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Horror holiday roaming bill: £1,000 for forgotten flight mode

AndroidPIT WIFI on the plane
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Do not forget about Flight Mode! Mobile data connections can quickly become expensive, both on airplanes and on board ships in international waters. These and other cost traps also apply despite EU regulation and also in waters between EU member states. Worst of all, a high bill after the holiday can come even if you have not actively used your mobile phone.

The anticipation is enormous. You go on board, stow your luggage and jacket, read a book or watch a film, and then you fall asleep. After the holiday comes the rude awakening: on your phone bill you will see an item worth several hundred pounds: roaming on planes and ships is extremely expensive and evades the regulations in force in the EU!

Both the Guardian and c't have been able to show by means of several examples that travelers are surprisingly poorly protected when it comes to high connection fees when traveling. The consumer centers are also sounding the alarm: if you don't want to receive a bill of over £1,000, you have to take precautions yourself.

How much does roaming cost on a plane or ship?

In the Guardian and c't examples, passengers were connected to the network operator AeroMobile. On its website, the partner of many airlines explains that "roaming charges are incurred". However, the amount varies depending on your home provider. So the bottom line is that what you pay for using WhatsApp on a plane depends on your mobile contract.

The cost cap for roaming charges of €59.50 for mobile phone contracts from the EU, which is actually valid worldwide, has been levered out for AeroMobile and its counterpart on cruise ships and ferries. And the bills get very high very quickly. A consumer advice center in Germany has done the preliminary calculations:

"Depending on the roaming agreement between your network operator and the respective ship's network satellite network operator, very different prices apply: One Megabyte (MB) can cost up to 30. For example, one MB is enough to send or receive 20 emails without photos or to open five web pages. For telephone calls to Germany - depending on the provider - amounts between 3 and 7 per minute are charged. In some cases, a dial-up fee may also apply."

The example calculation from the same article shows two shocking facts:

  1. Only 48 MB data transfers drive the total costs up to more than £/€1,000
  2. Half of the data transfers amounted to only 10 KB, so they were obviously created in stand-by, i.e. without active use of the device.

Some German mobile phone providers prevent this usury. The C't Investigation determined that...

  1. ... Telekom is applying the EU cost limit of €59.50 also in ships and airplanes.
  2. ... Vodafone's roaming usage must be added and the cost limit of €59.50 applies.
  3. ... at O2 only contract customers can use onboard networks, but not prepaid customers. The mobile internet is blocked for private customers by default but can be unblocked on request. But then there is no upper-cost limit. Particularly fatal: the connections are billed by O2 with a time delay (offline billing) so that high amounts can accumulate.
  4. ... Drillisch brands (simply, WinSim, smartmobil, PremiumSIM, etc.) allow roaming unhindered, i.e. allow infinitely high bills.

Actually, providers should inform their customers promptly about the roaming costs. However, the c't research also revealed that such SMS messages often arrived much too late (i.e. when the first KB of data were already being transmitted at an exorbitant price), and that they did not contain any information about the actual costs.

How can I avoid these mobile phone costs onboard?

Since there is no legal regulation against the horror bills, you have to take precautions yourself.

  1. Find out which network provider your airline or ship uses.
  2. Ask your network operator what roaming charges are involved.

And to make sure it never happens:

  1. Switch to flight mode onboard and activate Wi-Fi and Bluetooth separately if necessary while still in flight mode.
  2. Specify in the connection settings that you will search for networks manually.
  3. Disable data roaming (outside the EU or near the EU's external borders).
  4. For Huawei: Disable Wi-Fi+.
  5. Disable your mailbox or immediately forwards all calls to it.
android 10 wifi mobile data
In the connection settings, you can prevent roaming costs. / © NextPit

The consumer advice centre also recommends switching to Wi-Fi connections. Because the charges incurred there are openly communicated and you pay them independently of your telephone bill, often in advance.

The mailbox can also be expensive if you have activated conditional call forwarding. If you are called on board and don't pick up, you will pay double roaming charges. You have to pay both the fee for the incoming call from Germany and the fee for the outgoing call from your mobile phone onboard to the mailbox in Germany.

Can I object to a roaming bill?

Within the first eight weeks you can object to the high bill. You can also request a technical protocol about the individual data connections. The matter becomes particularly promising if your provider does not comply with the duty of information or care, e.g. if the information SMS arrives too late.

Conclusion: the pirate in your SIM slot

So, to sum up, a considerable number of smartphone contracts and almost all smartphones are set up in such a way that enormous costs are incurred on aircraft and at sea. It makes almost no difference whether you are actively using your smartphone or not. Even the smallest amount of data from received chat messages or missed calls that are then forwarded to your mailbox will push up your bill unnoticed.

Some mobile phone providers have defined upper limits for such cost traps on their own initiative. But others are willing to accept the financial ruin of their customers. And neither telephone manufacturers nor Google, the company responsible for the operating system, implement effective automatic mechanisms and book smartphones into the locally strongest network with the factory settings, whatever the cost.

Even though costs are largely defined by providers such as AeroMobile and their nautical counterparts, our domestic providers should give us customers more control. One press of a button in the online service center or a call to the service number should be enough to deactivate overseas roaming and send calls to the mailbox - the latter ideally only for the planned duration of the trip.

Instead, the customer remains in the dark about what costs how much and how he can protect himself from the costs without completely giving up his mobile phone or SIM card. As long as this scam continues, your smartphone could potentially turn into a pirate in your pocket when you're traveling - and many a mobile phone operator will make himself an accomplice.

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Eric Ferrari-Herrmann

Eric Ferrari-Herrmann
Senior Editor

Eric has been with AndroidPIT since 2014. He’s writing articles and reviews for the German website. Topics are mostly privacy and new technology but there's also the occasional piece on environmental sustainability.

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  • marco sarli 39
    marco sarli
    • Admin
    Jan 19, 2020 Link to comment

    It is a legalized theft and it just shows that unregulated free market does simply not work

    • 49
      storm Jan 19, 2020 Link to comment

      It doesn't show that users are careless?

  • 49
    storm Jan 19, 2020 Link to comment

    This is a benefit of most prepaid plans. Besides being cheaper, they don't support roaming. I really don't understand the popularity of phone contracts. Get more, pay less, no contract. Sure now and then an extra hoop jump and a SIM swap for a vacation, but still getting more and paying less.

    marco sarli

    • 2
      Woodcock Jan 19, 2020 Link to comment

      And with 3 and O2 offering the 3-2-1 PAYG tariff, for a lot of low-data users there's not a lot of point in having a monthly SIM.

      3ppm calls
      2p SMS

      A £10 top up will last me at least a year.

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