While many passengers are told to turn off their cell phones or switch them to airplane mode for safety purposes, it turns out there is a financial reason for shutting the connection off. If a phone is set to connect to roaming networks, it could incur charges while in the air. One passenger learned this lesson the hard way.
Some phones are set to automatically connect to roaming networks, allowing them to maintain a signal even when traveling outside of the owner’s home area. Depending on the mobile carrier, the aircraft, and the locations being crossed, this can lead to additional charges.
An unnamed traveler, according to a report by Fox News, stored his phone in the overhead compartment on an Aer Lingus flight that was destined for the US. He didn’t turn it off before storing it, and his device was capable of roaming.
During the flight, the traveler’s phone connected to the antenna on the aircraft and used data. Since the usage was “outside an unlimited international roaming plan,” his AT&T bill included an extra charge of nearly $300.
While this doesn’t always happen, Aer Lingus confirmed that it was possible for passengers’ devices to “connect to the in-flight roaming network.” This is separate from the fee-based WiFi found on flights and is billed by the person’s carrier.
Similar situations can arise when traveling by ship as well. In 2016, Mark Stokes, a resident of West Yorkshire, ended up with a $433 bill after his phone used roaming service while riding on a cross-channel ferry. He did have a supplemental service package with his carrier to cover the use of his phone while he was abroad, but how the ferry’s network operated means that activity wasn’t included.
On planes and ships, the available networks may operate via satellite. These fall outside of traditional mobile networks, meaning normal phone tariffs are not applicable. This can result in additional charges even when a person believes they are covered.
Even if a phone isn’t actively being used, that doesn’t mean such charges are avoided. If it isn’t turned off and any apps are using data to remain up-to-date – such as email, news feeds, or social media accounts – the background activity could lead to roaming charges.