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We all have regrets — money regrets, that is. But, like all mistakes, we wouldn't be who — or where — we are today without them. In our "Money Fails" series, real people share how they bounced back from financial slip-ups, and what they learned along the way.
Here, a frugal traveler’s budget is derailed after an unexpected overseas phone call lands her with a costly phone bill.
When I set out to Peru last fall on vacation, I had great expectations. Not only was it my first trip overseas, but it was also a bargain thanks to travel hacking (the delicate artform of using credit cards rewards and frequent flier miles to get free stuff).
I had an amazing time hiking to Machu Picchu and attempting to haggle in Spanish in the markets.
Even better? When I reached the end of my two-week trip, I’d spent a mere $650. I was ecstatic. It was my first experience with travel hacking, and I’d crushed it.
A Change of Plans
Then Hurricane Irma struck and closed down my inbound airport the night before I was supposed to return home.
I got an email alerting me that my flight had been canceled, and that I needed to call customer service to reschedule another flight out. No worries, I thought. I signed up for an international calling plan before I left, because I’m so travel-savvy. I congratulated myself silently.
I then spent almost two hours on the phone with the airline’s customer service as they tried to deal with hundreds of people trying to get out of Peru. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get on a flight for another five days — adding even more costs onto the trip. And, the worst expense was yet to come.
An Unexpected Bill
Luckily, I made it home OK. I even got to take my first surfing lessons with the extra time — a deal at just $20. And when my next phone bill came with just an extra $30 charge for the international calling plan, I was relieved.
It wasn’t until the next month that the real bombshell dropped. Apparently, it took them a little while to tally up all of the charges from my emergency phone call — which came to $302.34.
Outraged, I immediately went to the store to dispute the charge. I was confident that a mistake had been made, but was quickly informed otherwise. Because what I hadn’t noticed in the fine print of my contract was that my international plan only gave me a reduced rate for international calls. So, instead of paying something like $1/minute, I paid $0.60/minute. After even speaking with the manager, who wouldn’t budge, I gave in, paid it and left defeated.
What I Should Have Done
Looking back, there are two things I wish I’d done differently. The first would have been to research all of my options *before* I went on my trip. Besides the international plan I chose, there are also international SIM cards. Or, for frequent travelers, there are some phone carriers that offer plans that automatically extend to several countries, says Holly Johnson, a frugal travel expert.
“Not only is it more affordable than buying SIM cards or buying an international plan for each trip, but it is extremely convenient to arrive in your destination and have your phone work as normal from the moment you land,” says Johnson.
Of course, I never expected a natural disaster to impact my trip, and may very well have still gone with the basic international phone plan — and run into the same bill.
The second thing I would do differently was how I handled the bill. Instead of going to the store, consumer advocate Chris Elliot recommends writing the executives of the company directly with a clear-cut strategy.
“Wireless companies often back down when a customer confronts them with an outrageous bill. It's just a matter of appealing it to the right executive, in writing,” says Elliot, who advises you be patient, persistent and polite for best results when negotiating.
While this experience was a frustrating — and costly — ordeal, it definitely hasn’t discouraged me from traveling abroad. It’s a learning experience — one of many that I hope to take in stride. Next time I go overseas, if something unfortunate happens and results in a another surprise bill, I’ll know what to do.