Which cellphone carrier is the best for travel?

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With Google's Project Fi your iPhone can work wonders for you internationally.
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Living in Los Angeles has a few perks like great weather year-round and array of places to eat. One thing you can count on is having good cell phone coverage from one of the 4 major cell phone companies (Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T). While a users’ experiences may vary, cell phone companies continue to upgrade not only Los Angeles infrastructure, but nationwide, to provide faster and more reliable data connection.

As a frequent flyer and a marketing manager, I am always on the go and on my phone, like most Americans are nowadays. While there are affordable U.S. cellphone carriers like Cricket Wireless, Metro PCS, and Boost Mobile, I need a carrier that offers the latest smartphone and provides great coverage domestically and internationally. All big 4 carriers offer domestic plans with unlimited talk, text, and data at various prices.  Let’s take a look at the big 4 companies and their international plans and any extra features you get with having a domestic unlimited plan.

Sprint

Sprint

Sprint international offers unlimited text and data up to 2GB in most of the countries in the world. If you’re going on vacation and plan to upload photos and videos of your trip via social media, 2G speed will take forever.  You will have a $30 fee per GB spent on your next monthly bill if you go over.  You’re better off waiting to upload until you get to a wifi connection.

If you want to upgrade to 3G speeds, it will cost you $15 to $50, depending upon how long you’re traveling for.  Consider the new SprintOne program, which offers unlimited talk, text and up to 1GB data for traveling to Canada or Mexico and most Latin America countries.

T-Mobile

T-mobile International Plan
T-Mobile unlimited plan

Unlike Sprint, T-Mobile has unlimited data in their international plan. Although you won’t get their fastest 4G LTE data, you can still check your Instagram or video chat with friends across the world without worrying any hidden charges or fees for it.

T-mobile offers gogo wifi to its subscribers.
T-mobile offers gogo WiFi to its subscribers.

One extra bonus for T-Mobile customers is they receive complimentary free texting and 1 hour of gogo WiFi.  I find this very convenient in cases where your flight is arriving earlier than normal, you can text your friend in advance and let them know.  With the 1 hour of complimentary access to GoGo in-flight services, you’ll be catch up on some email or chat with your friends on Facebook.

TMobile
Take note that, if you’re “roaming”, the data limit is 100MB, which goes pretty quickly.  Lee has hit the cap a few times, including while traveling in Mexico and driving through Montana from Glacier National Park to Yellowstone.  Yes, there are still some places in the United States where you’ll be roaming!

Click here for the best web-only offers from T-Mobile.  And here is a list of the best T-Mobile offers for phones under $100.

Verizon

Verizon seems to be more complicated as it offers different plans for international travel.  For someone, who is trying to see which plan is the best option, it can be overwhelming.  They have both monthly and pay-as-you-go plans to meet a variety of travelers’ needs.

Verizon International Monthly Price

If you’re planning on staying longer than a few days, I would recommend to opt-in in their monthly travel plans.  While the 100MB restriction is a bit ridiculous, most hotels and coffee shops offer WiFi hotspots that you can easily connect to.

Verizon offers a Pay As You Go option for international travelers
Verizon offers a Pay As You Go option for international travelers

For travelers who have a longer layover or short business trip, the pay-as-you-go option from Verizon helps you not be committed to a monthly plan.  This option is good if you only need to access data for extremely important messages.  I would refrain from using pay-as-you-go if you’re planning to be in a country for more than 3 days.

Depending on usage, the monthly plan would be more economically friendly for someone is wants to access social media.  Most carriers let you switch between plans without penalty, so you should be able to switch back to your old plan once you return.

Pro Tip: if you’re in a grandfathered plan, you will not be able to switch back to that plan.  You can only switch back to a plan that is currently offered.  Make sure the short-term trade-off is worth it!

AT&T

Similar to Verizon, AT&T offers its customers a premium charge for international plans.  Customers can opt-in into 3 different passport categories to fit their needs.  At a simple glance, they look identical, except you get a cheaper rate for talk minutes and slightly bigger data package with each next level passport you choose.  Even though Verizon has an expensive rate of $40 a month, AT&T Passport Gold is by far the most expensive international monthly plan for data. ATT

International Travel Charger

When traveling internationally, make sure that you have a travel charger that will work in foreign plugs.  The last thing you need is a dead cell phone on your trip because the US plugs won’t work in Europe!  Click here to use our referral link to see some international travel charger options from Amazon.

Amazon travel charger

How to pay for your cell phone bill

When paying for your cell phone bill, you want to enroll in auto-pay with your credit card to maximize the points you earn… and to make sure you don’t get a late fee while traveling.  The card we use is Chase Ink Plus because you earn 5x points for every dollar you spend with cell phone and internet providers.  Those Ultimate Rewards points are very valuable when redeeming for travel, or when transferring to your favorite miles and points programs, like Southwest, United, British Airways, Hyatt, and Marriott.  If you’re interested in getting the Chase Ink Plus, we appreciate your support of Bald Thoughts by using our referral link.

The Bald Thoughts

While cell phone carriers continue to attack one another to advertise they have the most reliable and trusted network in the United States, using their service overseas may not be all that great.  Verizon and AT&T both have high monthly fees with restricted data which would leave travelers relying on WiFi to connect back home.  On the other hand, Sprint offers more data with their monthly price, but it comes with a price thereafter.  Despite your monthly plan with other carriers, it seems T-Mobile is a clear winner by offering unlimited data to more than 100 countries.  In addition to their 1-hour gogo in-flight complimentary service, free texting on-board at 30,000 feet is something that most customers can enjoy.  Some may argue T-Mobile might not be best in reliable service in the United State but when it comes to traveling, T-Mobile has the competition beat.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. Might wanna explore Google’s Project Fi offering. It’s a virtual mobile operator that’s switching between T-Mobile and Sprint for service depending on the circumstances. $20 talk + text, $10 / GB data, and what’s best about it, in 120 countries around the globe it’s still $10 / GB! Highly recommended.

  2. We visit family in Ireland relatively often, but only for a week at a time, usually. For us, it’s always been easier to use the small, cheap mobile phone my mom got a couple of years ago, and pay for service as you go. If you’re staying for a longer period of time, however, it sounds like there are a lot of different options from these providers, so thanks for sharing.

    • My buddy David and I were in Dublin and London in October and had no problems using my T-Mobile and his Sprint phone for GPS, phone calls, and data. Dublin is awesome because free wifi is everywhere you go! I didn’t even have to make any changes to my T-Mobile plan because international is included.

  3. I am gonna go ahead and give another vote for Project FI 🙂
    It ends up costing me about $60 a month, that’s about with 4GB of overseas usage. You will have full LTE speed everywhere in the world. An added bonus if you use local country’s SIM your Project Fi shrinks. If you are interested I wrote a short post on my 5-month experience with it here: https://fabriceleven.com/travel/review-using-project-fi-abroad-for-5-month-straight/ . FYI I am using referral link in my blog post that gets us both $25 towards a bill if you do decide to sign up (you can always just go to Google’s site directly though)
    The only downside is that it’s not officially supported on an iPhone so you will have to activate the sim with an Android phone.

    • One of the reasons I haven’t switched to Project Fi is that I love the simplicity of iPhone. Hopefully, they will one day support Apple products. I’m sure a lot of others would convert then too.

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