What's the best value network for roaming?

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Using your mobile phone while travelling can be expensive. Complicated fees and high charges mean that prices vary significantly depending on where you are travelling and what network you are on. Calls for the same trip can range in cost from tens of euro to thousands of euro! Unfortunately, the Irish consumer has to be very careful when roaming, be it for leisure or business.

This information on roaming appeared in the Irish Independent in July 2015.

EU and the rest of the World

There are big differences in cost when travelling within the EU or going further afield. Roaming fees in the EU are regulated. This means that the most you can be charged  is 23c/min for calls, 25c/MB of data and 7c/SMS (incl. VAT). The EU Communications Regulator has plans to abandon roaming charges within the EU completely which will make calls from anywhere in the EU cost the same as calls in Ireland. However, this reform is not expected until 2018 at the earliest.

Significant differences in roaming charges

Even within the EU there are still large differences in cost depending on the operator and country you are travelling to. Below, the KillBiller team have compared roaming rates for the three major mobile phone operators in Ireland.

Vodafone – simple and cheapest overall

Vodafone have opt-in plans for mobile subscribers called ‘RED Roaming’. The cost differs depending on what part of the world you are in, but you pay a daily fee for unlimited calls and texts, along with a reasonable data allowance of 500 MB*. This costs €1.99 per day for the UK, €2.99 a day for Europe, USA and Canada, and €4.99 for other destinations such as Australia, New Zealand and China.

If RED Roaming is supported in the country that you are going to, then it's well worth opting in to keep costs down. If you are travelling to a different destination, make sure to check with Vodafone as many countries (for example, most of South America, Africa and Asia) are not covered. 

*Data allowance reverts to 200MB from 1st September 2015

Three – complex and can be expensive

Three have somewhat complex add-ons for roaming. The ‘Three Like Home’ add-on means that if you roam to a Three network in a different country you get a bundle of 300 flexi units, where a ‘flexi-unit’ is a 1 minute call or 2 texts.

This only applies to countries where there is another Three network and is limited to Austria, Denmark, Italy, Hong Kong, Sweden and the UK. Additionally, if you are on an all you can eat plan, you get 2GB of data included. The Three Like Home add-on can be purchased for €2.99.

The biggest drawback of this add-on is that if you go over the 300 flexi-unit allocation, you are charged at a per unit rate for calls, texts and data, these rates are quite high and increase rapidly depending on what country you are roaming to - 23c per-minute for calls in the EU and €1.78 per-minute in the USA or Canada.

Data in the EU is 24.60c/MB, but this jumps to eye-watering rates of €5.08 per MB for a limited number of countries and €7.12 per MB for most of the world. At the €7.12 per MB rate, a 20 minute Facebook session would cost you in the order of €213!

If you are a Three customer be very careful when roaming as it is very easy to end up with high costs. If you are going anywhere outside the EU or designated ‘Three Like Home’ countries, it might be best to simply avoid using your phone.

Meteor – average cost

As with all operators, Meteor are bound by maximum prices according to EU regulations. Meteor have an opt-in ‘Roam Like Home’ offer for European countries. If you opt in to this for 99c a day you get a 50 MB day pass, with 25c a minute calls and 10c texts for billpay customers (pre-pay is 35c/min and 15c/text). This offer may be good if you want to use a small amount of data per day and wont be using your phone much while away.

If you intend on spending any lengthy amount of time on Facebook or watching video, then the 50MB will run out fast and the increased call/text costs make it unappealing. In this case, Meteor offer fantastic roaming add-ons for the EU. They offer 1,3 and 7 day passes with generous allowances. The 7 day pass offered for €15 is the best value, including 100 call minutes, 200 texts and 500MB of data, which will be more than enough for the average phone user.

Travelling further afield to the USA will set you back considerably more, with calls for billpay rising to €1.72/min to make and €1.62/min to receive, texts are 40c each and data is priced extremely highly at €10.41/MB. They offer a 200MB bundle for €19.99, which will be suitable for low-data users, but won’t go far on a two week holiday or business trip.

If you are a Meteor customer and plan on using data when roaming, make sure you opt-in for the data add-ons.

Roaming cost analysis

The KillBiller team examined how much it would cost for a two week trip to three common destinations (UK, Spain and the USA) across the big three networks in Ireland using billpay subscriptions. We assumed 10 minutes of phone calls back to Ireland per day, 5 texts a day and 20 minutes of Facebook usage (totalling 30 MB a day).

The results showed large differences in price across the different networks. Three is excellent value if travelling to the UK, but was the most expensive in Spain, and was extremely expensive if travelling to the USA (mostly due to prohibitive data rates). Meteor was the cheapest for Spain, most expensive in the UK, and second in price for the USA. Vodafone proved to be significantly cheaper than the competition for the USA.

The overall prices are shown below, along with notes as to how the calculations are made

Network Destination Notes Cost
Meteor UK Using the 7-day EU Data, Talk and Text add-on €30.00
Vodafone UK RED Roaming at €1.99 a day €27.86
Three UK Using the Three like home add-on (€2.99) for 300 flexi-units** €2.99
Meteor Spain Using the 7-day EU Data, Talk and Text add-on €30.00
Vodafone Spain RED Roaming at €2.99 a day €41.86
Three Spain Standard European rates for calls, texts and data. The data alone represents €103 of this total. €141.20
Meteor USA Three €19.99 200 MB bundles take care of the data, but calls at €1.72 per minute mean the cost rises significantly. €310.77
Vodafone USA RED Roaming at €2.99 a day for the,USA €41.86
Three USA At €5.08 per MB, data accounts for €2133.6 of this total. Calls are €1.78 per minute. €2407.71

**Assuming All You Can Eat plan used