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The best network for global data roaming is ...

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Getting stung by roaming fees has become a sticking point for international business travellers.

Getting stung by roaming fees has become a sticking point for international business travellers.

One of the greatest advances for business travellers over the past year wasn't a new type of business class seat, a new airport lounge or travel app, or even an actual “enhancement” to a frequent flyer scheme.

It was the long-overdue reduction in global roaming fees charged by Telstra, Optus and Vodafone.

This time last year, using your smartphone overseas would see you slugged an average of $15 per megabyte – at the time, about 300 times the cost of a domestic data plan.

A single day of use – with some local calls and SMS messages, emails, web browsing, Google Maps, social networking plus using apps to find a restaurant venue and such – could have cost you an outrageous - if not rapacious - $500.

Today it's likely to cost no more than $30 and even as low as $5 in most countries, depending which carrier you're with.

There are still times when it's better to grab a local pre-paid SIM card in whatever country you're visiting.

The longer you spend in any given country and the more often you'll be returning there, the more sense it makes to invest in a prepaid SIM card and top it up for each trip.

This approach is especially useful if your prepaid SIM works on a fast 4G network and has a generous data allowance, because it lets you skirt those additional in-room Internet fees charged by many hotels.

But there are practical advantages for business travellers to using your Aussie SIM card overseas, as long as you can keep those roaming costs are contained.

For starters, colleagues and clients can still call or text you on your regular mobile number.

You also avoid spending time hunting down and setting up a local prepaid SIM card.

On very short overseas trips, such as an overnighter or a two-day stay I find this is simply not worth the trouble.

Of course, this can depend on what roaming costs you'd face, or even if you can stomach the simplest option, which is disabling your smartphone's data roaming for the duration of your trip.

So how do the new globetrotter-friendly – or at least, less globetrotter-vicious – roaming plans of Australia's mobile phone companies stack up in 2014?

Vodafone: roam like home for $5 per day

Vodafone is the new champ of global roaming.

The third-place carrier hasn't fully shaken off the #Vodafail horror story of a few years back, but that was all about domestic coverage and service. And in my experience, both have undergone dramatic improvements, especially the enhanced 3G+ and 4G networks.

If you're headed overseas, there is simply no besting Vodafone's Red roaming plans.

These are local plans that range from $50 per month for 1.5GB to $85 per month for 5GB on a SIM-only basis using your current smartphone (for a new phone, add $15 per month).

However, for an extra $5 per day you can use your Red plan's data, text and call allowance in New Zealand, the US, the UK, most countries in Europe as well as China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, Japan and Thailand.

This includes access to local 3G or 4G networks with unlimited standard calls back to Australia as well as within the country you're currently in, plus free text messaging.

(Australian telephone support is also part of the Red recipe, with all support calls answered by a support centre based in Hobart rather than being flung off to India or the Philippines.)

Optus: $10 per day travel packs

Optus slides into second place in the roaming race. Its latest travel packs offer unlimited standard and international calls and text, plus 50MB of data, for a flat $10 per day in New Zealand, Europe, the UK, the US, Canada and Asia.

You can buy several days' worth of usage and accumulate the total data – for example, $50 will cover five days and give you 250MB which can be used any time over the five-day period.

However, once your Travel Pack runs out you'll be charged $1 per minute for calls, 50c per SMS and 50c/MB for data.

One advantage of Optus over Vodafone, however, is that the Optus travel packs can be added to any post-paid plan, while Vodafone's $5/day roaming is restricted to subscribers on its premium Red plans.

Telstra: great Aussie coverage, poor overseas pricing

Telstra's answer to the global roaming gauntlet thrown down by its competitors is a new range of cut-price Casual Traveller Data Packs.

These start from $29 for 100MB, with mid-range options of $85 for 300MB and $160 for 600MB, before topping out at $350 for 1.5GB.

Each pack runs for 30 days from activation, and can be used in some 50 countries throughout Asia and Europe along with New Zealand, the UK and the US.

Naturally, choosing a telco on the basis of its roaming plan needs to be balanced against its suitability to your needs in Australia.

While Optus and Vodafone have both invested in their 3G and 4G networks Telstra still enjoys the greatest coverage and the least number of black holes, even around the suburbs as well as regional Australia.

That makes Telstra the safest choice for most business travellers in Australia, although frequent flyers heading overseas will still have to take a hit on roaming rates or grab a local prepaid SIM card.

My roaming choices

What's my personal choice as a very frequent flyer? I switched to a Vodafone Red roaming plan late last year (and before you ask, I pay for it just like everybody else).

The experience of using my phone overseas exactly as I would in Australia but without fear of running up a huge bill is surprisingly powerful. It's almost one of those jaw-dropping Keanu Reeves “woah!” moments.

However, I've still got prepaid SIM cards for the countries I visit the most often.

