Holidays in heaven, phone bills from hell

Have you heard what happens if you forget to switch the data roaming facility off on your smart phone when you're abroad?

I've just come back from a fortnight in sunny late-summer France countryside, helping a friend who runs cultural and cooking tours to her second home there.

Sitting under the giant bay tree in her walled garden, chatting to friends, passing the wine, I heard a horror story. It involved some useful apps left running while one of our friends found his way round the sights and celebrations of Paris.

"I got a call in the morning from my service provider," he said, "asking whether I knew that my bill was now R16 000."

Remember, this is about 24 hours after landing on foreign soil.

There was a mad scramble as we all hunted down our phones, and turned them off in every way we possibly could.

I'm sure the phone companies have covered their backs when it comes to charges. I'm sure they can explain and justify them in terms of contracts signed. But morally, it sucks: the only commodity involved here is infinite. It's not as if through running apps, we use up something significant. Our friend was tapping into something that doesn't diminish through his use, yet he was billed probably a hundred times more for access than if he had tapped into it using a local mobile.

So much for relaxing. I've since heard of several other people coming back from holidays to face phone bills higher than the total cost of the rest of their holiday. I was terrified every time I switched my phone on to check SMSs.

So I've come up with a future holiday strategy that I think we should all follow.

  • Holidays are about rest and recovery right? So book one that doesn't have you getting stuck in airports, living out of a suitcase, and being perpetually defensive about whoever is ripping you off in a foreign language.
  • The best things in life are friends and family. So whatever holiday you choose, make it one that you share.
  • Leave as much technology behind as you can stand to. If you're going abroad, buy a cheap phone at the airport when you land, with a local SIM card, and let a key person at home know its number. Emergency contact sorted; no scary bills.
  • Read up on the stuff you need to know on our Travel Health Centre or ask our Travel Health Expert. If there's a rare something going around, best you know about it before you head off. And get travel insurance. Another of my friends is currently holed up in a hospital far from home because he fell off a ladder fixing a gutter, and broke a foot.

I'm home safe, but still waiting for my bill to arrive. Hold thumbs!

- Heather Parker, Health24, July 2011

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