It took years, following our entry into Europe, to negotiate an agreement whereby mobile phones could be used more-or-less seamlessly across national borders. The arrangement finally took effect only four years ago, and meant we could all use a reasonable chunk of our monthly allowances in other European countries without being stung by any extra charges.
It has taken only a few months for those arrangements to be dismantled.
A guarantee on free roaming – the cost of using your phone for calls, text and data – was omitted from the UK’s Brexit trade agreement, which gave the big four networks the right to reintroduce them at will. All initially said they had no plans to do so, but first EE and now Vodafone have changed their minds. It may be only a matter of time before O2 and Three follow suit.
The latest announcement from Vodafone means that from January, new and upgrading customers will have to pay up to £2 a day to use their phones in Europe. Holidaymakers who buy a multi-day pass for eight or 15 days can reduce the excess to £1 per day, and those with an expensive Xtra tariff will still have roaming included, while the Republic of Ireland will be exempt for all customers.
The basic fees are not huge but the removal of the freedom to “roam like home” opens the doors to other charges. You could, for example, be charged more than £50 for sharing a single photo from overseas.
Two years ago, it was reported that in some parts of the world, one picture could eat up your entire daily allowance if you hadn’t turned off the setting that automatically uploaded it to a cloud service like Google Photos.
Even if your contract caps the amount you can spend per day, you could still end up with a bill of £500 at the end of a fortnight’s break. And streaming a piece of music or video abroad can cost more than £30 on some contracts.
Previously, those charges were limited to holidaymakers outside the EU. The new changes mean that is no longer the case.
The regulator Ofcom has no power to prevent roaming charges but it does insist on a monthly cap of £54 unless you choose to swipe away a warning notice. But it’s easy to do so by mistake.
The real key to avoiding unexpected bills is to understand what is included in your monthly allowance, and to factor in the extra costs of using it abroad. So long as you don’t go overdrawn and remain within your operator’s “fair usage” policy, you should pay no more than the daily £2 surcharge.
The reintroduction of European roaming charges makes shopping around for a new contract before you go on holiday as important as taking out travel insurance. The market is still adjusting to the changes so it’s too early to make recommendations, but it’s likely that roaming will become a selling point next summer and that those who remain on their existing tariffs will be penalised.
In the meantime, you can avoid unnecessary charges by turning off data roaming on your phone. You will still be able to send and receive calls and texts, but you’ll have no internet access except through a local wi-fi network.
It’s an unfortunate regression that makes holidaying at home a more attractive proposition than it’s been since the 1960s.
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