides the lowest rates, but requires that you use a new European phone number for the duration of the trip. People still needed to reach us on our U.S. cellphone numbers, however, so this was less than ideal. Additionally, our phones, for better or worse, are locked (a common situation with cellphones in the U.S.), so this wouldn’t work unless we bought or rented second, unlocked phones. But then we’d be carrying two phones.
  • Rent a phone with an internationally-friendly plan. This is similar to the solution above of buying a SIM card. Again, the disadvantages include having to use a new number and having to carry a second phone if we wanted people to be able to use our regular number, or if we wanted to use the apps on our regular smartphones.
  • Use our regular phones with our regular provider’s international plan. The advantage is that we could continue to use our regular phones and phone numbers. The disadvantage is that international voice rates are somewhat expensive — about $1.30/minute, although reducible to $1/minute if we activated a special $6/month feature on our plan. This, while somewhat expensive, was not out of the question. However, the rates for data roaming were exorbitant for any realistic use of data, and there are horror stories of people coming home to huge data bills after international trips.

So our solution? Here’s what we ended up doing:

  • We decided to activate our provider’s international calling feature as described above. This allowed us to keep using our regular phone numbers and our existing phones. For inbound calls, people could call us on this number (so we wouldn’t need to distribute new numbers to a large number of contacts), and if the call was likely to be long, we would call back using Skype (see below). The voice charges using our provider’s plan turned out to be manageable. We turned off data roaming on our phones to avoid the high data roaming charges.
  • For most outbound calls, we used Skype. Calls to other Skype users were free, and calls to any other number were only 2.3 cents/minute, which is quite reasonable. The Skype apps for the iPhone and iPad worked quite well, and we had no trouble reaching non-Skype numbers. Skype-based text messaging to European cellphone numbers failed, and we would advise people not to rely on it. Inbound Skype calls worked surprisingly well — the apps ran in the background and popped up an alert when someone tried to call us on our Skype account.
  • Skype requires an Internet connection. All the places we stayed had free Wi-Fi, so it wasn’t a problem using Skype or just accessing data during the time we were in our rooms, but that still meant that we would need data connections during the large parts of the day where we were out and about. Fortunately, there was one last piece of the puzzle that made it all work:
  • Not too long before we left, we came across a company named XCom Global, based in San Diego. They rent out MiFi units (small devices that create Wi-Fi hotspots and hook into the local 3G/4G network). We’re familiar with MiFis, as one of us has a Virgin Mobile MiFi device that works well for travels in the U.S. What XCom Global does is rent out MiFi devices for just about anywhere in the world, and the rental price includes an unlimited data plan. For $15/day, we were able to rent a MiFi that worked in continental Europe and the UK. The unit came with two rechargeable batteries, so we were able to turn it on when we left for the day, put it in a pocket or a bag, and replace one battery when the other one ran out. Using this strategy, we had mobile wireless data access, including Skype, with good performance, for the entire day.

Through careful research and planning, we were able to fashion a workable strategy that gave us good voice and data connectivity abroad at a reasonable price, while allowing us to use our existing phones and mobile phone numbers. To summarize, the elements of our solution included:

  • Our regular mobile provider’s international plan, for brief inbound calls (but be sure to turn data roaming off),
  • Skype, for outbound calls and inbound Skype-to-Skype calls, and
  • XCom Global’s MiFi rental, for mobile wireless data connectivity when out and about during the day.

I can’t guarantee it will serve everyone’s needs, but for those of you who have similar requirements to ours, this could be a good solution. What solutions or suggestions have you used or do you suggest?