My wife Wendy and I traveled to Ireland for our 15th wedding anniversary a few days ago. Since I'm at least a quarter Irish, this was a trip I'd been excited to plan for quite some time. Amidst booking the flights, hotel accommodations and rental car I also set up an international roaming data plan on my company-provided Samsung Galaxy S3 via Verizon Wireless, my company's carrier.
I wanted to make sure I could be reached in the event of an IT or kid-related emergency (our children being under the watchful eyes of their grandparents) while overseas, and also be able to use maps to keep track of our trip plans as well as rely on texting ("Hey, Mom, guess where I am!") and email to stay on top of life in the States. Of course I made sure the SIM card in my phone was sufficient for European travel.
Before leaving home I logged into the Verizon Wireless site and set up the following "Pay as You Go" option:
I wasn't sure I'd use 100 Mb and thought perhaps I could transfer less data than would merit a $20 charge. The "Pay as you go" option had the following description:
My plan was to keep an eye on my data consumption (both my Droid and the Verizon Wireless site can help you measure how much data has been transferred, as I'll describe below) and see how it went. I have JuiceDefender set up on my device to help cut down on unnecessary background usage to save power and, to be frank, I really didn't have a good grasp of how much data my Droid sent back and forth. However, as an optimist I reasoned "it'll all work out."
William Arthur Ward said this about the subject of optimism, pessimism and realism: "The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails." By the end of this experience I was a full-blown realist adjusting sails.
A rude awakening
Like most travelers, I set my Droid to "Airplane Mode" as we took off from Boston to cut off all communication since it was pointless at 35,000 feet. We flew east overnight and approached Dublin at 8:30 am local time. I'd only had an hour or so of rest due to my coffee consumption and eager anticipation of the trip ahead. As our plane touched down onto the Emerald Isle I turned Airplane Mode off and was gratified to see the phone pick up a signal from Vodafone, an Irish wireless carrier. It even prompted me to pick my location in Ireland:
I was then presented with this friendly screen:
"I will!" I thought to myself.
Jet lagged and sleep deprived, I stumbled around Dublin with Wendy that first day, using the Droid only to take pictures of cathedrals, the GPO, various parks and the River Liffey. Ironically enough, I wanted the international coverage in case I needed voice or data access, but I didn't check email or social media that first day, largely because it was spent in a fog that wasn't helped by a visit to the Guinness Storehouse.
Fast forward to the second morning in Dublin (June 23) when I finally took a look at my messages. Verizon Wireless had been texting me periodically to let me know my data consumption rates. I want to make it very clear they informed me what to expect all through the process, but I had been too unfocused to follow along. Here was their first message:
"Welcome to Ireland. Dial +1 & 10-digit# to call US.
- Calls made & received: $.0.99/min.
- TXT: Send $0.5, Receive $0.05.
- Video messages, web use, tethering, and apps use data while roaming.
- Global Data: $20.48/Mb. Turn data services off in device settings or use Wi-Fi to avoid charges."
See that $20.48/Mb part? Like Stephen King says in his "Dark Tower" series, see it very well.
By the time I woke up to what was happening I found a text message from Verizon telling me that I had racked up over $500 of data usage charges ($512, to be precise) in 24 hours.
You can guess what I did next: I turned off the mobile data access on the phone to stop the flow of data. This involved accessing Settings, More Settings, Mobile Networks, and Global Data Roaming Access.
I use Dropbox with the option to upload camera pictures to my account via both Wi-Fi and my data plan. I greatly feared the charges I'd incurred were based on the upload feature alone, so to be absolutely safe, I changed this feature to Wi-Fi only:
Shaken, I envisioned myself scrubbing the men's room back at work for a few weeks in order to make up for the exorbitant data charges. Fortunately, we had a backup international phone whereby our parents could reach us in the event of an emergency involving our kids.
What in the world happened?
I took a look at what the heck my Droid had been doing when I hadn't been paying attention by accessing Settings, then Data usage and configuring the display to show me what had been going on over the past week.
