A ZDNet Multiplexer Blog What's this?

How I Saved £26,750 on My Phone Bill Whilst On Vacation

I use my mobile for everything while I’m traveling. And I’ve finally figured out all the ways to reduce the “bill shock” waiting for me when I get home.

I live on my mobile, particularly when travelling . I use it to access my airline tickets and all my reservations for hotels and rentals. I use it for navigation, taking notes, and figuring out where to go and what to eat. My habits lighten my luggage significantly, but there is one small challenge: facing the phone bill upon my return.

On our last vacation, I wanted to fully ditch my laptop, and just bring my phone, tablet, and collection of cameras and lenses. But I needed to figure out how to keep the bill down. Here’s how I did it.

Step 1: MiFi

In the past, the easy way to cut costs was to have a local SIM . And if you just have one device, that’s a great solution. But between us, we had seven devices with SIMs. The price of SIMs (and top-ups) would add up, so we wanted to find a cheaper solution. And we did.

With a MiFi unit, you can share one (mobile) data connection over WiFi with lots of devices. We had this excellent unit, a Huawei E5331. Then all we needed was a local pay-as-you-go SIM (£15), and an unlimited Internet plan: 200 NIS /£35 (15 GB to be used within one month; if exceeded, speed would be throttled).

The good: It was a very cheap way to get a lot of international data, and the mobile app for the MiFI unit made set up very simple.

The bad: We did struggle to get the correct pre-pay top-up. Seemed that plan wasn’t so common or it was a language barrier. The phone only had a few hours battery life on MiFi, and charging whilst in use was painfully slow.

Side note #1: Prepaid accounts are easy to get everywhere (ish) except for the U.S. There, Virgin is the only carrier that doesn’t require you to be a U.S. citizen, and that works great except you can’t top up online as their billing system needs a U.S. address for your credit card. Though, you can usually find top-up cards in stores.

Side note #2: The MiFi unit we used was a 3G unit, which worked great. But there’s also an LTE version.

Step 2: Tell your phone to ‘shut up’.

Until you start counting every byte, you wouldn’t believe how chatty modern phones are. Your smartphone is constantly sending data. After the first day, we were shocked that over 1 GB of data had already gone through the MiFi unit! Whilst we where on an unlimited tariff, we still didn’t want to hit the speed throttling. All our devices were running iOS 7, so here’s what we did to tackle the traffic:

  • Turned off email. When you’re on holiday, you can go back to checking just a few times a day.
  • Turn off chatty apps. Here’s a great video explaining what to do.
  • iCloud is not your friend. I love clouds but not in this case. Particularly for pictures. Whilst you can tell iCloud not to use mobile data, it will use WiFi if you have it enabled. The problem here is that it thinks the MiFi connection is WiFi, so it tries to sync like crazy. And if you turn it off, it deletes the iCloud sync album completely. Worse still, if you have both an iPad and iPhone, then each time you take a photo, not only does the phone sync up to the cloud, but also your iPad downloads the same photo—doubling the data usage! The only solution is to turn WiFi off entirely, and just turn on as needed.

The good: We were able to reduce data usage a great deal.

The bad: iMessage does not cope with this approach at all. More about that in a future post.

Step 3: Do you have WiFi?

This became our mantra. Every café, gas station, etc. Luckily, the answer was almost universally was YES. At which, we would furiously sync devices before heading off to our next destination.

Do You Have WiFi

When we got to Tel Aviv, we discovered the entire city had blanket WiFi coverage.

Tel Aviv WiFi

In general this worked well, and we had a lot more success connecting than I experience with London’s congested WiFi hotspots.

The only drawback was that the connections dropped as you moved between hotspots, so you had to keep manually reconnecting. It’s easy to forget how well mobile networks cope with people moving between cells, until you’re reminded that this is something WiFI networks don’t do.

I also had my iPass account to fall back on. I use it a great deal in the UK, but free WiFi was so plentiful in Israel and Jordan that I barely used it.

Step 4: Text, don’t talk.

There were times our group got split up, so in those cases we always sent a text instead of calling. We also discovered that one my favourite apps, Waze (more in a future post), supports SMS.

I’d gone to collect the rental car, and needed to get back to the hotel. Rather than struggle with the address, I had the rest of the group send me their location as a Waze pick-up request, eliminating the need for the sender to use data.

Step 5: If you do have to talk, VoIP is your friend.

VoIP to VoIP is clearly the cheapest option, but BT SmartTalk (for UK people), or even Skype is still much, much cheaper than making a real phone call.

Step 6: Cache not cloud.

Whilst we did us Waze a great deal, we also had MotionX, which allowed us to cache our maps in advance. You can also save offline maps in the new Google Maps for iOS version just like Android users can, by typing in "ok maps". Here are complete instructions from Gizmodo.

Step 7: Beware of updates.

The number of app updates our phones completed was another surprise, especially as this particular trip was just after iOS 7 came up. iOS has an auto-update feature, so switch that off until you’re on a free WiFi in a café or hotel.

Step 8: The less you pay for a hotel, the more you get.

It seems crazy, but it is true. Stay in a high-end hotel and you pay for everything. Stay in a budget and you’ll get free coffee, car parking, perhaps breakfast—and more importantly, free WiFi.

So did it work? Absolutely.

Our costs:

  • MiFi unit: £45 (which I didn’t include in my total calculation, as we’ll use it on future trips)
  • SIM: £15
  • Top- up: 200 NIS, approximately £35
  • Phone charges: £200 combined total for all of us. That might seem like a lot, but between 7 devices, over 17 days and including a few emergency work calls, it worked out to be £2.10 a day per device. Not bad.

So, total (not including the MiFi) was £250. Overall, 8.71 GB went through the MiFi unit.

Mifi for blog

So if that had been mobile data, what would that have cost? If you pick the worst tariff that we had between us, then the cost would have been an eye-watering £27,000.

Any other travel tips out there?