Later this month I head to Europe to cruise the Adriatic with Ponant and Backroads. I’ll be writing lots about those experiences, but for now, with only a few weeks ahead of my departure, I’m concerned with staying connected while abroad.
As a guest of Backroads, I am on a working trip to produce content daily for avidcruiser.com and for our Instagram account, @avidcruiser. A lot of that content will come in the form of photos and videos, and uploading media like that requires robust broadband.
Ponant introduced free WiFi across its fleet in 2019, so aboard our ship Le Lyrial, we will be fine (we being Tamera and me). It’s when we’re ashore that I am thinking about. How do I keep my phone active with usable connectivity? 2G speeds, equivalent to dial-up internet, won’t cut it; I haven’t used internet that slow since the days of the familiar chime, “You’ve Got Mail.”
Having lived in Europe for nearly a decade, I already know the challenges of staying connected. One obstacle is how to avoid high-roaming fees. For nearly a decade, I lived along the southern coast of Sweden, close enough to Denmark that I could see Hamlet’s Castle across the strait. Often, my phone would slip over to the Danish mobile provider, and I would be charged for roaming, even though I was standing in Sweden. It was annoying, and expensive.
Things have improved since those days. In 2017, the European Union introduced a law that abolished roaming charges for anyone having an EU mobile provider and traveling abroad within the EU. In other words, under the new law, if my phone were to roam in Denmark while I was in Sweden (or anywhere else within the EU), I could call, text and browse the internet on my mobile device for the same price I would have paid in Sweden.
Travelers with North American mobile providers, or for anyone with a provider outside of the EU, still can get hit with high roaming charges when using their mobile devices. What I intend to do in this post is answer this question: How do I find the most cost-effective mobile data plan, or plans, to stay connected while ashore in Italy, Croatia and Montenegro? The contenders are T-Mobile One Plus, Verizon and Google Fi. Which one, or which combination, will best serve me while abroad?
First, About Our Trip
We’re cruising on Ponant’s Le Lyrial. Ponant is a French company that operates a fleet of upscale expedition ships. I’ve seen Ponant’s sleek vessels in Antarctica, but I’ve never enjoyed the Ponant experience. I’m especially eager to see just how French Ponant is. What I will answer in a future post: Is the staff French? Are the dining menus primarily French-inspired? What is the predominant language on board? How does the overall experience differ from that of Seabourn or Silversea? What about the hardware component, the ship itself?
I have experienced Backroads, in 2016, on a river cruise along the Danube.The Backroads experience in a word: fantastic. My son and I pedaled with a group of 20 or so each day from Vilshofen, Germany to Budapest, Hungary. We returned to our floating boutique hotel, the AmaSonata, for most meals and to sleep. It was the perfect mix of adventure and relaxation.
What made the Backroads’ experience so special was the freedom that we were allowed. Though it was a group trip and well-supported, we were free to experience the Danube the way we wanted to experience it. We were given a lot of independence. I have high hopes for a similar experience in Croatia and Montenegro during our Ponant cruise. To learn more about our Backroads trip, click here.
How I Plan To Stay Connected
Ashore, my goal is to have LTE data. LTE is high-speed data, equivalent to broadband. I’ve narrowed my selection of carriers down to Google Fi vs. T-Mobile One Plus vs. Verizon. Most of these plans will apply only to citizens of the United States, though some are available to Canadians and other nationalities.
Google Fi offers perhaps the best international data plan, with virtually unlimited data for $80 per month. That’s because Google’s Bill Protection caps your bill once you reach 6 GB of data. As Google Fi states on its website, “Bill Protection caps your bill and keeps the data coming.” Unlimited calls and text runs $20 per month plus 20 cents per minute for voice calls when calling from abroad, while data is $10 per GB. If you use only 1 GB of data, your monthly bill would be $30 per month, which breaks down to $20 for calls and text and $10 for the data.
Google uses three leading 4G LTE networks and 2 million+ secure Wi-Fi hotspots to serve fast data. It’s never failed me when traveling in Europe.
Two other nice features about Google Fi: I can pause the service when I am back home, and reactivate it again when traveling. Also, I can get a free SIM card for my iPad Pro. Compatible devices share the same data budget as your main phone, at the same rate of $10/GB. If you’d like to give Google Fi a try, please use this referral link. We’ll each get $20 Fi credit after your service has been active for 30 days. If you’re in the market for a phone, Google recently introduced a new line of Google Pixels (smartphones designed for optimal performance on the Fi network) starting at $399.
