Beating bill shock of global phoning

Using a smartphone or tablet overseas can result in a horrendous bill, but you don't have to turn it off. Here are some tips for managing your usage.

The story is all too common: travellers coming back from overseas and being hit with a huge bill for global roaming on their mobile phone.

In some cases, the travellers have not even used their phones, but in failing to change their settings they have been downloading emails or other data without their knowledge.

We all know global roaming is a massive rip-off, but there are so many valuable uses for smartphones when travelling, including airport apps, hotel bookings, restaurant information, checking emails and staying in touch with family and friends.

Telcos have come under significant pressure to make their roaming charges more transparent and easy to manage, and last week Telstra launched an SMS-alert system to keep customers informed on how much data they are using while overseas.

Travellers will be automatically sent an alert for every 20 megabytes of data they use overseas (with the exception of Hong Kong, where the 4G phone network is not compatible with Telstra's 3G alerts) so they can keep track of their usage and be warned earlier if their phone is using data without their knowledge.

This follows an initiative from Cover-More Travel Insurance, which is offering Australian travellers a free global SIM card when they buy a travel insurance policy.

The company says the SIM card offers call and data rates up to 90 per cent cheaper than the major telcos, with a five-minute call from Paris to Australia costing about $2 and putting a photo on Facebook costing 63¢.

The SIM can be used in more than 100 countries and is available for phones and tablet computers such as iPads.

Aside from turning your phone off altogether, which few consider an option these days, the safest way to avoid a big bill is to turn off data roaming (you will find this under the settings or options menu) and only use wi-fi.

Free wi-fi hot spots have become very easy to find in most countries, although you do need to pick and choose which ones you use.

Try to avoid any that ask for your phone number or email address, unless you like receiving spam, and stick to more reputable providers such as city councils and libraries.

Coffee shops are one of the best options for hooking in - with the added benefit of caffeine, of course - and many hotels now offer free wi-fi in guest rooms, or in public areas at the very least.

The upside of free wi-fi is that you can keep in touch with family and friends via email or social media for no cost whatsoever, but the downside is that it can be very slow, so it may not be suitable for uploading images or other data-heavy activities.

If you want to have data access at all times, the best option is to buy a local, prepaid SIM card. It's one more thing you have to sort out when you arrive in a new country, but there is no risk of overspending with a prepaid card. Another option is to buy a data roaming pack from your Australian plan provider. These are far from cheap but still cheaper than random global roaming.

If you only want to check your emails once a week or make an occasional hotel booking, this is a manageable option, but for heavier usage it pays to look elsewhere.

The other key way to manage your data usage is to refer to maps and other apps that work offline.

Type "free offline maps USA" or similar into your online app store and see what you can find.

If you do it before you leave home, you can download a few different ones at no cost and then try them out when you are there.

I recently downloaded some free maps for Britain and found the navigation to be every bit as good as a stand-alone GPS unit. Why would you bother carrying one?

Many travel guides and city guides are also available as offline apps, so you can download them before you go and avoid using any data while away.

The trip planner Tripomatic, for example, has an iPhone app that integrates city guides and offline maps so you can update your travel plans as you go, without needing internet access.

The free app includes more than 30,000 attractions in more than 300 destinations around the world and is only one of many such apps on offer.

Check you're covered

Even if you have used your phone overseas before, it pays to double-check that you have the global roaming service activated.

International roaming can sometimes be deactivated when you change phone plans — or for no apparent reason — and it is extremely difficult to have it reinstated once you are overseas.

You can often request global roaming activation online but if you make a call you can take the opportunity to ask about options for cheaper data.