Turn off your mobile when you're on a flight

Tourists who forget to switch off their mobile phones while travelling by air or sea are at risk of being hit by ‘accidental roaming’ charges.

Roaming fees apply to mobile phones or tablets used abroad. In recent years these costs have been capped to prevent soaring bills, but such price restrictions do not apply to satellite systems on aeroplanes and boats.

If a smartphone picks up a signal from the vessel’s own on-board system, the traveller can incur mobile roaming charges of several pounds per megabyte – the data needed for browsing just one single webpage.

Roaming charges: Price restrictions do not apply to satellite systems on aeroplanes and boats

This can happen even if a passenger is not actively using their phone. Smartphone apps can update in the background, eating up data in the process.

The phone only needs to be switched on with data roaming enabled for charges to occur.

Airlines and cruise-liners are under pressure to cater for round-the-clock phone and internet access, which means ‘bill shock’ for accidental roaming could become more of a problem.

On-board satellite systems are premium services with prices to match and are not subject to the same roaming caps that exist when on land.

A passenger flying from Ireland to the US last month learned this expensive lesson the hard way.

He forgot to switch off his mobile during the flight and left it in the overhead baggage compartment. It automatically connected to the airline’s on-board system, triggering charges of more than GBP200 from his mobile network back home.

Caught out? Here’s how to challenge costs

Unresolved complaints between mobile networks and customers are handled by Ombudsman Services.

It says that cases of accidental roaming in the skies and at sea are rare but do crop up – most often by boat.

Jonathan Lenton, the communications ombudsman, says: ‘We have seen cases like this, but there is quite a lot of consumer protection in relation to roaming. If the charges were for within the EU, they could be challenged.’

Rules also stipulate that when travelling outside of the EU there should be a ?50 (GBP45) cap on data usage unless a customer has opted out of it. A welcome text explaining charges should also be received whenever someone from the UK lands in a new country.

If these conditions are not met there may be grounds to have fees waived.

Lenton adds: ‘If usage was made outside of the EU, the customer opted out of the automatic data cap and received a text, they will be liable for any resulting charges.’

Major UK mobile networks say the easiest way to avoid roaming charges in the air and at sea is to put a phone in flight mode, switch off data roaming or turn off the phone. The companies also say they cannot prevent a phone from connecting to an available signal if the phone is enabled to do so.

Anyone who wishes to dispute a roaming charge should first raise the issue with their mobile provider. If the company disagrees or refuses to help, the complaint can be referred to Ombudsman Services for free.

Visit ombudsman-services.org/communications[1] or call 0330 440 1614.

Ferry passengers have been caught out by hefty fees of hundreds of pounds when their mobiles automatically connected to the on-board system, even when sailing past European countries where networks do not charge extra for roaming.

Many passengers are likely to switch on their mobiles to take photos during a cruise, meaning they can be caught out despite not actively using their phones to browse the internet.

One in-flight internet service is AeroMobile. If a phone is switched on, with data roaming enabled, it can pick up the signal.

If the network provider has an agreement with AeroMobile a customer can be charged for any usage during the flight.

Vodafone charges up to GBP7.20 per megabyte of data for airline connections. Three mobile charges GBP6 per megabyte.

Customers of EE can buy a data add-on for aircraft – at GBP36 per day for just five megabytes. Some systems require a separate payment and log-in process, protecting customers from automatic connection and ensuing bills.

But anyone charged extra should contact their mobile provider to ensure fees are valid – because administrative blunders can arise.

Customers might be charged roaming fees when their phones connect to a signal from a network in a nearby country – even if they are thousands of feet above it or miles from shore. If that country is in the EU there should be no additional cost.

Double-checking proved worthwhile for Alexandra Lucas, who was ready to absorb a sizeable bill this month for a small amount of data used in December.

Alexandra, who is in her 30s and lives in Surrey, absent-mindedly refreshed a social media account on her smartphone while on a flight to New York for a long weekend.

As a result, she was charged GBP40 worth of roaming charges during a brief spell in Norwegian air space.

She says: ‘I did it without thinking. When I saw the bill, I thought it was weird that I was charged for mobile roaming in Scandinavia when travelling from London to New York.

‘But I understand it was my fault for using the phone on board an aeroplane – and it was an expensive mistake I will not be repeating.’ The GBP40 charge was for eight megabytes of data usage in Norway – the equivalent of nearly one minute usage of a smartphone app.

By comparison, in New York she used up to ten times that amount of data each day and was billed half the sum – at GBP20 – for the entire US trip.

The Mail on Sunday encouraged Alexandra to challenge the charge – on the grounds that Norway is in the European Economic Area and data used should come out of her normal monthly allowance under ‘roam like at home’ rules.

Since June 2017 these rules have allowed UK tourists to pay the same for phone usage abroad as they would at home while travelling in the European Economic Area – including Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.

Alexandra’s network agreed and refunded the GBP40.

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References

  1. ^ ombudsman-services.org/communications (ombudsman-services.org)

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