It's one of the paradoxes of modern travel that just when we become even more dependent on our smartphones than usual, it gets harder and more costly to use them.
Checking maps, downloading travel plans, finding contact information for hotels and taxis, and dozens of other things all need a data connection, but unless you're with the right cell company, roaming data is extremely expensive outside North America. Even when you're using a local SIM card, prepaid data allowances can be quite small compared to what you're used to back home.
Not all is lost, though. There are plenty of ways to burn through far less data on your smartphone, while still being able to use it as normal.
Use Google Chrome
Google's popular Chrome browser is available on both iOS and Android, as well as desktop operating systems. One of its most useful mobile-specific features is a Data Saver that, once switched on, reduces the amount of data being transferred by up to 50%.
It does this by compressing most images and text on Google's servers before they get sent to your phone, which means faster transfers and lower roaming costs. There's even a handy dashboard that shows how much data you've saved in the last month.
Use Opera Mini
Opera Mini is an alternative browser for your Android, iOS, or basic phone. Like Chrome, it sends traffic via its own servers to be compressed before downloading and has a dashboard to see how effective it has been.
It boasts up to 90% data savings compared to other browsers, and there's also a built-in ad blocker to help speed things up even more.
Of course, even better than reducing the amount of data is not using any at all. Look for offline versions of the apps you usually use–you'd be surprised how many there are.
Everything from itinerary management to currency conversion, city guides to translation tools, and plenty more is available offline. These apps work partially or entirely without an Internet connection and sync the latest information (usually automatically) whenever you have Wi-fi available.
Navigation apps are among the most useful things on your phone when you're traveling, but they can quickly chew through your data allowance.
Instead, use an offline mapping tool like Citymaps2Go or Here WeGo that lets you download country and region maps ahead of time.
Google Maps has a similar feature built in, but you can only download a single city or small region at a time, rather than all the maps for an entire country at once.
Disable the Data Hogs
As well as using the compression apps mentioned earlier, there are plenty of settings you can change to help reduce your cellular data usage.
Automatic backup and app updating tools are some of the biggest data hogs on your smartphone. They're very useful, sure, but really don't need to run over your mobile connection.
Make sure to either turn auto-updating off for your Play Store (Android) or App Store (iOS,) or at least set automatic updates to only run over Wi-Fi.
The same applies to backup tools like iCloud, Google Photos, and Dropbox. Carefully check the settings inside each app to make sure photos, video, and other large files are only backed up automatically when there's a Wi-Fi connection available.
Finally, it's worth double-checking all the other apps you've got installed, and turning off any kind of inbuilt automatic updating or refreshing system unless it can be set to only run over Wi-Fi. It's amazing how many apps want to update their information without caring about which connection they're using, and just how much data they'll use while doing so.
Limit Cellular Data Access for iOS Apps
iOS has the ability to individually limit which apps can access cellular data. If you're using an iPhone or iPad, just before you head overseas, go to Settings–Cellular–Use Cellular Data for, and disable access for anything that doesn't absolutely require it.
Netflix, weather apps, Spotify, and many other apps can all safely have their access turned off until you get back home. If you really need to get the latest forecast or listen to your favorite song while on the move, you can briefly re-enable access–but at least you'll know it's happening!
Stop Apps Refreshing in the Background
Again on iOS, it's worth turning off Background App Refresh. Found under Settings–General, this setting prevents apps from sending and receiving data in the background.
If it's going to save you money, does it really matter if Twitter is a few hours out of date when you first open it? Almost certainly not.
Auto-Playing Videos Are Not Your Friends
Auto-playing videos when you're on a cell connection will use up lots of data for no good reason, so be sure to disable or limit it in as many apps as possible.
The approach varies slightly depending on which app you're using, but it's possible on social apps like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, as well as video services like YouTube.
Use Lightweight Versions of Apps
As major companies have expanded into developing markets, they've realized that older phones and slow Internet connections are common, and released lightweight versions of their apps to help compensate.
That's good news for international travelers, too, since these lightweight apps almost always use less data than their full-size counterparts. You're more likely to find them available for Android than iOS, with well-known examples include Facebook Lite, Twitter Lite, and several Google products (including Maps) collected under its "Go" brand.
Just Turn It Off
Finally, the simplest options can sometimes be the best. If you don't need cell data at all, turn it off. Either use Airplane Mode if you don't want to be connected at all or just disable cellular data if you still want access to calls and texts.
Either way, it'll guarantee you don't burn through your data allowance without knowing about it, or come home to an unexpected bill!