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Wi-Fi and cellphone data plans abroad: You have options

Planning ahead for online connectivity abroad can save you money on data charges. Here are some options

Voice used to be the big issue for overseas travelers, but not anymore, said Sebastian Harrison, founder of Cellular Abroad, which offers products to address a host of international connectivity issues.

When you travel abroad, he said, you want to continue to use your phone, tablet or other device just the way you do when you're at home.

The problem, of course, is that you're not at home. If you're tethered to a U.S. carrier and you don't have an international data plan, you may run up huge bills, but nowadays it's generally not voice that's running up the tab; it's data.

About 81% of us are sending or receiving texts, 60% are accessing the Internet and about half of us are getting directions or finding info in various places, according to a Pew Research study of regular cellphone behaviors.

Go abroad, Harrison said, and those behaviors may be amplified; who among us has not felt the urge to open our map app and try to figure out where the heck we are?

You can use your cellphone's data network to do this. It will be expensive if you don't have an international data plan. Or you can use Wi-Fi. It will be hard to find if you're out and about and possibly slow if you're in your hotel.

As the new year dawns, there is good news on the data-consumption horizon. As you plan a trip abroad:

Consider an international data plan. Many carriers are beginning to offer them. Some won't even bankrupt you.

You can check Verizon's at lat.ms/1rvCkEo, AT&T's at lat.ms/13FiGdP, T-Mobile's at lat.ms/1xupOrH and Sprint's at lat.ms/1HbSE0Q.

When you see "100 MB for (fill in the blank for the carrier's charge)," be mindful that this isn't much data. If you post 10 photos a day to Facebook, the Digital Trends website said, you'll burn through about 400 MB — and your wallet will do a slow burn too.

Business traveler Phil Baker, vice president of product development and operations for Ponomusic.com and a contributor to the JoeSentMe business travel newsletter, has found satisfaction with T-Mobile's plan for his iPhone 6.

"I pay no data fee wherever in the world I go and calls are just 20 cents per minute from any country," he said in an email. "I use it for Google Maps, checking restaurants, flight information, email and reading a number of websites."

Not all carriers are up to speed — literally — just yet. "When we travel internationally we need to be prepared for slower connection speeds," said Joe Fennell, chief operating officer of XCom Global, another connectivity solution. "LTE [the newest network] is still slow to roll out around the world. And although the connectivity is slow, the cost remains high."

Rent or buy a Wi-Fi hot spot before you go. XCom Global (www.xcomglobal.com) allows you to rent a mobile Wi-Fi device for $14.95 a day that gives you unlimited connectivity and lets you connect up to 10 devices. Baker used one before switching to a carrier's international plan and liked it. Cellular Abroad (www.cellularabroad.com) also offers Wi-Fi hot spots for rent or purchase. Both let you walk around with your own hot spot, which gives you connectivity wherever you are and for more than one device.

Rely on hotel Wi-Fi. When hell freezes over, you say? It's slow and expensive, you say? Not all hotels charge for it, especially more modest places. And not Hyatt, starting in February. Yes, hotel Wi-Fi can be slow if there is a lot of demand; Hyatt offers its guests a premium upgrade at a price.

Buy a data SIM card when you get there and use it with a locally purchased hot spot or an unlocked hot spot. I've done both (I have an unlocked mobile hot spot not tethered to any carrier), and I also have a couple of country-specific mobile hot spot "souvenirs" that look at me sadly from my bag o' electronics. In both cases, I burned through so much data that I had to top up.

Cut back? Not happening. Easier to turn my back on that fruitcake than it is on Facebook. So my quest for 2015 is to find the perfect solution and, if not that, at least one that won't put me in the data poorhouse. Share your data solutions at travel@latimes.com.

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