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Keeping in touch when you’re on the go

Keeping in touch with home can be a problem when you’re traveling overseas. Beyond the usual hassle of changing locations and time zones, you face a bewildering variety of call-home and call-from-home options. Moreover, phone operators of all stripes—and technologies—are notorious for trying to extract your last dollar. So it’s no surprise that we get quite a few questions such as this one: “Do you have a suggestion for good values on renting a cell phone for an international trip, or do you have another suggestion?” As is so often the case, a simple-looking question has several answers.

Cell Phones

With a cell phone, you can keep in touch, 24/7, in both directions. If you already have a GSM cell phone in the U.S. and if that phone is a “three-band” model that handles the 900 MHz bandwidth most frequently used internationally (or even better, a four-band model that also handles 1800 MHz), you can use that phone in many countries overseas. You have two options for doing this:

  • Ask your cell carrier to enable your phone and its number overseas. The advantage is that you keep your regular number, so that people automatically know how to reach you. That’s also a disadvantage: If callers don’t know you’re overseas, you’ll get lots of incoming calls at odd hours. Although you don’t have to buy anything new, the per-minute costs of both outgoing and incoming calls are high—up to $3 per minute.
  • Unlock your GSM phone (if it isn’t unlocked already) and buy temporary replacement SIM cards for the countries you’ll be visiting. Those SIM cards include pre-paid minutes, which you can add to if necessary. Expect to pay around $20 for each card (plus minutes). You get a different number for each SIM card, which you can give to anyone who matters back home. Rates on outgoing calls are low (starting at around 20 cents per minute to the U.S.), and incoming calls generally cost nothing. Or you can get a “global” SIM card that you can use in dozens of countries for about $50, with most calls costing around 50 cents per minute.

If your U.S. cell phone isn’t GSM, you can rent a GSM phone for the duration of your trip in most of the world. Rentals typically start at around $20 per week, but they can run up above $50. Ttry or for some rental options. Some tour operators pitch “free” cell phone rentals as extras on their tours. Regardless of rental rate, however, rates for both outgoing and incoming calls tend to be pretty high. Or you can buy a cheap GSM phone just for the trip, starting at around $50.

Calling cards

The simplest way to keep in touch is to use a calling card. But that covers only outgoing calls; if people back home want to reach you, they have to call through your hotel or rental unit.

Calling cards work overseas the same way as cards you use here. You dial a local or toll-free number to get access to the card’s long-haul service, then enter some sort of PIN, then the number you want to call. Typically, cards allow you to disconnect from one call and make another without having to hang up and start over with the access number. If you plan to remain at one number for an extended period, some cards permit you to “register” that number for automatic recognition so you don’t need to enter your PIN for each call.

As in the U.S., some overseas cards bill you for calls you make through a credit card; that’s generally the most convenient system. Others require prepayment of a “stored value” and deduct the cost of each call from the remaining stored value in your account. You can usually add additional value through your credit card if you need it, but you lose whatever value remains in the card when you return home.

Earlier this year, I checked rates for calling card calls to the U.S. from Australia, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom.

  • The lowest international-to-U.S. rates I found for phone cards sold in the U.S. were around three cents per minute from companies that route calls through voice-over-internet (VOIP) systems rather than through conventional cable or satellite links. Since I haven’t tried VOIP calling, I don’t know how well voice quality and consistency stack up against more traditional systems.
  • Next best are local-company calling cards sold in most important overseas destination countries, with rates ranging from five to 10 cents per minute. You buy them at convenience stores, newspaper kiosks, and other similar outlets.
  • Conventional calling cards sold in the U.S—ones that route your calls over regular telephone-utility systems—charge rates from slightly below 10 cents to more than 20 cents per minute.
  • Those highly promoted “call home” card services from major U.S. phone companies are generally the most expensive. For example, the least expensive calls on AT&T’s “USA Direct” program add an 89-cent connection charge plus a flat 99 cents per minute from more than 100 countries.

Keep in mind that these rates cover just the “long haul” costs. You can easily pay up to an additional $1 (or equivalent) each time you access the long-haul system from a public phone or your hotel room.

Some cards charge in increments as low as one second, many round off to the minute, and I found one that charges you in increments of five minutes. Obviously, the shorter the rounding period the better. Some cards even charge a “maintenance” fee up to $1 per week while you use the card.

Hotel phones

Obviously, the easiest way to call home is simply to pick up your hotel-room phone and dial the call directly. The downside? The rates can make even a quick call home cost more than your room. This option is mainly for people with more money than brains.

Which system?

Your “best” deal depends on too many factors to provide any one catch-all option. On my next extended trip to Europe I’d buy SIM card(s) for my four-band GSM phone; for a short trip, I’d buy local calling cards. But you might want to do more research. The best place I know to start is The Travel Insider, which has lots of information and links to places that sell SIMs or cheap GSM phones.

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