Pal Om bitched about high international data rates when he's on the road in his weekly "7 stories for the weekend" post, and he's right. But honestly, between my Boingo accounts, Truphone and a variety of local SIMs, I've pretty much got it figure out, but I'll admit, for the infrequent traveler, or someone saddled with a locked phone, working around the aggregious data rates from AT&T, Verizon and others when you're on a long trip isn't always what you want to do, nor is finding the solutions easy for the novice, uninitiated traveler.
My Truphone SIM is an awesome answer in Truphone countries, and with it when I'm in other roaming countries it becomes a very easy solution to avoid the hassles of having to find a local SIM, and do all the things necessary to get one, let alone keep one.
Unlike Om though, I visit many of the same countries on a regular basis (UK, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy) and I don't toss the odd SIM away from others, as there's money in those cards. I actually also record the details (Backpack from Basecamp is a lifesaver here with PUK and PIN codes if you don't change them) so when I land I pop the SIM in. For countries I visit rarely, well, those SIM's do run out, but in the countries I regularly visit, longer term retention of value seems to have increased to as much as a year or more now.
For example, in the UK, with SIMs from 3, T-Mobile and Vodafone, nothing has run out in the past year, and my assigned mobile numbers all have remained intact. In France the Orange SIM I use in my Androids--Nexus S or Galaxy Note keeps its data plan, but deducts credit each month. I just top up and make sure I have enough for my next trip. Sure, its a cost but the avoidance of a hassle of getting a new one, and knowing I'm conneced and reachable when I land is well worth it. For my SIMs from SFR I keep some top-up vouchers in my travel wallet. When I land, I just top up and check or change my APN settings and I'm off and running. Beyond that I have a 5 euro a month no use SIM from Transatel that's my emergency back up in France. Trust me, when I needed it, it worked and was a lifesaver when all else was out of credit and the shops were closed.
Last week in Italy, I used a nearly one year old SIM from TIM. It worked flawlessly, and I walked into the Milan Malpensa airport shop and added some credit. I also grabbed a Vodafone SIM for my iPad and was off to the races. Once I got to where I was going, I found the TIM shop and added credit to the TIM SIM, bought some others for my iPhones and tablets. It wasn't hard just remember to avoid the first few days of any month.
In Spain I topped up my Vodafone tablet SIM for my iPad, added more credit to my Yoigo SIMs and my iPhone and Galaxy Note, as well as Nexus 7 are all connected and should I find myself back in Portugal, the Vodafone SIMs in my travel wallet are ready for a quick recharge at the airport.
What you have to know--
In the UK, Austria, Netherlands and Portugal buying a SIM is as easy as walking into the mobile operator's shop. No ID needed.
In France, Spain and Italy take your passport along and they'll register you.
In Italy you have a limit of 5 SIM's with TIM. I've used both TIM and 3 in Italy, both require registration, but the process is all done in the stores. You're up and running within minutes. In Portugal, activation of data varies by operator, but usually you're up and running in an hour or so. France is usually same day but I've seen it with SFR and Orange where it can take up to the next day. Netherlands with T-Mobile is a dream, but Vodafone offers more options.
My trip to Hong Kong was a snap. My hotel VIP desk sold SIMs on 3 but a walk around town made it easy to find data and voice SIMs from CSL and a few other brands. The staff in the shops all speak English and there's no delay in getting up and running.
Bottom line--if you visit somewhere regularly, take the time to get a SIM on a prepaid basis. Leave credit on it so it doesn't expire, and know you're able and ready to talk or surf the next time you land.
Now comes SMS--What's App is awesome, but iMessage and BBM are also in the same vein. No costs to the user as all work over the top, or as Dean Bubley may say, under the floor. Regardess if it's over or under, "if its free it's me, and like many, if I gotta pay, it's no way..."
Of course there is Skype and VoIP also works well when you travel. Lastly, is Boingo. Their mobile plan for $7.95 is working worldwide, and may be the best value around. For checking in at airports, it works, and what's more, if their mobile clients fail, just log on via the walled garden via the browser.
So while Om suffers from high international data rates, it's more because he's a much less infrequent traveler, while as a regular citizen of the world, I simply use all the tools at our disposal to ...STAY CONNECTED.