Roaming deals for travellers just don't ring true

Vigilance required as phone companies confuse travellers with unlimited plans that aren't all they're cracked up to be

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 August, 2013, 3:22am

Long-distance travellers live in fear of finding bank-busting phone bills on their return. Although we can switch sim cards on arrival, frequent number changes confuse contacts, and in some countries, getting online is not as easy as you might expect.

Before a recent trip, my telecom provider CSL offered me a HK$168 daily unlimited data roaming pass for the countries I would visit, far cheaper than its eye-watering pay-as-you-go rate of HK$120 per megabyte. I keyed in a code on my phone and set off, gliding though France, England and Portugal for two weeks without having to switch sims.

I used the daily roaming package on my phone for e-mail, web surfing and social media for the first few days, then tried to switched it off, but after keying in the cancellation code I received a Chinese message saying: "You have been unsuccessful, try again later". On the phone, CSL told me that the data pass was still active but not to worry, I would not be charged after switching off data roaming. But, on returning to Hong Kong, I found a phone bill for about HK$3,800. CSL had charged me HK$168 per day for eight days after I turned off data roaming. A CSL store manager explained that even with data roaming off, the cell phone's operating system and certain apps can still roam , but declined to confirm this via e-mail. I argued that the data usage was too low to indicate significant web use.

I ran some tests on my data usage with free data monitoring Android app Onavo to see how much data I used opening e-mails, using Google maps and whatsapp.

The statistics confirmed that my data use each time I used these apps was in the region of tens of kilobytes, far more than the 2 or 3kB shown on my bill. It also showed that my monthly data use was far less than I thought, and that I had wasted money by opting for CSL's unlimited data plan. For iphone or ipad users: dataMonitor does the same monitoring and is also free.

CSL offered to waive the HK$168 daily tariff and charge me on a pay-as-you-go basis, which reduced the bill for data roaming by about 85 per cent; it still seemed unfair to pay for data I had not used but, tired of fighting, I gave in.

A quick Google search reveals roaming charging to be a global stitch-up/stick up. Customers are routinely bill-shocked and bill-awed, then offered discounts of up to 50 per cent, which they accept with relief, while their provider refuses to concede on principle, and continues to overcharge.

So how can mobile users protect themselves? Firstly, work out how much data you need with some of the free apps mentioned above. Many users on unlimited data packages will find out that they are paying for data they don't use.

Talk to your mobile phone provider and find out what kind of options they offer, as these vary a lot between providers in Hong Kong, and also depend on which country you are travelling to. For example, if your travel is mostly to the mainland, consider China Unicom or China Mobile as they have a competitive advantage and can offer cheaper rates.

Lastly, ask your provider how to be sure your phone is not roaming when you're abroad, and take note of what they say.

Stephen Thompson is a Hong Kong-based journalist and IT consultant