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Why I was charged $130 for watching a movie in Vancouver, BC

If you're trying to watch a movie while abroad, and you're using data instead of WiFi, you might be shocked by the charges to you phone bill. (Image courtesy Netflix)

If you’re planning a trip to Vancouver, B.C. or anywhere else internationally you could end up with a shockingly high cell phone bill if you’re not careful.

Our family took a quick trip to Vancouver for New Year’s. We found a good rate at a hotel and had no plans on spending a lot of money.

That changed after my 12-year-old son downloaded a movie on his cell phone. That movie cost more than $130.

I found out our story isn’t uncommon.

Maggie Reardon, a technology columnist for CNet, says a lot of people traveling to Canada or to other parts of the world with their smart phones are often shocked when they get their bills.

“It used to be that you just had to worry about making phone calls or receiving phone calls while you were traveling, and that can be quite expensive and actually a lot more expensive than voice calls,” says Reardon.

In some cases, the data roaming charges are in the thousands of dollars, turning a dream vacation into a nightmare.

“If your phone is set to give you alerts when you get new messages from Facebook or when you’re getting new tweets – all of that is data,” according to Reardon. “If you’re over the border somewhere then you’re going to be roaming.”

If you have an iPhone, she says you can get dinged just by checking your voicemail. When you go into your voicemail file and listen to a voicemail, Reardon says that’s all going over the data network. That usage will then be charged at the data rate, which is much higher than the voice phone call.

Reardon says you can travel abroad and use your smartphone without breaking the bank. First, go into your phone settings and turn the “data roaming” and “fetch new data features” off.

Or, if you have a little time before your vacation, consider buying an international data package…which has greatly discounted rates.

Do not download video on your smartphone while traveling, or if you do, go to a WiFi hotspot.

“Do it in the hotel WiFi hotspot or in a cafe or something like that. But if you’re going to go over the regular cellular network, you’re going to be roaming and you’re going to rack up a lot of charges,” says Reardon.

You might get hit with higher chargers even if you stay stateside, however. If you’re traveling close to Canada, for example, going to Blaine or even the San Juan Islands, you could get hit with higher roaming charges if the strongest signal is on the other side of the border. That happened to KIRO reporter Chris Sullivan when he was at Semiahmoo. It happens to Canadian cellphone customers in places like White Rock, B.C. where their phones are automatically switching to a U.S. network.

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