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What's the Best Way to Connect With Home From Europe?

AskEd & AnswerEd
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Woman laughing on mobile phone (Photo: iStockPhoto.com/Anna Bryukhanova)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on November 28, 2010. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: AskEd & AnswerEd, Ed Perkins, Europe, family travel, hotel, senior travel, technology and gadget.

Over the years, I've developed sort of a "school solution" to the question of the best way to keep in touch while you're overseas: Have or get a wireless phone that uses the GSM system, get a local-country or local-region SIM card for that phone, and use it for incoming and outgoing calls. But a reader recently took me up on that recommendation:

"In the smartphone age, is getting a local SIM card still the best way to keep in touch?"

The short answer is, "Yes, it still is for many people, but you now have more alternatives." Since our last review, communication has changed in two important ways: "Smartphones" have become a big factor among wireless users, and texting has supplanted voice for many travelers.

The Starting Point—What to Avoid

All the fuss about making special arrangements for phone communications to/from Europe is because the default approaches can result in gouges:

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  • The worst way to phone home is to pick up the hotel room phone and use its "convenient" direct-dial system. A three-minute call can set you back $10 or $15, and many hotels charge $1 or more for each incoming call as well.
  • Although your regular AT&T and T-Mobile wireless phones—and a few others—work in Europe, you'll pay anywhere from 99 cents to $2.49 per minute for each call or 50 cents for each message And most older Verizon and Sprint Nextel phones don't work at all.
  • If you just want to be able to report occasionally, you can also use a phone card from a local pay phone—that's cheap, but a long way from 24/7 availability.

    The bottom line is that for a combination of 24/7 availability and low cost, you have to use a wireless service—either your regular service, if it works, or a special service for your trip.

    Wireless 101—for the Non-Techies

    This section is for those of you who aren't up on the latest technologies. In much of the world these days, you potentially have access to two completely different wireless communications systems:

  • The GSM wireless phone system is used in more than 200 countries, including virtually all of Europe. You seldom have to worry about finding a "hot spot" to make or receive a call. The downside, however, is that access to the wireless phone system is available only through some telephone system, and, for the most part, you pay by the call or by the message.
  • Wireless Internet service (Wi-Fi) is increasingly available throughout much of the developed world, including many hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, libraries, and other locations. If you have a computer equipped for Wi-Fi, you can access the Internet any time you're in a "hot spot" with appropriate signal strength. Once you're in a "hot spot," your usage is unmeasured. But the downside is that lots of public Wi-Fi hot spots, including many at hotels, are "security enabled," and you have to pay for access by the hour or by the day.

    The CDMA wireless phone system that Verizon, Sprint/Nextel, and several smaller companies use in North America doesn't work at all in Europe.

    VOIP—The "App" Revolution

    With a computer and Wi-Fi access, you can use systems such as Skype and Vonage for calls. Once connected to Wi-Fi, calls to and from other users are "free" and calls to/from landlines and conventional cellular phones are inexpensive—the Internet really doesn't care where you are.

    Until recently, however, you needed a portable laptop or notebook computer with Wi-Fi to use VOIP for calls. But these days, smartphones are actually rather powerful computers, and you can use many of them to access the Internet without the need for any other computer.

    The best apps for calling back from overseas are those that either (1) can work solely through the Internet, without any GSM involvement at all, or (2) can send voice messages using the "data" quota on your GSM phone billing system—generally more generous than the voice charges. Apps that provide "cheap" international calling only from the U.S. or those that connect with local access numbers are not useful for calls placed from international locations. Although rate plans vary, you can generally call for less than 10 cents a minute, and many calls are "free." Check the Internet for apps that work with your phone; this report is a good place to start.

    Local/Regional SIM Cards—Still Good

    As we've noted many times before, almost all of Europe uses the GSM system for wireless phones. If your current wireless phone also uses GSM, you can buy local or regional SIM cards to substitute for your regular SIM card while you're traveling. Our earlier report has the details on where and how to buy SIM cards and the possible need to "unlock" your phone. Calls to the U.S. or Canada can cost as little as 7 cents a minute and incoming calls are "free" with a single-country SIM card, and much less than you'd pay through your regular wireless system. However, you have to consider the up-front cost of the temporary SIM card, typically at least $20 or so.

    If you want to use your phone just for occasional emergency calls, you're probably better off sticking to your regular GSM phone. If so, you might want to sign up for your carrier's international "roaming" option that cuts the cost of those calls. With AT&T, the largest domestic GSM system, international roaming costs $5.99 per month and reduces the cost of calls from the more important tourist destination countries from the usual $1.29 per minute to 99 cents.

    Although Verizon, Sprint/Nextel, and several smaller wireless carriers nominally use only the incompatible CDMA system, a few of the newer Android, BlackBerry, and other smartphones include a GSM capability. If you have an earlier CDMA phone, however, your only option is to buy or rent a GSM phone for the duration of your trip.

    If you're content to keep in touch with messages and texting rather than voice, your regular phone plan may include enough service to get you through a trip. Check your rate plan for particulars.

    Which Way to Go?

    Local SIM card, international roaming, or VOIP? That choice depends on (1) whether you already own a smartphone or GSM phone, (2) how much calling you expect to do, and (3) whether you have to pay for Wi-Fi access in your destination. Obviously, there is no "one size fits all" solution. However, my current take is to consider two options:

  • If you just want to keep in touch, stick with the GSM connection—international roaming for limited use, local SIM card for heavier use. But if you decide to use your regular phone's roaming service, be sure to disable any built-in apps that eat up a lot of megabytes automatically. And if you don't have your own GSM phone, buy a cheap throwaway for the trip.
  • If you're likely to want extended broadband access beyond just occasional phoning or messaging, a VOIP option is probably your best bet.

    Your Turn

    How do you keep in touch when traveling overseas? Tell us by adding a comment below!

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