5 ways to avoid excessive roaming charges

Digital prudence can help travellers who go outside their cellphone coverage area avoid nasty shocks when they see their bills after their return home.
Travellers can avoid excessively high roaming charges, or "roaming shock," by familiarizing themselves with their smartphone settings and cellphone contract details. (Fritz Faerber/AP Photo)

Back home after a vacation in Mexico, a B.C. dad is still getting over the shock that his 11-year-old son mistakenly racked up $22,000 worth of data charges on his father's phone.

Matt Buie, a financial planner from Burnaby, has a Fido account, which is owned by Rogers. Although Buie switched his iPhone to airplane mode before the trip, as advised by Apple store representatives, his son was allowed to play with the phone after a sunburn.

"I made a mistake here — as his father — and he made a mistake. He turned off the airplane mode and was watching YouTube videos," Buie told the CBC.

"I should have taken the SIM card out … or not let him use the phone. That’s guilt that I have to live with. I clearly should have known better."

As spring breaks are fast approaching for schools across Canada, both parents and travellers can enjoy a shock-free vacation with some digital prudence.

1. Enable airplane mode

Airplane mode, as the name suggests, should be turned on before your departure flight and remain on until you have returned. When airplane mode is enabled, cellular services — both voice and data — are turned off, as well as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS and other location services.

However, you can manually re-enable Wi-Fi to connect to secure wireless spots, as many hotels and public places offer free or cheap Wi-Fi service. Bluetooth can also be turned on during airplane mode to exchange files between devices.

2. Remove SIM card


Make sure you store your SIM card in a safe place if you decide to take it out, as all the information saved on the card — such as contacts, photos, text messages — will be lost if you misplace it. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth can also be enabled without a SIM card.

If your device allows a foreign SIM card, another option is to purchase a local SIM card to use 3G network on the go at a reasonable rate.

3. Buy a travel package before leaving

Wireless providers offer a variety of travel packages for U.S. and international destinations, such as add-on options for a specific service or a bundle package for calls, texts and data. Beware of overage rates, as it is sometimes difficult to gauge how much data is needed when abroad.

Whether you choose flexibility or value depends on the length of your stay and how you plan to use your smartphone. Most travel packages don't come cheap, but they can pay off for a surprise-free vacation.

4. Check your carrier's website for details

Roaming charges can occur without leaving the country. Higher rates will be applied when you use your phone anywhere outside your plan's coverage area. Take the time to go through the fine print in your contract on your carrier's website or over the phone with a customer service representative.

The toll-free number of your carrier will come in handy so that you can reach customer service from abroad without long distance charges.

5. Monitor your bill upon return

It is difficult to monitor real-time usage and compare that to the limit of your plan, so your monthly bill is the next best tool. Report any surprise charges on your bill to your carrier. Carriers often give first-time offenders some breaks by waiving or reducing the roaming charges.