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MONEY

How to avoid huge ‘roaming’ phone bills while visiting France

Ever wondered how to avoid paying exorbitant roaming fees when travelling in France? There are ways to keep your internet access while avoiding being hit by a big bill.

How to avoid huge 'roaming' phone bills while visiting France
Using smartphones abroad can land you with big bills. Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

Travelling without access to the internet is almost impossible these days. We use our phones for mapping applications, contacting the Airbnb, even scanning the QR code for the restaurant menu.

If you’re lucky enough to have a phone registered in an EU country than you don’t need to worry, thanks to the EU’s cap on charges for people travelling, but non-Europeans need to be careful with their phone use abroad.

First things first, if you are looking to avoid roaming charges, be sure to go into your settings and turn off “data roaming.” Do it right before your plane lands or your train arrives – you don’t want to risk the phone company in your home country starting the clock on ‘one day of roaming fees’ without knowing it.

But these days travelling without internet access can be difficult and annoying, especially as a growing number of tourist attractions require booking in advance online, while restaurants often display their menus on a QR code.

So here are some techniques to keep the bills low.

Check your phone company’s roaming plan

Before leaving home, check to see what your phone plan offers for pre-paid roaming deals.

For Brits, if you have a phone plan with “Three” for example, you can ask about their “Go Roam” plan for add-on allowance. You can choose to pay monthly or as you go. Vodafone offers eight day and 15 day passes that are available for £1 a day.

For Americans, T-Mobile offers you to add an “international pass” which will charge you $5 per day. Verizon and AT&T’s roaming plans will charge you $10 per day. For AT&T, you are automatically opted into this as soon as your phone tries to access data abroad.

These all allow you to retain your normal phone number and plan.

Beware that these prices are only available if you sign up in advance, otherwise you will likely be facing a much bigger bill for using mobile data in France. 

Buy a pre-paid SIM card

However, if you are travelling for a longer period of time it might work out cheaper to turn off your phone data and buy a pre-paid SIM card in France.

In order to get a pre-paid SIM card, you will need your passport or proof of identity (drivers’ licences do not count).

Keep in mind that you will not be able to use your normal phone number with the new SIM card in, but will be able to access your internet enabled messaging services, like WhatsApp, Facebook and iMessage. Your phone will need to be ‘unlocked’ (ask your carrier about whether yours is) in order to put a new SIM card in.

Here are some of the plans you can choose from:

Orange Holiday

This is one of France’s largest and most reputable telephone companies. The “Orange Holiday” SIM card exists specifically for tourists. At €39.99, you will get a SIM card that will enable you to make and receive calls and texts from a French phone number. You will have unlimited calls and texts within Europe, as well as two hours of calls and 1000 texts outside of Europe (for messaging people at home, for example). You will also have access to 30GB of data in Europe. 

The initial plan is valid for 14 days, and begins as soon as you begin calling, texting, or surfing the web. In order to get this SIM card, you can go into any Orange store and request it. Some supermarkets and airport kiosks might also carry this SIM card.

SFR

SFR is another well-known French phone company. Their pre-paid SIM card is called “La Carte,” and they offer several different options based on how much internet, calling, and texting you want access to. The basic plan is for 30 days and starts at €9.99 a month, which includes a €10 credit. Once the card is in your cellphone, you can add on a top-up option as needed.

You can buy this SIM card either online or in an SFR store. 

La Poste Mobile

This is the French phone company that operates in conjunction to the post office. What is especially convenient about this SIM card is that you should be able to get it at any post office in France. Plans range from €5 to €30 based on the number of days and the amount of calling, texting, and internet you are looking for. 

Bouygues Telecom

Finally, Bouygues Telecom also has some offers for prepaid SIM cards. Their plan, the “My European SIM” is especially made for tourists. It costs €39.90 and allows you unlimited calling and texting in France and Europe. The plan offers 20Gb of data. You can plan ahead for your trip by ordering this card online, but you can only activate it once you arrive in France.

The card actually comes along with a tourist guide (offered in 10 languages) and a map of Paris Metro.

Contract

Though buying a pre-paid SIM card is a very useful option for visitors spending a decent amount of time in France, it is important to be sure you are buying a pre-paid SIM, rather than accidentally signing up for a monthly plan.

Some mobile phone carriers offer very affordable monthly plans, which might look appealing to tourists. However, these plans will continue charging you after your vacation has ended, and many involve complex processes, including sending a registered cancellation letter (in French), in order to cancel the plan.

