Which U.S. carrier is best for frequent domestic and international travelers?

by  Darren Murph | Nov 29, 2012
iPhone / Farknot_Architect/iStock

It's a fact: a Nielsen study concluded earlier this year that half of all mobile phone users in America are now using smartphones. That's an astounding growth rate for a new technology, and it has placed an enormous amount of pressure on U.S. carriers to deliver uninterrupted service to all of these new devices. Years ago, "dropped calls" were the worst. These days, not being able to check your e-mail on the go is a far more frequently heard gripe.

With the introduction of 4G LTE, a next-generation protocol for delivering high-speed Internet to your phone, there's a very real race in terms of expansion. Particularly for business travelers, who can easily use their smartphones to provide instant Wi-Fi access to nearby tablets and laptops, choosing a carrier with broad LTE coverage makes a lot of sense.

For domestic travelers looking for the fewest dropped calls, the fewest dead zones, and the most LTE coverage, the choice is clear: Verizon Wireless. While VZW's rates are certainly more expensive than prepaid options like Straight Talk, you're paying the premium for coverage. Despite AT&T's best efforts to market otherwise, Verizon undoubtedly has the upper hand when it comes to small towns covered with LTE. If you're on the road a lot, or end up doing business in small to midsize towns, there's a far greater chance of Verizon holding up compared to T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T. Moreover, the company's move to LTE now makes it a more global-friendly carrier. Verizon's older phones (which relied solely on a technology known as CDMA) were incompatible with the vast majority of overseas networks. Now, with LTE, you can roam globally where you couldn't before.

Speaking of international endeavors, those who occasionally travel overseas may be shocked to find out how much it costs to roam while there. Voice minutes and texts are pricey, but roaming with data can induce unhealthy levels of bill shock. The only two major players in the United States to offer legitimate global plans are Verizon Wireless and AT&T. VZW's biggest limitation is that you'll need one of its newer, global-ready LTE phones. The iPhone 5 and most of its Android offerings fall into this category, but it's best to check with a representative if you're looking to start a new two-year contract. Available on a month-to-month basis, Verizon will offer you 100MB of overseas data for $25. To put this in perspective, that's enough data to send a few hundred e-mails, upload a few dozen photos to Instagram, and refresh your Twitter feed for a week. However, if you download just a couple of apps, you'll blow past that limit.

AT&T offers the more logical choice, in my estimation. It allows subscribers to opt into a variety of month-to-month plans. One such plan offers discounted minutes for talk and text in either Europe or around the globe, while its international data plans start at $30 for 120MB and end at $120 for 800MB. No, none of these options are inexpensive, but they're over five times cheaper than roaming overseas without first selecting a global plan.

Next week, I'll be back with an article on circumventing many of the global fees put in place by domestic carriers. It requires a lot more legwork than clicking on a link to sign up for a new plan, but the potential savings are significant.

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