Yes, you will need a data plan for your cell phone while in Europe. This is true if you are coming on a tour (such as one of mine to Ireland or France), but it is especially true if you will be traveling around on your own. While you may attempt to get by without one, and I will talk about how to do that below, you are better off just getting a plan. All things considered, they do not cost that much, and they can add a lot to your trip.
What Does an International Plan Cost?
The cost of an international plan for your phone will depend on your carrier, of course. Expect to pay between $50 and $120, depending on your carrier and the length of your trip. Just below are the specifics of the three major US carriers (AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile).
AT&T International Day Pass
I use AT&T and here is how it works for them. You pay $10 a day for every day of the trip in which you use data (more about what constitutes data below). It is $5 a day for additional lines.
You only pay for the days you use. So if, for example, you go to Ireland for 7 days, you use data the first three days, but not the fourth or the fifth, but then again on the last two days, you will be charged $50. Once you have used data on a particular day, use all you want. It is unlimited use for calls and texts. Assuming you have an unlimited data plan on your phone, then your data usage is unlimited as well.
If you have not activated a plan in the past, be sure to call AT&T before your trip to do so. Once you are set up, however, you are good to go and you simply get charged for use as set forth above. You do not need to remove the plan when you get home (nor should you). It will simply be in standby mode and you won’t be charged anything further once you are home. It will be ready for your next trip without you having to do anything further.
It appears that Verizon has a plan that is nearly identical to the one from AT&T described above. They call it Travel Pass and you pay $10 a day for data. Just like with AT&T you only pay for days in which you use data.
With Verizon, calling and texting is unlimited for each day in which you use data. The limit on data usage is the same for whatever your normal, domestic limit is. Therefore, if you have a limit on data usage at home, this will apply for your international trip as well.
You can also get a monthly plan with Verizon, rather than the daily TravelPass, which will make sense on longer trips. It costs $100 a month, so if your trip is longer than 10 days, you should consider it. There are two caveats to this plan. The first is that it is limited, although the limits appear pretty generous and I doubt you would reach them (but see below for more info on using your data wisely). The limits are 5GB for data, 250 minutes for calling, and a max of 1000 texts.
The other issue is that you will need to turn this off when you get home. It is a monthly charge and they will continue charging you the $100 a month as long as you leave it on your phone.
The T-Mobile packages look pretty attractive for international travel. It will depend on your plan (they have several), but most plans involve unlimited texting at no additional charge and phone calls at only $0.25/minute. As to data, most plans get you 5 GB for free. Therefore, it looks very much like you could likely get away with international travel using T-Mobile and pay little or nothing extra.
T-Mobile does have International Passes you can add on. These get you additional high speed data and free calling. It looks as though you would need one of these for the fastest speeds available, and such a plan would also be necessary if you wanted to use your phone as a hotspot for another device.
You buy these International Passes in one of three ways. First you can buy by the day, and the International 1 Day Pass costs only $5 per day and gets you 512MB of high-speed data and unlimited calling.
If you want to buy a package, there are two additional options. You can get the 5GB International Pass, which gets you 5GB of high-speed data and unlimited calling, to be used up to 10 days, for $35. That will be good for most trips, but should your trip run longer or if you think you might need more data, they also sell a 15GB International Pass which gets you 15GB of high-speed data and unlimited calling, to be used up to 30 days, for $50.
Getting By Without a Data Plan
You get charged for using “cellular data“ while abroad. There are two important ways you might use your phone or other device that do not constitute using cellular data so that you won’t be charged.
The first is using a wifi signal. If you use the wifi at your hotel, a restaurant, or other location, that does not use cellular data. There is no charge for it. In addition, receiving text messages does not constitute using data. You can receive text messages all day long without using data. Sending messages, on the other hand, uses data and you will be charged for that.
Using WiFi Only
If you really want to avoid paying for a data plan, you can. You just do all your online activities at your hotel or at restaurants using their wifi. Hook into the wifi, check your email and do whatever else you’d like from there. Other than that, just make sure not to send any texts or make any calls (you won’t be able to with most carriers anyway, but with the daily plans above it will mean that you are charged for that day). Also be sure your cellular data is off, otherwise your phone may attempt to receive emails and such without you intending to do so.
The downside of this approach really comes down to 2 things. The first is the sending of texts and communicating with those in your group. If you are on a tour, the group will need to coordinate things. You will miss out on important messages. Even if you are just traveling with your family, there will be occasions where you are split up and the easiest way to coordinate is texting.
The other major downside is that you won’t be able to use the map functions on your phone. These are insanely useful when you are in an unfamiliar location. I use them all the time. Even if you have GPS in your car, there will be many times when you are walking around and want to know where you are going. In a tour group, it is possible (but not advisable) to get by without the map function. When traveling on your own, forget it. You are going to want it.
Can you work around this? Yes. But why would you want to? You spent a lot of money on your trip, and the extra hundred dollars or whatever is just worth it in making your trip better, added convenience, and adding a comfort factor. I’ve been on tours where people didn’t get messages about changed plans because they didn’t want to buy a data plan and it caused them problems and made them miss out on doing things they wanted to do.
Using International Data Wisely
As mentioned above, your data might be limited. There is an easy answer to making sure that you don’t waste your data, and that is to do as much online activity as you can on a wifi signal. As mentioned above, data used on a wifi signal doesn’t count as data in the international plans. Therefore, any serious activity should be done via wifi. Further, you might want to wait and open any large attachments when you have a wifi signal. It is generally faster anyway.
You could turn off your cellular data while traveling except for times when you actually need it.I don’t advise this though, because you never know when someone might be trying to get ahold of you.
What About Using "Whats App" to Communicate?
What’s App Is a messaging app widely used everywhere in the world outside of the United States. It works just like texting, but in a separate app. Basically it moves the texting function to a separate app so it is using data rather than cellular signal. It is often suggested as a remedy for the problem of being able to text on the road, but it doesn’t solve all problems.
I believe the reason Whats App is so popular worldwide is that people elsewhere get charged for texting. In the US, unlimited texting is included in pretty much every cellular plan, so nobody uses What’s App. It just isn’t necessary.
But should you get it for your international travels? While there is nothing wrong with getting What’s App but it won’t solve your underlying problem. You can use What’s App on wifi – and it will be free to do so – but otherwise it requires a cell signal. In other words, What’s App will be wifi only without an international plan.
Get the Data Plan!
I get it – international trips are expensive. What’s more, even beyond the big ticket items of plane fare and hotel, it can feel like death by a thousand cuts in terms of all the things you need. But this isn’t the place to cut corners. As a percentage of your trip costs, it is quite small. Having data will add comfort and convenience to your trip. It is worth it.
I mentioned two big uses of data above (communication and maps) but there are many other reasons to get it. I often buy tickets on my phone on the fly, thus saving myself from standing in ticket lines. I look up places and people being referenced on tours for additional context. I check reviews of restaurants. The list goes on and on. Your trip to Europe is not the time to deprive yourself. Having international data plans makes your trip better.