03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Cellular Self-Defense: Don't Get Ripped Off By Hidden Cell Phone Charges

With smart phones keeping many of us connected 24/7, it's hard to drop off the grid while you're abroad. But it might make financial sense to do just that.

ROFL ("rolling on the floor laughing" as my nephew explained it) isn't that much fun if the text will cost you $2.50.

Many travelers learn too late that each international text message and e-mail cost far more than they imagined -- as much as $2.50 a text and $20 (or more) per megabyte. The amount of data that fly freely across cyberspace may create an unwelcome surprise when you return home.

You need cellular self-defense.

In the European Union, telecommunications providers are regulated in the amount they can charge traveling Europeans for calls, texts and data use in Europe.

Its tale of a German traveler who got a 46,000 euro bill (about $69,000) for downloading a TV program in France is an excellent reminder of the kind of trouble an international traveler can get into with a smart phone.

Indeed, the number of U.S. travelers who have run into financial troubles is legion. "I was really taken aback by the number of travelers who have contacted me with their stories of getting ripped off by roaming fees," said Christopher Elliott, travel ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler.

"It happens all the time, and you often don't even have to cross the border. Just get close," he said in an e-mail. "Or try to make a call near a port, and connect to a cell tower on a ship. It's hard to not think of the telecommunications industry as predators when it comes to these roaming charges."

Steven Frischling, a photographer and travel blogger (, was billed $500 for international roaming charges on a two-day trip to Detroit. Frischling thinks his BlackBerry's signal hit a nearby tower in Windsor, Canada, just across the river from his hotel in Detroit. After Frischling produced receipts proving he was in Detroit, his cellphone company waived the charges.

Cellular self-defense also helps when smart phones do the impossible. On a recent trip to New Zealand, I used my iPhone as a calendar and iPod only and kept it in "airplane mode," which prevents incoming and outgoing calls. One morning, however, it rang. Somehow my iPhone took itself out of airplane mode (which Apple insists is impossible).

I dodged the international data charge bullet because I had turned off the features AT&T recommends to limit international data charges.

For Tips to Reduce your chances of getting gouged, see the full story: LA Times: More for Your Money - Smart Phones Can Be a Costly Travel Companion