Staying connected – data roaming in Europe

Hooray! It’s finally happening. From June 15 2017, we pay the same to use our mobiles in Europe as we do at home. No more roaming charges for calls, texts and, most importantly, for data. But, there are two small problems…

The first is that, when we leave the European Union, we could lose that benefit along with everything else. The second is that some phone companies might make use of a little loophole to still charge more for data.

Data limits and caps

The new EU rules have been much touted as “the end of roaming charges”, and that this means we can all use our phones in Europe just as with do in the UK. Those on cheaper deals might find, though, that they can only use part of their data allowance while roaming, and then be charged around €7.70/GB to use the remainder – although this reduces year by year till it reaches €2.50/GB in 2022. This is because of something called a ‘fair use’ limit, which could – and it’s only a could – cap your free data use.

working while travelling

Working on Campfire Magazine while camping in France. The iPad and keyboard combo works well, but we’ve always needed wifi before.

O2, Vodafone and Plusnet have ruled out using the loophole, but EE and Three have been a bit noncommittal. So, the advice is to check with your provider and, if you can, get them to send you an email or text message that tells you your data limit in Europe and any charges.

Do let us know if you get information from your mobile network so we can share that with readers.

Other restrictions

Three have been giving free roaming for a while, but we’ve heard complaints that they cut the speed when you use your phone in Europe, making it difficult to use some online services. Also, check with your provider about whether you can use your phone as a personal hotspot. Three says not, for example.

Long trips = extra charges

If you travel for long periods, there’s a another thing to watch. If, in a four-month period, you use roaming services in another EU territory more than you do in the UK, your network might start charging you for calls, texts and data.

What about on ferries?

And beware using your phone on the ferry crossing. Ferry companies often use their own telecom networks from outside Europe and readers have reported VERY heavy charges for calls and data. Check with your company and turn off roaming on your phone to avoid fees

By the way, have a look at our guide to apps that help you find campsites, wild camping spots or stopovers for campervans and motorhomes.


Using wifi

pastis wifi

Not another pastis! Buying drinks to get free café wifi can actually work out expensive.

Wifi might be via a campsite network, a café’s network, BT Fon or Cloud hotspot, or via a service hotspot (Skype, for example). Some you’ll pay for, some are free, some require you to be a ‘member’ of the network.If you need to use a wifi-only tablet or computer, some networks allow you to use your phone and its 3G/4G connection to create a personal hotspot. In essence, your computer shares the link. But see other restrictions, above.

Good wifi can be faster and more reliable, but there are limitations. We’ve huddled in café doorways, bought drinks we didn’t really want so that we could get access, changed our route to get half-an-hour online somewhere, and spent a lot of time outside the reception building at campsites where wifi was restricted to just that area. Hopefully, the end of data roaming charges will make this less necessary.

Wifi boosting

camping wifi

Do you choose your pitch based on how close it is to the wifi mast? This site in Corsica charged £15 for five days’ wifi

Wifi boosting is a possibility for caravanners, campervanners and motorohomers who travel for longer periods. You buy an aerial or booster device that gives you a connection if you’re too far from the wifi hotspot. The booster will either bring you within range or improve your connection. It’s useful on sites where wifi coverage is patchy or where it’s available only in certain places, for example.

It can’t guarantee connection, of course. That all depends on there being a wifi network in the vicinity.

The best-reviewed is the Motorhome Wifi iBoost system.

Mobile wifi – mifi

Mifi devices are basically mobile routers that take 3G or 4G SIM cards. You can connect a number of devices to them – a laptop and tablet, for example – just like you do with your broadband router at home.

You can either get a free or low-price router from one of the phone networks for a monthly subscription. Or you can buy an unlocked router so that you can shop around for the cheapest data-only SIM. You can also use the SIM card out of your phone, but then you’ll have nothing to make calls with.

Choosing a mifi device is a bit of a minefield, but we’ve read only good things about TP-Link, so that would be our starting point.

TPLink 4G mobile hotspot

A tiny but powerful TP-Link mobile hotspot that uses a 4G SIM card

Wifi finding apps

If you’re with BT or a network that offers a wifi service when you’re out and about, you should be able to download their apps to show you wifi locations. There are lots of more general wifi-finding apps for iOS and Android too. Many are pretty poor – out-of-date or showing passworded networks that are of no use to you.

Wifi Map is pretty well thought of on the iTunes store. Like all finder apps it lists wifi hotspots close to your location. The difference is that people can upload passwords for networks they’ve got onto, so that you can borrow these passwords and have access to more networks. It’s free, but there’s also a paid-for version with more features.

Yurii Kobet’s Wifi Finder is another one to look at. As on Wifi Map, users share locations and passwords so it extends your reach beyond the hotspots.

FON

FON is the largest network of public WiFi hotspots, with more than 14.5m hotspots worldwide. There is no charge to access them and no limits once connected, provided you are a member of the FON network. You become a member by either getting your home broadband from a partner company (BT in the UK) or by buying a FON router and using it for your home wifi. You create a secure hotspot at your home (or business) that other FON members can use and, in return, you get to access the hotspots elsewhere.

The hotspots are usually located in residential locations. You can check coverage on the maps on their website. If you think you’ll be somewhere with more sparse hotspot coverage, then you might want to consider a wifi aerial or booster to increase your range.

Skype

Skype has 2m hotspots worldwide and you pay only for your time online, using your Skype credit. It means you need to be a Skype customer, of course. You pay whatever rate the partner provider chooses, so it’s not easy to know in advance whether this is the cheapest option. 

NOTE: We haven’t specified prices and package details for products or SIM cards as these change so often. Do check with the manufacturer or network provider before making your choices. (Updated in June 2017)

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2 Comments

  1. Helen Richardson Foster

    I need a wifi hotspot when I’m camping because I always run up my data allowance checking reading the paper online, checking twitter and searching for nearby activities- I’m afraid I’m too accustomed to having an iphone these days.

  2. Steve North

    When camping, I like to pretend that I am a professional ‘outdoors person’ and (most importantly) TV personality. I imagine myself embracing the tranquil stillness of the backwoods. Without mobile WiFi, I can’t check- in with my agent, buy pointy knives on eBay or book my overnight luxury hotel. Help!

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