We already know that standard international roaming rates can lead to horror stories of coming home to insanely high smartphone bills. That's why many of us simply switch our smartphones to airplane mode when heading to a foreign land, relying on spotty and inconsistent WiFi signals to attempt to stay in touch. But there's a better way, especially with all the different services available -- including Google's new Project Fi. If you're heading to Europe to take advantage of the current awesome exchange rate that you probably keep hearing about, check out these three services before you go.KnowRoaming
Use a large amount of data, whether you're addicted to Instagram or just need the reassurance of good Yelp ratings wherever you go? KnowRoaming's unlimited data plans are based off a sticker ($30) that you apply to your existing SIM card, paired with a free app for your smartphone. When you land overseas, the sticker recognizes that you've strayed from home and puts you on a local network, with vastly lower rates than you'd traditionally pay if you simply let the phone roam. In most developed nations, you can pay $7.99 per day for unlimited data use. While that's more than you'd pay if you found a local SIM upon arrival, the convenience when you're short on time (or perhaps energy) is worth the small surcharge. Voice calls and texts are typically priced at just a few cents per minute, but it's worth checking the company's rate table before heading out so you'll know what to expect.
This one works if you're planning at least a week ahead and is great for longer term-travel. KeepGo allows you to select exactly where you'll be visiting from their coverage list, then select a data and/or calling plan that suits you. If you have an unlocked smartphone, they'll mail you a SIM to your U.S. address that will activated on the day that you depart. The refillable SIM costs $85 upfront, with 1GB data for Europe and Americas, then it's from $14 for 100MB to $79 for 1GB, with a 30-day usage extension for every top-up. (For comparison, AT&T's Passport package starts at $30 for 120MB of data.) If you have a locked phone from a major U.S. carrier, KeepGo offers portable, chargeable hotspots that enable a handful of devices -- from phones to tablets to laptops -- to get online in a foreign country. The hotspot itself is $150, also with 1GB included, and pricing ranges from just under $10 per day for light use up to nearly $20 per day for unlimited data.
Google Project Fi
Launched just a few days ago, Google's Project Fi is a new provider that charges a flat $10 per GB of data regardless of where you are. LTE data at home? $10 per GB. 3G data in Mexico? $10 per GB. In any of the 120-plus countries supported, all you need to do is switch your phone back on and use it like you would if you were in the U.S., seamlessly connecting to 3G networks. (In the States, you get connected to whichever of their two partner LTE networks is faster.) Text is largely unlimited abroad, while voice calls vary but largely land around 20 cents per minute. Also exciting: if you don't use up all of your budgeted data for the month, you get a refund in the form of credit for your next bill.
The only catch is that you do have to pair the data plan with a $20 per month Fi Basics plan -- covering unlimited domestic talk, unlimited international texts, and WiFi tethering -- and the service, at least for now, is invite-only and only works with the Google Nexus 6 smartphone. That said, Google is expected to expand the service rapidly, and it shouldn't take long for other phones to be supported.
Reminder: It's been around for a while, but T-Mobile's Simple Choice Plan gives you unlimited data and texting in 120-plus countries and destinations at no extra charge, ready for use immediately. Plus, there's no reason to pay for international texting or international calls once you're connected anyway, thanks to a few great apps.
Have any other tips for staying connected on the cheap while traveling internationally? Let us know in comments below!