UK contracts

If you have a UK-registered mobile phone, check your plan carefully before travelling. Before Brexit, Brits benefited from the EU cap on roaming charges, but this no longer applies.

Some phone companies have announced the return of roaming charges, while others have not, or only apply roaming charges only on certain contracts.

In short, check before you set off and don’t assume that because you have never been charged extra before, you won’t be this time.

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For members

DRIVING

When – and where – to avoid driving on France’s roads this summer

Summer in France means busy roads especially on certain days throughout July and August. Here's a guide of when you might want to avoid driving and which roads you should try to steer clear of on those days.

When - and where - to avoid driving on France's roads this summer

In France, the summer holidays are nigh – schools break up for the grandes vacances on Thursday, July 7th – which means the roads will get busy in the days and weeks to come as people escape to the seaside by the carload.

And with flight cancellations, strikes and other disruptions expected at French and European airports this summer — not to mention soaring air fares — many are opting to drive to their holiday destinations despite the cost of petrol.

READ ALSO Planes, trains and roads: France’s timetable for 2022 summer strikes

Each year, France’s roads watchdog Bison Futé publishes a road traffic calendar, which lists the times of the year when travel can be particularly bad. Unsurprisingly, the summer holidays are among the heaviest travel periods, as French and foreign holidaymakers head for the sun.

It operates four levels of travel status, which are colour-coded.

Image: Bison Futé

The standard days, with ‘normal’ traffic are in coded green, meaning that circulation is running as expected. There may be a few jams on certain stretches, notably around cities, but nothing out of the ordinary. Higher traffic days are in orange.  Days with very high traffic volumes are listed in red, while extremely traffic volumes are listed in black. 

On ‘black travel’ days, Bison Futé has calculated that the combined length of all traffic jams on France’s roads could stretch a total of more than 1,000km – or the length of the country from north to south.

We’ll issue regular travel updates, like this one, throughout the summer. But for July and August, the roads monitor forecasts five black travel days, on July 9th, 23rd, and 30th, and August 6th and 13th – all Saturdays.

Only one of those days – July 30th – is graded ‘black’ for the whole of the country. That day is the notorious “chassé croisé” when traditional July holidaymakers head home, and the first of the August breakers set off on their holidays.

READ ALSO Juilletistes vs Aoûtiens: Do France’s two summer holiday tribes still exist?

Image: Bison Futé

The other ‘black days’ are for certain areas, identified by number according to the geographical area where traffic will be heaviest. The areas correspond to the numbers shown on the following graphic.

Image: Bison Futé

The busiest routes of the summer are those that lead to the coasts of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean – notably the southwest of the country, though Brittany and Normandy are also always popular. Bison Futé even highlights the direction of travel in which traffic will be heaviest – using Départs to describe travel away from main cities, such as Paris, to popular resorts, and Retours for travel away from resorts and back to the cities.

So, on July 30th, the heaviest traffic will be heading to holiday resorts, hence the black ‘extremely difficult’ code. Travel back to the cities in comparison will be classed as ‘red’ – merely ‘very difficult’.

Any route will get busy as it passes large towns or major cities, and at the toll booth entry and exit points of France’s motorways.

READ ALSO Driving in France: What is télépéage and how does it work?

Delaying your departure outside peak periods is frequently the best solution, and Bison Futé offers daily updates on the travel situation on arterial routes across France, including travel times to avoid.

These are consistently difficult stretches of French roads in the summer, but it depends on which way the traffic is heading – whether people are leaving the big cities or returning to them after holiday.

  • The A7 particularly between Vienne and Valence and the Fourvière tunnel in Lyon
  • The A7-A8 between Salon de Provence and Saint-Maximin – where two busy motorways collide
  • The A10 around Tours from Paris to Bordeaux, and the Bordeaux ringroad
  • The A9 between Nîmes and Montpellier, and between Narbonne and Perpignan
  • The A50-A55 around Marseille
  • The A8 heading to Monaco from Nice. The La Turbie toll area is a recurring nightmare for motorists
  • The A10-A71 link between Orléans and Vierzon
  • The A13-A84 between Rouen and Caen
  • The A6 and A10 motorways leading in and out of Paris  

Avoid these routes if you can, especially at peak travel times, for a holiday roadtrip that’s less fraught. For example, instead of braving the A10 around Tours, perhaps consider taking the A71, A20 and A89 to bypass the area altogether.

And the most obvious plan to escape the worst of the traffic – don’t travel on a weekend if you don’t need to.

READ ALSO ‘Something always goes wrong’: What I learned taking the train through Europe with two kids

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