T-Mobile One Plus
The T-Mobile One Plan serves me well at home, and while T-Mobile provides free mobile coverage abroad, it does so at 2G speeds. That’s fine for certain tasks, but not when you’re uploading lots of data for photos and video, which is what I will be doing during my time abroad.
In the past, I’ve had moderate success with T-Mobile One Plus, which can be had for an additional $15 a month. Though these are unlimited plans, the data is still slow, with T-Mobile One Plus being only twice the speed of T-Mobile One. I may opt for Global Plus $15 GB, which gives me 15GB of 4G LTE data and a slew of other features. Doing so, in fact, would be cheaper than using Google Fi – and I’d have only one phone to worry about.
Verizon offers a daily TravelPass for $10 a day. With Verizon I could simply activate a TravelPass when needed. And while the TravelPass serves up 4G LTE data, the downside is that data is slowed after using half a gigabyte. I don’t think it’s for me, but I have traveled with cruisers who have had good success with Verizon’s TravelPass.
With the iPhone XS dual SIM capacity, I could pick up a local SIM card in Europe. The challenge there is that the iPhone doesn’t use two physical SIMs. It uses a nano-SIM and an eSIM. An eSIM is a digital SIM that allows you to activate a cellular plan from wireless carriers without having to use a physical nano-SIM – sorry for all of the technical jargon. T-Mobile, my primary provider, doesn’t use eSims, so I would need to remove the nano-SIM and be without my T-Mobile service abroad. Not a good solution for me.
Conclusion: Google Fi vs. T-Mobile vs. Verizon
It looks as though T-Mobile Global Plus for an additional $50 a month is a good plan for my time abroad. I’m not sure what happens when I exceed my data usage of 15GB, but I am hoping to stay under the allotment. Google Fi would be my second choice, especially as I could use the data-only SIM in my iPad Pro. Verizon just doesn’t offer enough 4G LTE data. Half a gigabyte can vanish quickly.
I’m curious to know if any of our readers have found good solutions for staying connected while abroad. Maybe you unplug, and that’s fine. We all need to do that now and then, but this is a working trip for me. If you care to join the discussion, leave your comment in the survey below. Thanks, and you’ll be hearing from me again soon.
Video: Staying Connected Abroad
Video Transcript (edited)
Hello cruisers! In the month of May, I’m traveling from Asheville, North Carolina to Venice, Italy. Wait a minute. I’m actually traveling from Asheville, North Carolina to Denmark, and the reason for that is that I was able to work out cheaper business class airfare. So I’ll be up in this region to explore for about a week. And it will give us a chance to adapt to the time change and all. Then I’ll fly down to Venice, Italy, where I am getting on Ponant’s Le Lyrial. I am very excited to cruise on Ponant. I’ve never experienced Ponant, but it is a French company that operates primarily a fleet of expedition vessels, and I want to see just how French Ponant is and how does it compare to companies like Silversea, Seabourn, and others. So I’m a guest of Ponant, but I’m actually a guest also of Backroads. Backroads bills itself as the World’s Number One Active Travel Company.
Backroads is fantastic. I did a Backroads trip with my son in 2016 on the Danube that was in combination with AmaWaterways. We cycled every day, burned off every calorie that we consumed. It was a lot of fun. So Backroads, basically what they do is they layer this wonderful active adventure on top of what’s basically a floating boutique hotel. In the case of the rivers, it’s Amawaterways. And in the case of the oceans, it is Ponant, so it’s a great partnership. We’re looking forward to our late May trip. We will be cycling in Croatia and Montenegro. Backroads provides the bikes. They provide, like just everything, a sag wagon is basically with you, there’s lots of support. So we’re really looking forward to that experience.
One of the challenges is, since I am a guest, I’m a working journalist on this trip, I have to provide content every day, whether I’m updating our Instagram account, which is @avidcruiser, or whether updating the websites.
