When traveling overseas, we generally take good care in packing whatever we need to make the experience as familiar as possible – whether its toothpaste, laptop, or our camera. One component that isn’t so easy to bring along is our mobile phone – both for technological and budgetary reasons.
It can be useful having a cell phone to stay in touch with friends/family back in the US or for use locally in making or confirming reservations, hours of operation, etc. In addition, if you are traveling with a group of people and want to go different directions during the trip; having a cell phone allows you to keep in contact and schedule rendezvous.
Using your US cell phone to make international calls back to the US can be prohibitively expensive. Although many US carriers offer ‘World Phones’, the fees charged to actually use them overseas are ridiculous (through a few carriers will unlock select phones if you meet certain criteria).
It’s important to note this article doesn’t necessarily apply to Business travel – as your company will likely provide you with an expense paid company phone when traveling overseas. With that in mind, here are a few options for making calls while out of the country.
- Computer Calling – Instead of using a telephone to connect to your friends and family, use your computer to place free calls anywhere around the world. Software like Yahoo Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger, and Windows Live all have video calling as part of their feature list (each party needs to use the same software). The most popular of the free video calling apps – Skype – also allows you to make calls to any mobile or landline phone in the US for a small fee. Perhaps a better option is Google Voice; not only does it do computer-to-computer calling – you can also call cell phones and landlines for free (only in North America). The downside to using computer to computer calling is it requires a computer, so it is not the best mobile option. It also requires a broadband Internet connection – which may not be free or stable in your hotel/cafe.
- Calling Card – Just like in many US gas stations, prepaid International Calling cards allow you to make relatively cheap calls to any number back in the states. Simply purchase the number of minutes upfront and talk until you run out of money. Beware, some calling card outfits charge a connection fee every time you make a call – on top of the per minute fee. A quick check online shows 2 cents a minute from the UK back to the states. Of course, you’ll need to find a public phone to use these.
- Rent phone or SIM – If you want to make calls wherever you are and not bother looking for a public phone, carrying a mobile phone is a convenient option. There are two ways to go about this:
- Rent Entire Phone – Rental units can be shipped to your US address before you leave or picked up at the airport of your destination. You pay a fee to rent the unit and a per minute fee for actual calls made. For example, a company called CellHire offers rented cell phones in Europe for $20 a week, free incoming calls, and .35/.45 cent a minute for domestic and international respectively.
- Rent SIM Only – If you have a phone that will work, you can simply rent a SIM card for your phone. The advantage here is you aren’t using someone else’s equipment – thus you are already familiar with the functionality. It’s also a little less expensive than renting the entire phone and way less expensive that using your US carrier’s international calling option. On the downside, your phone may not actually work in the country in which you’ll be traveling. US carrier networks/bands are different than most all international locales – so you’ll need a GSM Tri or Quad Band capable phone to take advantage of this.
- Your Phone Service – This option allows you to use your existing phone service to make international calls. All calls you make are billed to your existing account – no need to use a credit card or prepay anything. There are essentially two ways to do this:
- International Calling Plan – With this option, you call ahead and ask your carrier to place you on a specific calling plan meant to provide reduced rates while overseas. While this is certainly convenient, US carriers aren’t even in the ballpark when it comes to price per minute comparisons with renting a phone or using a calling card. Also, these calling plans generally only cover voice calls – text messages and data fees are usually separate (Translation: Expensive).
- International Roaming – With this, you don’t call ahead and just use your phone and hope for the best. Not a good option. A buddy of mine got charged $5,000 for 3 days while in Canada by AT&T. AT&T isn’t unique in this matter – so only use this option unless you absolutely have no other options.
- Satellite Phone – Though not the most popular option, it is the only option in some places in the world. If you are going on a Safari in Kenya – it is unlikely there will be traditional cell towers out in the brush. In these cases, a Satellite phone is your only option. Be careful, satellite phones tend to be huge in size and very expensive – both in activation and per minute fees.
- Local Calling – Another option is to use whatever local calling option is available, e.g., hotel concierge, executive lounges, or room phones. In addition, public phone booths are actually fairly prevalent in most of Western Europe (your mileage may vary in other countries).
Finally, there is one other option – don’t make any calls. I have never needed to call back to the US while overseas. That’s not to say I haven’t communicated – I have. Email and/or instant messaging work fine for letting folks know I’ve arrived safely at my destination and it works well for reserving activities or tours. Remember, this is a ‘vacation’ – you won’t be taking full advantage of this trip if you are on the phone back to the states all day!