How Can Canadians Stay Connected When Travelling?
We travel with bags full of electronics and we like to be connected when we travel. It is always a question for us whether we put our phones on Airplane Mode and rely on wifi only or purchase coverage when we travel. As Canadians, we have looked at all options for travelling Canadians to stay connected.
Pay As You Go or Add-On Coverage on a Canadian Plan
One of the first options for travelling Canadians to stay connected is to look at your Canadian cell phone plan. But with Canadian cell costs as high as they are, add-on plans when travelling give you a little extra out of country coverage for a lot of money. Every time we travel I look at this as an option and quickly discard it. The Canadian carriers offer bundles with phone, text and data for a fixed month period with discounted rates (over Pay As You Go rates) if you exceed the plan maximums.
If the trip is short and I expect good wifi or have low need for phone / texting, I will sometimes just keep my cell phone on, call forward my cell to my home number and use the phone for texts and incur Pay As You Go charges for outgoing texts. If I do this, I must remember to turn off all data services. I have been surprised a time or two when I thought I had all data off only to get hit with high per day data fees. On our 26 day Caribbean cruise I got a message from my provider that I had already accumulated $100 in data charges when I thought my phone data was off and to this day I can’t figure out how that happened.
Buy A Hotspot Device and Data Coverage
While having a cell phone with phone and text may be needed, one of the other options for travelling Canadians to stay connected is to consider a data only strategy.
When we travelled down the west coast for 4 weeks, I needed to stay in touch but didn’t really need cell phone or text coverage. I was concerned about the availability and speed of U.S. hotel wifi. After debating putting a SIM in my iPhone, I decided to keep my iPhone on with my Canadian SIM and buy a separate wifi hot spot device from Virgin Mobile. The hotspot was expensive (about $200 plus SIM and activation) but I figured I would amortize it over many trips to the U.S. and the U.S. data rates for the device gave me far more coverage at a lower cost than my cell phone had at home. This worked out great for us for the 4 week trip. I could use it for Skype calls and full data services as we drove along or stopped.
When we did our next U.S. visit through Miami for a 26 day Caribbean cruise, I packed my hotspot device and as soon as we landed in Miami I went in search of a Virgin Mobile top up card. Applying the top up card to my account, I was prepared to sign up for another month of data access. My device SIM was still valid (within a year from initial activation) so I did not need a new SIM or new activation. I went online and bought the plan. But then I found that the wifi device would not hold a charge so could never activate the plan. A little online searching revealed that this particular device was prone to battery problems and since we were within a year, we could get a replacement battery for just shipping cost. Unfortunately we now had no time to have the battery shipped to us before our cruise left and they would not ship the battery to Canada. This device is now a very expensive paperweight on my desk! Not only is the battery dead but the SIM has now expired. It will be a costly exercise to use this ever again.
Put a SIM in my iPhone
One of the final options for travelling Canadians to stay connected is to consider replacing your SIM and purchasing a foreign plan.
When my iPhone was new and shiny I really was not sure that I wanted to put a “foreign” SIM in it. I was uncertain how to replace the SIM, how to change settings to use a new SIM (and put them back when I put my home SIM back in) and how to apply a plan. When we went to Italy for 10 weeks, travelling down the less populated Adriatic side, I was not sure I wanted to rely only on free wifi. I figured we would need a phone and data as we travelled. My experience with getting an Italian SIM and Wind service was good. It was easy to set up, we had service almost everywhere we travelled and the price was so much less than Canadian cell phone plans. I quickly got over any fears about taking my SIM in and out.
On our road trip across the country, on the way from Toronto to Vancouver I didn’t purchase out of country coverage and just kept my phone on for Pay As You Go texts. There were many times when we stopped enroute to find wifi service because I needed access. When we planned our return trip, with a short trip to Albuquerque for the Balloon Fiesta just before we left, I was looking for U.S. SIM options. While I knew I could always go to one of the U.S. carriers, we came across a Canadian service from Roam Mobility.
With Roam Mobility, you purchase a SIM and look into cheap phone plans that can cover your travel dates. They offer daily plans with phone, text and data coverage, with rates that drop significantly after 14 days. If you are a snow bird, they have 3 month plans available. It worked out to our advantage to buy a continuous period that would cover both our Albuquerque trip and our return road trip home. There was no question that I wanted phone, text and data coverage ($3.95 per day for 14 days and then $1/day after that). The big question I debated was whether to spend another $1/day to add “partner coverage” for locations where there was no direct Roam Mobility coverage. Scanning the total wireless coverage map I thought I was ok without the extra coverage, but that was a wrong decision.
It was easy to set up the SIM once installed after entering the U.S. on the day I had set my plan up to start. Without a hiccup I had full coverage. While in Albuquerque and travelling around in New Mexico, I had service when I needed it. It was a great start.
When we later headed back into the U.S., we started with a detour through the midwest and that is where the service fell apart. When in Spokane for the Chinese Lantern Festival, we had full coverage (although there were parts of Washington state where we had no data coverage). But almost as soon as we left Spokane and headed for Wyoming, the service dropped to nothing. Panicked when I needed to talk to a sick child at home and I had no phone access, we stopped at a Starbucks so I could Skype and talk to my child. A quick email to Roam Mobility confirmed that for 3 or 4 days we would have little service of any kind as we drove down through Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, even when in our stopover cities outside of the park areas. Had we purchased the partner coverage when we initiated the plan, we would have at least had phone and text services for much of the trip and not had to worry all day until we got hotel wifi. Even after we left Las Vegas to head to the west coast, there were many places where we only had phone and text coverage. David was not amused when he missed the guided driving tour narration of the Mojave Air and Space Port because we could not get data service.
Even with this, I plan to use my Roam Mobility SIM again. It will cost very little to keep the SIM active (one day plan within the 1 year period will do it). Once activated, the SIM worked without doing anything when I returned to the U.S. The data coverage was far greater than my cell phone plan at home and when I finished the plan period I had only used about 1/16 of the data package I bought! In places where they had coverage, I had no problem with speed. But I would absolutely look closely at the coverage map and if my trip went into non-covered areas, I would pay for the partner top up. Don’t assume that the map is conservative!
Roam Mobility Financial Analysis
$13 for a SIM (valid as long as I keep the plan active within the year)
$69 for unlimited US and Canada phone & text plus 8gB of data over a 20 day period
Phone 172 minutes (120 min on USAir problem and 60 min on Enterprise car issue)
Text 60 Outgoing and 42 Incoming
Cost Estimate For “Pay As You Go” with Canadian Carrier (no US package):
$282 for phone service at 1.64/minute
$ 51 for outgoing texts at 0.85/text
$144 for data at $9 for 50mb in 24 hrs (16 days – assume used data on every US day)
Cost Estimate For U.S. Add On Plan with My Canadian Carrier:
$90 for 100 minutes phone, unlimited text and 500 mB data
$23 for 48mB extra data (block add 100mB)
$28 for extra 72 minutes (at 0.40/minute)
The above financial analysis is in Canadian dollars with tax added in. It also assumes that I would have had the same usage pattern for voice, text and data regardless of service method used, which is likely not realistic. But it does show you clearly the cost you will pay if you are not aware of what your U.S. usage will cost.
There are good options for travelling Canadians to stay connected with phone, text and data service when we leave home. Don’t be held ransom by high Canadian cell phone plans and international roaming add ons. It is easy to find an international SIM and a plan that gives you so much more for much less!
Have you looked at these options for travelling Canadians to stay connected with phone, text and data service when leaving home? Have you tried Roam Mobility and do you have other points to share? Other services you would recommend?