In Singapore I use the M1 network, which is a 4G prepaid service at $SGD18 ($16) for the SIM card and 1GB of data. For return visits $SGD7 gets me another 1GB to use within seven days.

For Hong Kong I use SmarTone, another 4G service which delivers blazing speeds but with a maximum $HKD24 (just $3.50!) per day for 5GB per month, plus $HKD48 for the SIM itself.

In the US I've opted for T-Mobile, which starts at $US10 ($11.50) for the SIM card and then $USD3 per day for unlimited local talk and text plus 200MB at 4G, after which it drops to 3G.

To make it easier to hit the ground running, on each trip to those countries I buy a recharge card so that I can top-up and reactivate my account as soon as I land.

If I forget, or if it will be some time before my next visit, then ahead of my next trip I email my hotel and have the concierge buy a recharge card and add the cost to my bill. When I arrive at the hotel the card is waiting for me.

Which roaming plans and prepaid SIM cards do you use in each country you visit?

David Flynn is a business travel expert and editor of Australian Business Traveller.

Twitter: @AusBT

43 comments

  • You fail to point out that all the plans are still a ripoff. Vodafail - you have to be on their Red Plan. Optus 50mb (WOW) then once used 50cents for 50mb - sounds like a massive bill shock to me. Who only ever uses 50mb of data for downloads??? Telstra $350 for 1.5gb?
    Personally I think data is the most important option for overseas travellers, to be used for accessing maps, sending texts, reading papers, searching for points of interest, posting to social media and so on As you point out, local sims still offer the best value for money and still worth the extra time it takes to purchase a local sim when you arrive at your destination.

    Commenter
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    January 29, 2014, 10:38AM
    • Agree data is the most important thing. Phone costs are not too bad regardless for quick calls, but the map functions on the phone is what you need data for everywhere.

      Posting to social media if that is your thing can probably wait until you hit free wifi.

      Commenter
      SF
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      January 29, 2014, 11:34AM
    • It's not just 50Mb, it's 50Mb a day which is the equivalent of 1.5Gb on a monthly plan. Here at home I use less than half that in a typical month so the Optus option would more than cover my needs.

      Commenter
      MotorMouth
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      January 29, 2014, 11:35AM
    • The Vodafone option is only available on more expensive plans. I have a cheaper plan and it was not available to me.

      Commenter
      Bushranger
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      January 29, 2014, 1:00PM
    • I agree, are you really going to sign up for a long-term #Vodafail plan so you can access ok roaming pricing whilst overseas?
      As the author suggests, local SIMs are the way to go if you are spending a bit of time/data in one country. They normally pay for themselves within a day or so. I actually set-up a company (dataGO.co) to try and make it easier for everyone- get the local SIMs and have them all set-up before you land there... has been good to see the Aussie telcos move someway to providing a better option, but there is a still a lot more value left!..my thriving business is proof :-)

      Commenter
      Peter from dataGO.co
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      January 29, 2014, 1:57PM
  • Having read this article I'm very envious of Austrlian travellers and the freedom they have with btheir mobile phones and network use.
    I'm an Australian living and working in Japan, who often travels for pleasure and work. Unfortunately all Japanese mobile phones are tied or locked to the Japanese networks so they don't function with a prepaid SIM card. Each company has it's own version of the iPhone or Samsung Galaxy 3 which cannot be used on another company's network. Want to change providers then you have to change phones as well. This makes roaming rates and choices of companies difficult. I tend to leave my phone on aiplane mode and maybe check it every second day.

    Commenter
    Hokumatz
    Date and time
    January 29, 2014, 10:40AM
    • I'be used my Telstra HTC smartphone throughout Japan on the NTT network. I found on my last trip that WiFi is more readily available, so I just switched off the data roaming and scanned for WiFi networks. Never had an overly shocking bill from Japan, UK or US, but my worst bill shock was in NZ during the 2011 Rugby World Cup. After 5 days in NZ, I arrived home to a $1200 bill all incurred as data. On a 2012 trip to NZ, I purchased a Telecom prepaid sim card at Auckland Airport when I arrived (their staff also made sure that the data IP address was correct when the sim was loaded).

      Commenter
      Trisha of Broken Hill
      Date and time
      January 29, 2014, 11:26AM
  • Which roaming plans and prepaid SIM cards do you use in each country you visit?

    VODAFONE, in Europe it's working rather great.

    Commenter
    Dan
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    January 29, 2014, 11:06AM
    • Before I traveled to the UK I purchased a sim from a company called dataGo.co who sell local sim cards for heaps of countries. It worked perfectly, was a lot cheaper then any other option I could find and I had it set up before I left Aus which was good. I also used a global roaming one for around Europe.

      Commenter
      Arc
      Date and time
      January 29, 2014, 2:20PM
  • We are heading to France for a month in March would appreciate any recommendations on best Prepaid sim to purchase while there.

    Commenter
    Wilderwood
    Location
    Bowral
    Date and time
    January 29, 2014, 11:09AM

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