For too long, travellers have been plagued by excessive roaming charges.
Roaming plans without any price caps that are difficult to understand and use were too often responsible for hundreds of dollars in fees.
Fortunately, over the past three years, local telcos have addressed the concerns of customers and the result is a streamlined, affordable menu of data-roaming plans, helping travellers stay connected while they journey overseas.
StarHub, for instance, cut its roaming plans from more than 10 to five simple plans over the past three years.
In 2015, M1 went a step further and launched a single platform, Data Passport, which allows customers to use their existing data plans overseas.
Since then, M1 has seen its pool of active data-roaming users rise by more than 200 per cent. Data-roaming traffic has increased eight-fold.
Associate Professor Goh Kim Huat, at the division of information technology and operations management at Nanyang Technological University, says prices have dropped and will likely continue to drop as local telcos respond to consumer demand and competition.
"Consumers increasingly need to remain constantly connected to the Internet - even mid-air now - and this spurs demand like never before.
"This inherent demand drives innovation in supply and leads to competition from alternative providers of mobile data. If telcos do not decrease their data-roaming prices, there are various ways consumers can bypass these services," he says.
Telcos already face stiff competition from other services, such as rentable pocket-sized Wi-Fi routers and traveller-targeted local SIM cards, which have entered the market in recent years.
It is good news for data-dependent travellers, who now have a range of plans to suit their connection needs.
Mr How Wei Jie first used a Wi-Fi router on a trip two years ago and still prefers it for its ability to connect to multiple devices.
The 26-year-old, a co-owner of Poke Doke restaurant in Millenia Walk, travels three or four months a year. "I have my phone, my laptop and my iPad, and if I use an overseas SIM card or a data plan, I would have to tether everything to my phone. This will be very expensive and the connection may not be as good," he says.
The palm-sized router is handy on family trips as the group can plan their journey, look up reviews and check directions on the go. "There are six of us. If I had bought a roaming plan or a SIM card, my family members would also have to buy their own plans. A router is more cost-effective."
The Changi Recommends travel service company offers popular router options. Travellers place their order at least one day before their trip on www.changirecommends.com, then pick up and return their router at 24-hour Changi Recommends booths located in every terminal. Payment is due upon return.
The router costs $5 a day for Hong Kong, South Korea, Thailand, Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam; $8 a day for China, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia; and $12 a day for Australia, Europe and the United States. It connects up to six devices and offers unlimited data.
Routers from Yourwifi (yourwifi.com.sg) cost $6 to $38 a day, depending on the destination, and can be used in dozens of far-flung countries, including Mongolia, Argentina and Fiji. Travellers order their routers at least two days in advance. The router can be picked up at the Yourwifi store in Eu Tong Sen Street or delivered for $7.
Y5Buddy (y5buddy.sg) rents routers at $5 to $10 a day for destinations in Asia, $12 to $15 for the Americas and $10 to $20 for selected countries elsewhere. The order should be made a few days prior to the trip. Collect the router at International Plaza or have it delivered for $5. There is a minimum three-day rental and a $50 refundable deposit.
Travellers can maintain their local number while browsing online without incurring extra charges. Wi-Fi routers can connect to five to 10 devices at one time.
Connection will be limited to the battery life of the router, so travellers may need to carry a powerbank.
Travellers may also be limited by the Fair Usage Policy in some countries, which asserts a daily threshold on high-speed Internet connections, so that users do not take advantage of the "unlimited" service. Once the threshold is reached, users can still connect to Wi-Fi, but at slower speeds. Daily rental is expensive in less frequented destinations.
When photographer and Web developer Samuel Ow, 26, first travelled for work some years back, he relied on data-roaming plans from his local telco. But after he racked up a $522 bill on a 10-day trip to Europe in 2013, he switched to overseas SIM cards.
His work is heavily based on the Internet and Instagram is an important marketing tool for him. He requires at least 1.5 to 2GB of data for seven days overseas, in addition to Wi-Fi in hotels.
"The price per megabyte offered by telcos is too high. Loading my Instagram page alone would cost me and it would cost much more to load a video. If I buy a SIM card overseas, I save much more money and the coverage and reception is better," he says.
Even though juggling overseas SIM cards and not being able to receive calls to his Singapore number can be inconvenient, he lives with that. The prices of roaming packages will have to drop further before he switches back.
Dual SIM card smartphones such as the Xiaomi Mi Note 2 allow travellers to toggle between two SIM cards. They can keep their local telco SIM card in place to receive calls and text messages, but toggle to an overseas SIM for data.
Short-term pre-paid SIM cards can be purchased at telco shops around the world. Some telcos have pre-packaged SIM cards for tourists.
