Text by Laura Buckley
After reading our Top 20 iPhone Travel Apps story, many of you responded with a very logical question: These apps are great, but how can I afford them when I’m, you know, actually traveling abroad? Or as reader Brenda Fritz put it, “Is Wi-Fi covered by my standard contract with AT&T or will it be $100 for me to find a great steak place in Melbourne?” After three customer service reps, two hours, and one hang up (us, not them), we think we cracked how the confusing international charges work. The short answer: It’ll cost you extra to use these travel apps outside of the U.S., Puerto Rico, and U.S. Virgin Islands.
First and foremost, the only surefire way to avoid crazy international rates that’ll give you nightmares is to turn off your data roaming. (Settings → general → network → data roaming OFF.) This will disable all of your data features, such as email, Web browsing, or apps—pretty much everything that makes an iPhone an iPhone. But, as reader Ra Williams put it: “I found it's cheaper and more enjoyable to simply ‘ask somebody’ when traveling abroad.” Absolutely, if you are not chatting up the locals to learn more about your destination, you might as well stay home.
But you bought an iPhone for a reason and you want to search the Web and use the nifty BuUuk travel app to find a great restaurant while in Beijing. Here are some pointers:
Using 3G will up your bill, so make sure to use Wi-Fi instead of 3G when Wi-Fi is available. (Settings → general → network → enable 3G OFF.) Essentially, there's really no reason at all to use 3G if you have access to Wi-Fi: Wi-Fi is faster and AT&T won't charge you for using it.
But let's say you're at the Iguazu Falls in Argentina on your normal, domestic AT&T plan without Wi-Fi, and you absolutely need to use TripIt to figure out your next stop on 3G. That'll cost you $.005 (half a penny) per kilobyte, or about $5 per megabyte. Here’s where it gets a bit tricky. AT&T measures your data usage (Internet, email, apps, all the fun stuff) in kilobytes and megabytes. The half a penny charge is the standard charge for the 90 countries in AT&T's roam zone. If you're not in one of those countries (like the Maldives, Turkey, or Algeria) then you'll be charged $.02 per kilobyte, or $20 per megabyte.
So what exactly is a megabyte of Internet? It's a measurement of data, not time, so you can't say "If I spend five minutes checking my email or ten minutes on Twitterific, I'll use 3 megabytes." There's no easy way of telling how many kilobytes an email is, as some emails are quick and small, while others have six pictures embedded in them. A small email is considered to be about two kilobytes, according to an AT&T customer service rep. And, as another customer service rep told me, "Most websites are gonna charge you between 10 to 25 kilobytes of data to download the information and transfer it to your phone." So if you log onto Facebook in one of the AT&T roam zones, that initial page view will probably cost around $.12, plus another $.12 for looking at your friend's profile, then another $.12 for looking at your friend's pictures... and so on down the blackhole of Facebook purusing.
If you know you'll use the iPhone data features and cool travel apps on 3G, it may just be simpler to get one of the AT&T Global Add-Ons. Keep in mind that the add-ons—meaning on top of your regular U.S. plan—are used in the same 90 countries in the roam zone and will help reduce your overage charges. The four add-on plans range from (lowest) $24.99 per month for 20 megabytes of Internet to (highest) $199.99 per month for 200 megabytes of Internet. What's nice about this feature is that it can be added or removed as needed. No yearly contracts or expensive dissolution fees. If you're going to Peru for a month and don't exactly plan on getting Wi-Fi while hiking the Inca Trail, then you can sign up for one of these plans for just that one month. Again though, these plans aren't available in every country, so make sure your country is on the list.
A word of caution: You will get charged an overage fee (of course) if you use more megabytes than you pay for, and you will not be notified when this happens. BUT, you can check your data usage by pressing *3282# and then the green "Send" button to figure out how much data you have used so far. This way, you can keep track yourself and not have a heart attack when you see your bill.
So now that you know the drill, what do you think? Is it worth it to spend the extra cash to have these features or should we all listen to Ra Williams and just ask a local?