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.
These strategies also apply to river cruisers. I will have the same challenges when we board AmaMagna in July. 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 Europe? The contenders are T-Mobile, Verizon and Google Fi. Which one, or which combination, will best serve me while abroad? What’s the secret to staying connected while river cruising?
How I Plan To Stay Connected
When I am on the ship, I won’t have a problem. Nearly all river cruise lines offer free WiFi, and on most river cruise ships, internet connectivity can be equivalent to high speed internet, particularly when the ships are docked. AmaWaterways, for example, uses fiber optic to deliver fast internet in key destinations along the rivers of Europe.
When off the ship, my goal is to have LTE data. LTE is high-speed data, equivalent to broadband, through by cell phone. I’ve narrowed my selection of carriers down to Google Fi vs. T-Mobile vs. Verizon. Most of these internet packages and data 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 messages, 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.
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 River Cruisers! In July, we’re flying from Asheville, North Carolina to Budapest, Hungary, and we’re going there to board this beautiful ship, the AmaMagna, and this is double the width of a traditional river cruiser. This is AmaWaterways’ newest ship. It is sailing right now, as of this week, and we can’t wait to get on board. Over on River Cruise Advisor, we have posted the first photos of this stunning new ship, and we’re really excited to see it.
Now anytime that we travel like this we’re concerned about staying connected, and in fact, I’m doing a trip in June on an ocean cruise ship operated by Ponant, cruising the Adriatic. My concern here as well as on the river cruise is how do I stay connected ashore because we need to upload photos and videos in order to be able to report on our cruises while we’re actually on them.
So that is one challenge for us. Now when we’re on a ship, we’ll be fine. Actually when you’re on the river you might have a few challenges, but when you’re docked, things are great because AmaWaterways and and others have invested heavily in their internet infrastructure. So we’ll have fiber optic in some destinations and this is the guy Jacco Batavier who makes all this happen for AmaWaterways. And I think they’re definitely one of the leaders, if not the leader, in like having really fast and functional internet on their river cruise vessels. So I’m talking more about my phone and about when I’m ashore rather than when I’m on the ship.
I do have T-mobile. T-Mobile is my carrier here in North Carolina, and they’re pretty generous. They give me texting and unlimited data abroad at no additional costs. And you see that I get speeds up to 2G. Now, what’s 2G like? Well let me just refer to this old video. Some of you might remember this from the 1990. It’s the sound of the modem connecting to the internet. Yes. It takes that long.
So with T-Mobile at those 2G speeds, thank you, but no thank you. I won’t be using those. I do have the opportunity to upgrade T-Mobile One Plus for $15 a month, and that is two times the data speeds. Again, no thank you, because in my experience, I’ve used this before and it’s just not going to be fast enough. Now the Global Plus 15 gigabytes at $50 a month, that sounds a lot better to me. What I’m not clear about is that it says I get a five gigabytes of 5GB LTE data in Canada, in Mexico and LTE is basically broadband and then 15 gigabytes of 4G LTE data for my mobile device, and I believe this will work very well for me and give me data in 210 plus countries and destination.
So that may be just the ticket. They also have international passes, but these offer only about half a gigabyte of high speed data, and you can consume that faster than you can snap your finger.
I also use Verizon here in the mountains of Western North Carolina. You need two carriers if you’re going to stay connected because you’ve got to get over those hills and hollers. I have Verizon too, and Verizon has an international program as well. They offer 4G LTE data for $10 a day in 185 plus countries. Did you notice that 185 plus countries whereas T-Mobile was 210 countries and destinations. I don’t even know how many countries there are, but I’m certain it’s neither one of those. I think it’s somewhere in the middle. We need the United Nations to get in here and help us out with how many countries there actually are in the world.
The problem with this one is in the fine print and again the data speeds are reduced after the first half gigabyte per a daily session, so again that won’t do.
One of the best services have ever used is Google Fi. Now this is owned by Google of course, and operated by Google. You can roam for the same price as you can at home in 200 plus countries and territories. I like them. They’re noncommittal. They say 200 plus countries and territories. They’re kind of in the middle of those two.
They use three networks, so their phones are constantly roaming to get the best signal. And by the way, that would be one of these phones. They just come out with a new model with the pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL. And they reduced those to $399, plus you get a $100 Google Fi service credit.
So that’s a pretty good value I think. And these phones are optimized to play off those three cell providers. Now what I like about this … there are quite a few things I like about Google Fi and one of them is that if you don’t use any data, your phone bill is going to be $20 a month. And that’s for unlimited calls and texting. Now when you’re abroad, it’s going to cost you about 20 cents per minute to call home. So you would add that into the cost. Data is $10 per gigabytes. You can see right here, so if you use, let’s just pick a random number, let’s just pick 4.1 gigabytes. You’re going to pay $41 for that. So your total bill was going to be $61. Now they do cap. Look at this: Data is free after six gigabytes with bill protection and bill protection is for everyone. So even if you use 20 plus gigabytes, your bill is still going to be $80 per month and the data may be slowed but still free for the rest of the month for anyone who uses over 15 gigabytes on your plan.
So I think that’s very fair. It’s 80 a month. But it’s interesting if you compare that to T-Mobile Global Plus, and if I go back here, this is $50 a month on top of my phone bill. So Google Fi would is going to be the better value for some but not all.
Here’s two other things I like about it. I’m allowed to pause the service. So my service is paused right now and it’s been paused for a long time and I’ll reactivate it when I go to Europe. So I’m not paying a monthly fee when my service is paused and I’ll have that service when I’m ready to go back to Europe should I want to use Google Fi instead of T-Mobile.
The other thing I like about it is that they send me a free a SIM card for my tablet. So for example, I can throw in that SIM card, which I have ordered and I have it. They shipped it very quickly, so I have that SIM card that I can insert into my iPad Pro and that will share with my primary data plan, the $80 per month plan. If I’m using 20 plus gigabytes or over six gigabytes, it shares that so there’s no additional costs to use that iPad Pro, which I think is great.
Now, one other option that I have is I could buy a local SIM card once I’m in Europe and I’ve done this before in places like Sweden where I would go buy a local SIM card, done it in France and pop that my phone and it would be just like I was someone living there paying the same prices they pay over there for data and all that’s possible because I have the iPhone XS, which has dual sim cards. The problem with this is it doesn’t have duel physical SIM cards.
One of them is a Nano Sam, which is one of those little SIMs that you see. And the other is a, it’s an eSIM. So it’s a digital sim. And the problem for me is that T-Mobile does not have eSIMs for their standard service. I guess you would call it a post pay service because the prepay service does have eSIMS. And that’s if you just go month-to-month with T-Mobile when your prepay for your data and your phone plan. But being a regular customer, I don’t have an eSIM. Verizon does have an eSim and that’s how I manage both T-Mobile and Verizon in North Carolina. In my home in Ashville, I have a T-Mobile in the nano-SIM slot, the physical SIM, and I have Verizon as the eSIM, and Oh God, I know I’m losing some of you already, but anyway, that’s what this experiment is all about.
And that’s what this article is all about, it’s what this video is all about. I am going to be testing this and finding out what is the best service if you need to stay connected when you’re ashore in Europe, whether it’s on a river cruise, whether it’s on an ocean cruise or whether you just exploring Europe. What’s the best way to have service like you have at home? And I’m sure that many of you who are listening to this, who have stayed with me for this long, thank you, I’m sure you have ideas as well and I look forward to what we can learn together. Thanks for watching.