Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

What Your Phone Does On Vacation While You’re Not Looking Can Cost You

Imagine getting a $700 phone bill. It happened once to KPLU travel expert and tour guide Matthew Brumley.

“I was stuck in Capetown in a cable car, heading up to Table Mountain. And I had some things I needed to get done, and I had to call the office back in the United States,” he said.

What Brumley didn’t realize is that even though he wasn’t actively using his phone, it was still sending and receiving data.

“I also was receiving all these huge files via e-mail — photos of the kids, documents, everything,” he said.

International roaming can sneak up on you, and the serenity you achieved on vacation can be quickly shattered when your next phone bill arrives. Here’s how to avoid the problem.

1. Ask Your Carrier About Pricing Plans

Brumley recommends T-Mobile’sSimple Choice plan. Verizonalso has a pretty good plan. AT&T, which is Brumley’s carrier, has a tougher policy.

“You really get hit hard,” he said. Know before you go.

2. Turn Off Your Data And Roaming

You can find the option in the settings menu of most phones. Apps can send and receive data whether you’re using them or not. Don’t take any chances when you get on a plane or cross a border. 

If you travel overseas occasionally, keep your phone and only use it when you’re on Wi-Fi. If you travel more often, consider getting an international SIM card. This will install in your phone (or that old one you meant to recycle, honest) and allow it to be native to wherever you are. Suddenly, you’re making domestic calls in Italy, for example.

3. Don’t Be Afraid To Dispute The Charges

Brumley says AT&T, to its credit, has reduced his bills after run-ins with international roaming.

“Call. Always be polite, always be nice,” Brumley said. 

And know that you’re not alone.

“They must hear it a thousand times a day," said Brumley. 


Matthew Brumley is the founder of Earthbound Expeditions, which organizes group travel to destinations around the world for various clients, including KPLU. "Going Places" is our new travel segment exploring all aspects of getting from Point A to Point B. Tell us about your experiences with international roaming, or suggest a topic you think we should explore in a future episode, by leaving a comment below.

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.