Like most people we need data to exist. While traveling it is more important. We use it for our daily planning, and for navigating around towns. We need to be connected. After all who can live without texts, line, and all the other on line communication. We even occasionally use it for entertainment at night as we do not have a TV in the van, and we cannot understand the local television if we did.
This article reflects our experience, I took a look at the options in June 2020 to make sure that no one had changed their plans substantially, so what we show reflects our research while we were traveling and a quick check to make sure nothing substantial had changed.
What are the Options.
Take your US plan with you. Most mobile phone companies have an option of buying International coverage while you travel. They typically have two options, a daily charge which seems to be universally $10/day, be careful this happens automatically if you have your phone on when you land in Europe, though you can usually get out of it if by contacting your carrier. This includes phone, text, and data, it is supposed to match your plan in the US. The websites are confusing but it looks like you get up to 2gb of data per day for that cost so it is not unlimited like at home. If you go with this option make sure you have a conversation with your carrier, when we talked to Verizon we did not get 2gb per day, but substantially less.
All of the US carriers also offer monthly rates that vary between $35/month (TMobile) to $70 per month (the rest). For this charge you got unlimited calls, 1000 texts, but only 2gb of data for the month. The overage on data is astronomical, so this is basically a telephone option.
Buy in Europe
We investigated two options for Europe. The first was an unlocked phone with pay as you go sim cards. The second was establishing a permanent phone account in Europe.
The unlocked phone and pay as you go sim card is a very inexpensive way to go. You can purchase the sim cards in many places including most of the large grocery stores (except Lidl and Albi), and the phone stores for the local cell companies. The sims come with certain number of minutes of phone calls locally, and can be purchased with international options. Most come with a small amount of data. The sims cost as little as €10. Cheap phones that take the sims are also easy to find and can cost as little €20. The problem with the sims is they do not cross boundaries, so as soon as you enter a new country you will have to purchase a sim for that country. While we have looked at this option several times, we have not jumped because of this problem and how we travel.
We also looked at purchasing a traditional cell phone plan from one of the French carriers. These are just like US plans and the costs are in line with what we pay in the US. These plans also cross borders in the EU. Since about 2015 you can use your cell anywhere in Europe without paying roaming if you have a traditional plan, much like we can use our phones in any state without roaming charges. As an example in June of 2020 Orange was offering a plan that seems to offer unlimited calling in Europe, and 110gb of data per month for €66.
For us traveling in Europe for only 4 to 5 months per year this option did not pencil out. But, if we were spending more time per year there, I think this may be the way to go. If you go with this option you are supposed to provide an address for billing, in our case we would use the address of our Societe Civile. However, it looks like the phone companies really do not police this very rigorously and I think any address will do.
What we choose
Prior to our first trip we were researching all of our options to get data and phone service. The eurocampingcars.com website had an article about a company called Hipocketwifi. They rent you a mifi device and provide two levels of data for a daily rate depending on if it is for France only or all of Europe. One plan is for 1gb per day and costs €4.90 per day for all of Europe, and unlimited for Europe is €6.90 per day. These rates are based on 14-30 days usage. They often run specials that discount those rates substantially. Their website is www.Hippocketwifi.com. They ship the device to your home in the US prior to your departure, and include a stamped envelope to return the device at the end of the trip.
We decided to go with this for our first trip and were really pleased with the results. You can connect multiple devices to the mifi and we have occasionally had as many as 6 devices connected. Because you are getting your data off of cell towers and the coverage in Europe is really outstanding you are very rarely unable to access your devices. By activating your cellular call feature on your iPhone you can make calls to home at no extra cost, interestingly the phone acts like it is in the US so if you call a European number you are charged overseas rates. For this option make sure you leave your phone in airplane mode.
We have been very pleased with the customer service, and the two times we have had problems with our sim cards, they responded very quickly to help us resolve the issue. As I mentioned they frequently offer specials and the first time we saw a special we only had a vague window for our next trip. I contacted them and they told me to put in my best guess for our next trip, and to contact them when I finalized the trip plans and they would adjust the dates accordingly. I have now done this for 2 other trips to capture discounts. The last thing is when we had to cancel our spring 2020 trip due to the Covid outbreak they refunded our payment the same day we asked, no questions asked.
After 4 trips we have found we only wish we had a local phone 3 times and none were an emergency. We have decided that in an emergency we can activate our US phone by turning off the airplane mode and have immediate service, so we do not have a phone for local calls.