Plus advice on how to make the most of mobile connections overseas.
Australians are some of the worlds’ most prolific travellers, with over 70% of us holding passports. With flights cheap and potential destinations a'plenty, it’s no wonder that international roaming bill shock has been one of the biggest bugbears in regards to travel costs over the past five years. The current crop of smartphones are data destroyers – Apps are bigger, mobile networks are faster, more content is available online and you have a lot more spare time to waste on your phone while on holiday. Sadly, for the consumer at least, governments and carriers just haven’t really kept up when it comes to rates.
There’s been a lot of too and fro as the issue has come to fore over the past couple of years in particular, with the major carriers attempting to soothe much of the anxiety their customers have gone through. I myself had a spectacular case of Bill Shock after I got home from my Honeymoon in America – almost $3000 in roaming fees, even after sticking largely to Wi-Fi and turning roaming data off except for in the most stringent of circumstances (One Hotel’s Wi-Fi was so dismal I had to tether to my phone to do banking and travel booking). I negotiated this down to $1000, but it left a very bitter taste in my mouth.
All three of our top tier carriers in Australia - Telstra, Optus and Vodafone - all offer some sort of bundled travel “pass” or “pack” for a small daily cost. In most cases, you generally pre-pay for the number of days you require, and are granted a small data allowance, and from a voice perspective, unlimited calls and texts. This is a worthy change from the staggeringly poor rates of old, but are we actually getting good value where it really matters – Data? I took a look at the current slate of offers.
Vodafone, hands down, offers the best roaming offer of any Australian carrier. Not only that, but it’s simple, clean, and works in 50 of the most popular travel destinations, including Eastern Europe, Indonesia, Thailand, South Africa, the US, UK and NZ and more.
So how it does it work? Customers simply turn on $5 Roaming and for, you guessed it, $5 each day they have access to their plan benefits while overseas. So if you’re sitting on a generous 10Gb allowance, you can watch Netflix on the shuttle bus while the rest of us all huddle around the weak Wi-Fi flame, scraping out 15kb/sec pittance so we can look at a very slow loading Facebook.
Outside those countries, it becomes a little more standard - $1/minute for calls (which ends up about the same as in Australia when you include flag fall) and $1/Mb. Keep in mind that this is over a third of the price better than Telstra and a bit more expensive than Optus. It may also have something to do with Vodafone’s much wider global reach, giving them a better hand in negotiations (they have networks in 22 countries, as well as interests in others).
Australia’s biggest network used to have some of the highest data roaming rates in the world. Considerable market pressure has pushed them to work on reducing these rates and the result is their “Travel Pass” system. While a markedly better option that their old “pay us by the minute or megabyte” setup, the Pass system is significantly more complicated than Vodafone.
To be clear, this system is changing on the 3rd of December, so I will use their new rates with a comparison to their old ones.
When you land in a new country, Telstra will send you a Text that lets you know roaming is activated. They’ll give you basic pricing information (Which can be as high as $4.50/minute for calls and $3/Mb for data in some countries) as well as the offer to buy a Travel Pass. On the old system, Travel Passes used to be divided into two Zones, which was fairly simple. One for NZ, Indonesia and Thailand, and another for 34~ other countries.
You could get 3, 7, 14 or 30 Day packs. Broken down, it worked out to around $10/day for unlimited calls and text, and 50mb of data. Next to Vodafone, it’s not great value. You can’t just get a pack for a single day, or between 7 and 14 days. If you’re travelling for 8 days, well, you’re up for a hefty wasted cost. MMS’s are not included. On the plus side, excess data was only 3c/Mb when you were on the pack.
Telstra’s new updates stretch the number of Zones to 3, and increasing the daily data allowance to 75mb. The kicker? Excess data is now 10c/Mb which more than quadruples the price of a 1Gb of data from $30 to $100. New Zealand in its own Zone with a much cheaper rate, halving the daily cost to $5.
Zone 2 is broadened to include more of Asia, including Brunei, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan, keeping the original $10/day price. Unfortunately for Zone 3, which is basically “Everywhere else”, the cost is now $15/day.
Personally I feel this update misses the point somewhat. Sure, there’s more data, but it’s more expensive to boot. Telstra also sneakily hiked the excess which I’d say the large majority would have to utilise. It’s moving in the wrong direction entirely and the customer response on its announcement page largely speaks for itself.
On the scope of value and ease of use, Optus sits somewhere in the middle. While it still uses a Travel Pack system that is very similar to Telstra, it simplifies things by charging a $10/day flat rate with a 50mb limit and unlimited calls/texts. The pack works in all “Zone 1” countries, which to Optus’s credit, is everywhere other than Vietnam, South America and Africa.
Optus allows this data to be pooled – so if you buy 5 days of packs with a 250mb limit, and use it all on day one, you simply just need to buy more days for more data. Outside of this, the pay as you go rates are a little wonky but still the cheapest of all the carriers - $1/min for calls, 50c for texts and 50c/Mb to the US, for example. Its marginally better than Telstra’s if only for the ability to buy packs as you need them and for the breadth of coverage on a single zone.
Most importantly, this system would have stopped me from experiencing bill shock, and that’s probably one of the biggest take homes from these systems. Outside of Vodafone’s obvious attempt at being consumer friendly and providing exceptional value, Optus and Telstra are out there saying, “Yeah sure, here’s a cheaper way to go. It’s not cheap, but it’s a way”.
Virgin has decided to avoid the daily charge route by simply offering a competitive Pay as You Go option. A one minute call to Australia is 42c, a text is 15c and data is 12c/Mb. The problem with this system is that you’re almost certainly likely to make calls and use data on your phone when overseas, and this rate system just doesn’t stack up. 50mb of data would cost $6 on its own, where for another 4 dollars you could have unlimited calls and texts with Optus, and $1 less would get you full access to your almost certainly generous cap plan on Vodafone.
Kogan Mobile, Aldi Mobile, Boost
Be aware that none of these services offer roaming, at all. Your phone simply won’t work overseas if you are with any of these carriers. The plus is largely that they are all prepaid and you have the luxury of simply using another sim card while you are overseas anyway.
And yes, there are many, many other phone services out there, some that specialise on cheap rates for roaming, others (like Amaysim and Vaya) that are fairly popular and offer roaming albeit with fairly poor rates. My focus was on the large majority of Australians who use the largest 3+1 carriers.
Read the fine print
A lot of the information on roaming is still fairly confusing and hard to locate. Both Telstra and Optus’s roaming websites are split over three or four different pages, rather than one, simple page that lists info about passes, excess rates and whatnot. That said, both now have great maps that list each rate by country.
But in the end, the award still has to go to Vodafone. As a network that has taken an excessive amount of (mostly justified) flak in the last few years, it has made roaming charges as simple as they should be for every carrier. Telstra and Optus, please take note, things still aren’t good enough.