OK, so I had used about 24.5 Mb in 7 days on social media, email, internet and weather updates, followed by Google services. That roughly added up to $500 if you multiply $20.48 per Mb by 24.5 Mb. However, this was over 7 days. I got to Ireland on the morning of June 22. I wasn't actually able to correlate my data usage in Ireland with a $500 charge but it didn't matter since I had a problem to solve and that was trying to deal with the repercussions fairly and honestly. I decided I would wait until I got home to contact Verizon Wireless and see what I could work out with them (I was afraid of an expensive overseas phone call which would incur even more charges).
You know what they say about the best laid plans. Mine didn't fall into that category. I relied mainly on Wi-Fi access only on my phone for the remainder of the trip and actually fared pretty well. Dublin is rife with free Wi-Fi access (thanks, Eircom!) even on city buses and even when we ventured into rural Ireland many of the bed and breakfasts Wendy and I stayed in offered it as well (though in one notable case the coverage was so weak if you walked from one room to another you'd lose the signal).
If I was in a dead spot I logged out of everything on my phone (Facebook, Twitter, Google +, etc.) then turned on global data access briefly to get the faucet running for a minute or two and download my email, then abruptly shut it off and reviewed my messages offline to make sure I wasn't needed.
There was something nice, I must say, about being out of voice/data coverage during the day and only checking in at night. I had thought about going "off the grid" in Ireland and leaving my devices at home, so this was a good halfway point. I found myself focusing more on the "there and now" rather than "Gee, the guys at work would love this picture of the pub I'm in if I can post it to Facebook for them to see." We lost the ability to use Google Maps on the road (and driving in Ireland is not easy, even when you master doing so on the left hand side), but I was fortunate to have married an excellent navigator skilled at old-school maps.
Once Wendy and I got home I checked my company's Verizon Wireless site to see if I could get more insight into what my device had been doing. They offer a data usage page which showed me the following:
The other pages were similar to this; they indicated "bursty" traffic which all added up to a lot of information being sent. That didn't really help me much other than for educational purposes, though. I got in touch with Verizon Wireless to see if they could help me reduce the charges. The representative checked to see if we were in our current billing cycle at work, and since this was the case she advised me I could change the global plan on my phone and backdate it to cover the usage charges. Basically, I had to select the 100 Mb Plan as shown in the screenshot above:
The details for this plan read as follows:
This made much more sense and brought the price from $512 down to $25 - but it was only made possible by the fact we were still in the current billing cycle and I could backdate the change to before I left for Europe. The representative proudly informed me she was glad to have helped me avoid latrine duty.
I gained several important take away lessons from this adventure.
Assess what you need
When roaming, figure out what's really important. Do you need access to social media, internet access, email and weather, or just email and maybe internet access? I'm guessing a lot of the things we take for granted with our hefty or unlimited data plans can be sliced away when roaming data plans limit your consumption.
Assess what's running
This was the killer for me. I had no real idea the Facebook and weather apps were such hogs. You can shut these off by logging out or killing running tasks so they won't reside in the background like black holes. Throw anything that's not needed over the side.
Assess your available options
In short: do your research. Understand what your carrier can give you. Not only that, determine what you'll really require when you're on that trip. Had I known I'd largely be able to get by on local Wi-Fi I probably wouldn't have bothered with the roaming data plan at all (of course, things worked out at the office and no one really needed my input, so I can say this with ease). If I were off in the uncharted wilderness I would have been less likely to opt for this, of course, but what I had to work with in Ireland in terms of free or paid Wi-Fi (through my stay at an accommodation) was more than passable.
If you can't get by with Wi-Fi, can you just turn your mobile connection on periodically, download your data and close the faucet again? Think creatively. One hour of mobile connectivity per day is probably far preferable to 24 hours, especially considering you're likely to be asleep 1/3 that amount!
Check what's being used
Make sure to monitor data usage when roaming if you're concerned about charges and keep an eye on what's being allocated where. I should have done this 2, 4 and 6 hours into my stay in Dublin to get a good benchmark as to what was going on behind the scenes, rather than getting that heart-attack-provoking text a day later.
Communicate with your carrier
Ask questions. Get them to recommend ideas. If you make a mistake by choosing the wrong data plan, get in touch with your carrier and correct it as soon as possible. They should be pleased to help if there are options they can offer; their goal is to keep you happy rather than fleece you for a silly mistake. I'll admit: I hate phone calls, but a simple five minute call to Verizon Wireless beforehand would have spared me this whole ordeal.
Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.