Thai telco AIS (www.ais.co.th), for instance, sells Traveller SIM cards, ranging from 299 baht (S$12) to 599 baht. The 299 baht card provides 100 baht worth of free local talk time and unlimited data for one week, though the first 1GB will be at a maximum 2.5GB speed and subsequent data usage will be slower.T
ravellers can purchase the cards at the airport in Thailand or at Changi Recommends booths in Changi Airport and add more data to the cards as needed.
In Hong Kong, pick up the Discover Hong Kong Tourist SIM Card, which provides unlimited local calls and either 1.5GB of data with a five-day pass (HK$88 or S$16) or 5GB of data with an eight-day pass (HK$118), both at 4G speed. Travellers can purchase the cards at the Hong Kong International Airport arrival hall or at more than 1,000 convenience stores in the city.
High quality, often unlimited connectivity at an affordable price. Travellers are still contactable via Internet-based calling services such as Skype and Viber.
Overseas SIM cards can be difficult to find and purchase, especially if one does not speak the local language. On multi-destination trips, travellers will likely need to buy a different card in every country. They will not receive calls and text messages directed to their Singapore number.
Data roam with telcos
Mr Gerald Wang, 36, is overseas 60 to 70 per cent of the time for his job as head of government technology at consulting firm IDC Asia/Pacific. Remaining connected on the go - and being able to respond to calls and e-mail from clients - is an important part of his job.
"I love to have data on the go, especially when it's my first time in the country. I use my data to look up directions and see if the taxi drivers are cheating me. It's important for personal security and for staying connected," he says.
These days, travellers can easily see what data-roaming plans are available at their destination and sign up for them with text messages to telcos and via telco apps and websites.
When travelling around Asia, Mr Wang uses M1's Data Passport, which allows him to use his local data plan overseas. Overall, he is happy with it, though connection can be sluggish in some developing countries, such as Vietnam, where he found that the available data was too slow to load image-heavy websites and apps like Facebook. He had to wait till he was in a Wi-Fi zone to connect.
"For WhatsApp or Google Maps, it's fine. But for personal use, to post on social media, it can get frustrating. One needs to temper expectations and be realistic. Different countries will present different experiences."
M1's Data Passport is a monthly subscription service which allows customers to use their local data plan when they are travelling overseas, without needing to pay for extra data. If customers exceed their local data bundles while overseas, they will be billed just $10.70 per GB, with a monthly cap of $188.32. Data Passport is available in 56 countries and costs $10, $25 or $50 to use, depending on the destination.
M1's prepaid customers can also use their prepaid local data in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Macau, Malaysia and Taiwan at no additional charge.
Of StarHub's five roaming plans, DataTravel is the newest and has the best value. At $15 for 2GB or $20 for 3GB, the data is good for 30 days and can be used in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand.
Or buy a Happy Roam prepaid SIM card for $15, $32 or $50 at locations islandwide, including 7-Eleven, Cheers and SingPost stores, or online at the StarHub website and pick it up at Changi Airport.
Travellers can top up the card with their preferred data-roaming package, which charges Singapore data rates, from $5 for 1GB of data to $20 for 3.6GB. The card can be used in 11 places, including Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan and Malaysia.
For the widest roaming coverage, Singtel's five data plans offer connections in 113 destinations. Starting at $20, Singtel's ReadyRoam package provides 1GB of data which can be used in any of the 26 partner countries across Asia, Europe, the United States and Canada for 30 days. If customers exceed their 1GB bundle, they can continue to roam at the package's data prices.
Singtel also offers affordable monthly subscription packages for Australia and Malaysia. The DataRoam Saver Australia Monthly and DataRoam Saver Malaysia Monthly plans cost $10 for 1GB, with excess data charged at the same local rate in Australia and Malaysia. In other destinations, customers can buy the Data Roam Daily 100MB Plan, which costs $10 for 100MB and can be used in more than 100 countries.
Singtel even helps customers to stay connected in the air with its In-flight Unlimited Data Plan Value. For a fixed $29 a flight, travellers can access unlimited data for their entire in-flight journey, as long as the flight time is within a 24-hour period from activating the package.
Travellers will remain contactable and continue to receive calls and text messages on their local number. They can lock onto their telco's preferred networks to avoid excess charges and also set spending caps easily via their telco app or website to prevent exorbitant bills.
There are many plans, from low- to unlimited-data plans, so travellers can make a selection according to their needs. Many modern data-roaming plans work across multiple countries, so there is no need to change plans or SIM cards while travelling.
Even though the price of data-roaming plans has dropped dramatically over the past few years, it can still be quite expensive to roam in countries where local telcos do not have premium partnerships. In some countries, buying an overseas SIM card may still provide more data for less money.
The telco's overseas partner network may provide slower, inferior connection to the high speeds Singaporeans are used to.