That requires bandwidth. It requires that my phone is connected to functional internet, which as you know, if you’ve been abroad, it’s not always the case. You either pay dearly for it or it doesn’t work at all. Now at sea it’s no problem because you’ve got Cellular at Sea. I don’t know if Ponant uses Cellular at Sea; I’ll find out. But a lot of cruise ships do, particularly in the Caribbean. But the problem with it, and this is only when you’re at sea, is that yes you can use it, but it’s expensive. A 10-minute phone call can cost you $45, 10 text messages could cost you $11. Mobile data looks so cheap. It’s only 0.02 of a cent per kilobyte. That’s nothing except that a kilobyte is nothing either. As you can see, one web page or let’s look at one song download might be 5 megabytes. That’s 5,000 kilobytes. $100 to download a 5 mb song.
You could spend a fortune. So that’s for cellular service while at sea, but ships also have Wifi, which you can purchase packages for that too. Luckily Ponant just introduced this year free Wifi aboard it ships. So when I’m on the ship, no problem. I’ll use Ponant’s Wifi and I’ll be a happy camper. What about when I’m ashore? That’s the big issue when we’re cycling in Croatia, when we’re touring Venice, when we’re in Montenegro. Boy, these places just sound fantastic and indeed they are. So what do I do there? Well, T-mobile is generous. They give me a free texting and they give me phone calls at 20 cents per minute, but the data, even though they give it to me, it’s actually worth nothing to me because this is unlimited data at 2G speeds.
What’s 2G? For those of you old enough to remember, it’s “You’ve Got Mail” speed. That’s AOL. That’s back in the dial-up days of Internet. This is excrutiatingly slow Internet, at least for me. So I could do with my T-mobile plan. T-mobile is my carrier here at home. I can upgrade. I can do T-Mobile One Plus, which offers speeds at two times the 2G data speeds abroad. So what does that mean? 2G is slow. It means that it is a little bit faster for $15 a month. I’m going to try it. This is an experiment. We’re going to see how that works when I’m traveling abroad.
I could look at this Global Plus package, 15 gigabytes at $50 a month, and there’s also an International Pass and it’s 512 megabytes of high speed data. You will use 512 megabytes so quickly that your head will spin.
Yeah, you could probably do things with your phone to limit your usage, but you know there’s stuff happening in the background and downloads and Dadadadada and you know, 512 megabytes is gone quicker than a flash. You’ve spent five bucks – it’s complicated.
I also have Verizon as a carrier. Living in the mountains of North Carolina. T-Mobile doesn’t work everywhere and it doesn’t work in a lot of places. So you need Verizon to get over those hills and hollers. Verizon works in 185 countries. I don’t know why it doesn’t work in 210 like T-Mobile, and it’s $10 a day and that gives you a 4G LTE data, which is broadband. So that’s good. That’s fast enough. It should work well except for this little bit of fine print right here. Data speeds are reduced after the first half gigabyte, so you know that moves back to the drawing board.
So Verizon may not work. I don’t know. And Verizon has other programs as well. We’ll be looking at those.
One thing that I may consider, I’ve used it before in Europe. It works very, very well. It actually works better than anything I’ve ever used in Europe. And that is Google Fi. This used to be called Project Fi. I’ve used this for a number of years. What I like about it is that you can pause the service. So I’ve got a Google Fi phone number, a Google Fi account, and $20 a month is what it costs me. But I pause it and I don’t pay anything while it’s paused. The data is very interesting. It’s $10 per gigabyte. You can calculate your total monthly bill. Let’s we use 4.2 gigabytes, you’re spending the $42 for data. If you use six gigabytes you’re spending $60 and it’s capped there. No matter how much data you use after six gigabytes you won’t be billed extra.
$80 is the most you will spend. So even if I use 20-plus gigabytes, I’m only going to spend $80 total for phone and data. They may slow it down a little bit – the fine print says data slowed for anyone who uses over 15 gigabytes on your plan. But that’s okay. 15 gigabytes is a lot. And even a power user like me, I probably won’t use 15 gigabytes in a month.
So Google fi is one that I may try. What I like about them as well is they also send me a a free SIM card for my iPad. So I’ll just insert that SIM card into my iPad and I’ll have the same data speeds sharing on my account. And of course slowed down if I use over 15 gigabytes. But this should do the trick and I’m sure that some of you listeners might have other ideas of how you maintain connectivity when you’re overseas. Maybe some of you just unplug. That’s great. Great for you. I can’t do it on this trip, but great for you. And I’d be curious to hear your comments, just what you think, what’s working for you. All right. That’s it. I’ll be reporting back here from Croatia.