How I Saved $110/Month on Cell Service in Europe

Choosing A Cell Service

My wife and I are spending one month in the Czech Republic, meeting with educators here and taking a few side trips. While preparing for this trip abroad, I needed to research and decide what to do about cell phone service during our stay. We wanted to be able to make calls, send messages (SMS) and access mobile Internet on our iPhones when necessary.

In the U.S. our carrier is Verizon. Verizon has international plans with daily and monthly rates. With Verizon’s TravelPass you take whatever domestic paid plan you currently have with you, including talk, text and data allowances. You’re only charged on the days you use your device abroad. The cost is an $10 additional per day per line and we have two phones. In our case, we’re staying nearly 30 days. If we used our phones more than a few days the cost soon becomes excessive.

Verizon also offers a monthly international plan with monthly international travel pricing, also called a Preferred Pricing Plan. We will be abroad for 30 days, so a monthly plan made sense. Good in 140+ countries, this plan is an additional $40 per month per device. This plan includes 100 minutes of talk, 100 text messages sent (unlimited receive) and 100 MB of mobile Internet. Exceeding any of these limits results in additional charges. Overages can add up quickly.

I wasn’t satisfied with either the daily or monthly Verizon option. A number of travel sites recommend using a prepaid provider from the host country. This requires removing your original SIM card, replacing it with a SIM from another service provider, and buying a prepaid plan for talk, text and data. The tiny SIM card is what enables your phone to connect to your chosen carrier.

Two of the most popular cellular service providers in the Czech Republic are O2 and Vodafone. Along with T-Mobile, these are three of the more popular cell service providers in Europe. My research told me the prepaid plans from O2 and Vodafone are competitive in terms of price and features. We planned to travel outside the Czech Republic as well. In our case, Vodafone was the better choice.

Our current monthly bill from Verizon for our two iPhones is $84. We suspended our Verizon service for 30 days. This dropped our Verizon charges for the month to $20, or $10 per line. So we saved $64 by suspending service. This amount will become significant later when we calculate the total savings realized by going with a Czech cellular provider.

A Visit to Vodafone

Zuzka, a Czech educator and friend agreed to accompany us to a local Vodafone store to help with the transaction and translation. Her fianc√© Gomez (nickname) provided transportation. I checked Vodafone plans before we arrived in the Czech Republic, but Zuzka’s help was invaluable. She and the Vodafone sales associate discussed in detail (in Czech) my requirements and options. Zuzka patiently and carefully translated and explained the various prepaid plans to me. After numerous exchanges, questions and answers, we were able to choose the best plans for our two iPhones. The entire transaction took about 50 minutes, much of that time spent helping me understand and confirm what I was getting. (Unlike my Czech colleague, I’m not conversant in more than one language, a trait I greatly admire in those who have such skill.) The three of us worked hard to configure a satisfactory yet economical plan for each iPhone. How economical? Let’s compare the Czech Vodafone plan to what I may have spent with Verizon.

Calculating the Savings

Our regular monthly bill = $84
Monthly travel plan – $40 per line x 2 lines = $80
100 minutes of talk +100 text messages sent (unlimited receive) + 100 MB data
Total = $164

iPhone 1
31 days of coverage
Vodafone SIM
Unlimited calls in network
Calls to other Networks 100 min.
500 MB Internet data & Unlimited SMS within Network
450 CZK

iPhone 2
31 days of coverage
Vodafone SIM
Unlimited calls in network
Calls to other Networks 30 Min.
150 MB Internet data and Unlimited SMS within Network
300 CZK

Total Vodafone charge 750 CZK
U.S. currency = $33.58. ($34)

Regular monthly Verizon bill = $84
Suspension of service charge = $20
Total paid to Verizon = $20

Total paid to Vodafone = $34

Total monthly cost = $54

$164 – $54 = $110 saved

So in the end, we saved $110 by spending less than one hour in the Vodafone store. Granted, I had the advantage of a wonderful helper/translator. We celebrated and thanked our friends by treating them to dinner and drinks at a local restaurant with great Czech beer on tap.


10 tips for getting cell service and saving money when you travel

1. Make sure your destination lodging has Wi-Fi. Use Wi-Fi whenever you can for non-sensitive tasks such as communication with family and friends. Save your cell phone data plan for when you’re away from Wi-Fi. Your phone or device should automatically use the Wi-Fi network when you are in range. To be sure, you can turn cellular off when you are back at your lodging. Look in the settings for your device.
2. Check with your current U.S. cell provider to see what they can offer. Not all carriers are the same. For example, T-Mobile includes calling in 140+ countries with their standard plans. I even considered switching to T-Mobile before our trip for this and other reasons.
3. If you can’t get a good deal on a travel plan with your current provider, ask if you can suspend service for the length of your stay overseas. You’ll likely pay a small maintenance fee during that time to keep your account active. You can use the savings for a plan with a cell service provider in your destination country or region.
4. Research prepaid plans for the countries you’ll be traveling to before you go. You can visit cell service provider websites to see what’s available. You may need to change the language to English in the browser to make sense of what you’re seeing or reading. Look on the site for a way to do this. For example, you may find a dropdown with flags of the world for converting the content.
5. If you can, arrange ahead of time for a friend or colleague at your destination to accompany you to the store. Try to use a branded store at a large shopping center or mall. You’re more likely to find a corporate store rather than an affiliate. You may even find someone conversant in the English language.
6. Only buy what you need in a prepaid plan. The first plans we considered had more than we needed. You can generally “top up” prepaid plans if you find you get close to data or messaging limits. That is, you can buy additional capability as you need it.
7. Check if the prepaid account will expire automatically or on a date you specify. Ask if you will need to use the carrier’s website to terminate service or cancel the packages you purchased. Make sure there are no recurring charges.
8. Your “new” cell service provider will need to replace the SIM in your phone with a SIM for your temporary service. Be sure to save your original SIM! You’ll need to put this original SIM back in your phone to reestablish service with your U.S. carrier when you return.

Helpful hint – Press your original SIM into the card holder where your new SIM was removed. Put the card back in the envelope slot and put the envelope in a safe place. Treat it like your passport, because it is the passport to your U.S. cell carrier.

9. So now you are back in the U.S. and your original SIM is back in your phone. You may need to contact your U.S. carrier when you return to end your suspended service and reconnect your phone to your carrier’s cell network. A visit to your local cell phone store may be the quickest and surest way to get your usual service started again.
10. Consider a Virtual Private Network (VPN) to improve security when using lodging or public networks. We use a VPN on all our devices whether at home or abroad. A VPN creates a secure, encrypted connection between your computer and a server operated by the VPN provider. This makes it much more difficult for your Internet communications to be intercepted or compromised. You do pay for VPN service but can often buy what you need for limited periods, such as the duration of your stay.