Wifi – how to avoid expensive data roaming bills

Travelling overseas soon? Find out how to avoid paying for wifi while away.

woman standing in front of the colosseum using wifi

If you plan on travelling outside Australia and using data roaming, you might wish to reconsider. Based on my own personal experience, one may as well just send their smartphone on the holiday, given the exorbitant cost of data roaming. I returned home in January to a bank account-breaking, jaw-dropping phone bill, having naively opted to switch on my data roaming (just a couple of times) while out and about in Europe. 

So, what are your options? You could leave your smartphone at home, but that’s probably wishful thinking, given that most of us use our mobiles to do almost everything conceivable. And taking your phone on an overseas trip needn’t be a negative experience: it can double as a camera, is far more compact and light than a laptop and, of course, was designed as the ultimate communication device.

Okay, now that we’ve concluded that both you and your mobile are going travelling, your best bet is to turn off ‘data roaming’ before leaving Australia. This means that you will only be able to use any app or function on your phone that requires an internet connection when connected to a wifi service. (Your ability to send and receive phone calls and text messages remains unaffected.)

How you turn off data roaming depends on the make and model of your smartphone, so I would highly recommend visiting your telecom provider’s nearest store before you depart. Not only can the staff show you how to turn off the service, but they will also be able to advise you the actual rates for any calls made or texts sent whilst overseas, not to mention the outrageous cost of data roaming, which will hopefully frighten you sufficiently enough to heed this article’s advice!

You’d have to go off the beaten track these days to be unable to find an internet connection, but the trick is finding one that is free. It’d be a shame to turn off data roaming, just to end up paying for internet everywhere you travel. Ideally, your accommodation, whether hostel or hotel, will offer complimentary wifi, in which case you’ll be laughing. Unfortunately, while many lodgings do indeed provide free internet access, many others charge for this service. As far as I’m aware with accommodation, there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to whether there is a cost for internet or not.

If your chosen place of residence does charge for wifi, or you need internet access on the go, there are some other spots you’ll be likely to gain gratis access. However, it’s important to note that where you might get access will greatly depend on the country in which you’re travelling and its level of development.

Places of transit, namely airports, and train and bus stations, more often than not have free wifi services. In some countries, trains and other forms of public transport themselves conveniently offer free internet while you travel. Most major airports have complimentary internet these days, though there can be disappointments (e.g. Melbourne’s Tullamarine) and pleasant surprises (Dili’s Nicolau Lobato, East Timor), so it’s best to expect the worst but hope for the best.

Once you’ve reached your overseas destination, ‘nosheries’ are generally an excellent starting point in the search for free wifi. More specifically, should you see a Starbucks café, you’re in luck, for I’m yet to find one that doesn’t provide free internet – though some stores apply a time limit. But many other cafes and restaurants offer free wifi given the day and age in which we are living.

Other locations worth trying are shopping centres, libraries and other public spaces, such as main plazas and hotel lobbies. But be wary of connecting to any old free wifi. Of course, it is still possible to track down the odd internet café – though no longer in their heyday – should you need access to a computer, rather than internet via your smartphone, or to print or photocopy a document.

Because you can’t count on being able to access the internet anytime while abroad, it’s good to plan ahead. Print and carry with you hard copies of all your accommodation reservations, transport bookings, and as much information as possible about your destination/s (e.g. instructions on how to get from the airport to your hotel). Additionally, you can save handy information and maps on your smartphone by taking a screenshot when you are connected to wifi, so you can access them later on.

Don’t make the same mistake I did; turn off data roaming before you travel overseas, only use your smartphone’s apps on free wifi, and save any unexpected mobile charges for emergency texts! That said, sometimes a sense of great relief and light-heartedness comes when we allow ourselves to fully enjoy where we are by being completely unconnected to the online world.

The tips in this article are also applicable/ relevant for travelling with an iPad or other tablet.


    Lucy Fallick is an avid traveller, saving her pennies at every chance to explore and experience our own backyard and the rest of the world. Rightly or wrongly, she strongly believes she inherited her itchy feet from her travel-writing mother (aka her trip-planning partner in crime).


    To make a comment, please register or login
    Travelling Man
    2nd Apr 2016
    A sure way to avoid grief is to remove your sim card and buy one from a local provider for a set period of time in the country you are visiting.
    2nd Apr 2016
    Agree. And if you are going to Europe you can get one from almost anywhere that does not recognise borders meaning buy one and use it in most countries without having to change. E.e. I bought one in Sainsbury's supermarket in UK for about 15 pounds ($30) and it lasted for the month I was there in UK, Hungary, Slovak Republic and Austria.
    4th Aug 2017
    Yes, my son and I do that, but will investigate World phone app, too.
    2nd Apr 2016
    There is an option, an App for World Phone, no roaming charges and no need to change your sim! awesomely inexpensive to use and superior quality calls cf Skype etc... very clever new App and I have not yet used it but feedback is fantastic.
    2nd Apr 2016
    Turn the roaming off but be very careful of free wifi. At very least use their password but preferably get a VPN for time away.
    2nd Dec 2017
    As already mentioned the best thing is to leave your sim at home, we bought a sim from Tesco's cost was 10 pounds and they had a special on that actually gave me 30 pounds worth of calls and texts, call costs were only pennies per minutes and texts were 5p with the open borders policy we could use it anywhere in Europe, not sure what will happen when the UK leaves the EU .

    Join YOURLifeChoices, it’s free

    • Receive our daily enewsletter
    • Enter competitions
    • Comment on articles