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Tips for Calling Home While You’re Away

Calling home, whether from a cruise ship deck or a café along the Champs-Elysées, has never been easier. While calling cards remain a cheap and efficient means of placing calls, cell phones equipped to make international calls that don’t cost a fortune are in high demand from travelers. A number of companies, from network providers to rental agencies, have responded in kind. Below are tips for picking the option that best suits your needs.

Scenario #1: You just want to have your phone in case of an emergency.

If you have a multiband phone (some countries use different frequencies than what’s used in the United States) and your service provider uses the world-standard GSM network (as do T-Mobile, Cingular, and Verizon), you can probably use your phone abroad. Roaming fees can be steep, though: 99¢ a minute is considered reasonable. And overseas, you normally pay the toll charges for incoming calls. It’s almost always cheaper to send a text message than to make a call since text messages have a very low set fee (often less than 5¢).

Scenario #2: You love calling ahead—to museums, to shops, to restaurants—just to be sure that they’re open and ready for your arrival.

If you want to use your phone to primarily make local calls, consider buying a new SIM card (note that your provider may have to unlock your phone for you to use a different SIM card) and a prepaid service plan in the destination. You’ll then have a local number and can make local calls at local rates. If your trip is extensive you could also simply buy a new cell phone in your destination, as the initial cost will be offset over time.

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Scenario #3: You have accrued enough frequent flyer miles to circle the globe—twice.

If you travel internationally frequently, save one of your old mobile phones or buy a cheap one on the Internet; ask your cell phone company to unlock it for you, and take it with you as a travel phone, buying a new SIM card with pay-as-you-go service in each destination.

Scenario #4: You’d welcome the convenience of a cell phone, but don’t have the time or energy to deal with your wireless company, buy a new phone, or figure out what SIM card to buy.

Don’t sweat it—rent it. Be sure to shop around and compare per-minute rates. Here are three companies that rent cell phones:
Mobal (tel. 888/888-9162
Cellular Abroad (tel. 800/287-5072
Planet Fone (tel. 888/988-4777

Travelers look to our Talk forum for answers to their most particular cell phone questions:

  • “The phone came with a charger and adapters for the various plugs in the EU. I just didn’t want to deal with getting to Europe, buying a phone, dealing with the SIM cards etc. I know it can be cheaper but convenience was first for me…” (more)
  • “I did buy a cell phone on eBay that is unlocked – no SIM card at all. The only problem I had with the purchase was that the charger that it came with was only good in US (voltage 120) So I bought a dual voltage charger at Target…” (more)
  • “When I was last in Italy (March) you could buy a perfectly fine low-end phone for about 60 euros…”(more)
  • “Many providers allow you to purchase enhanced coverage for a region for a specific block of time (e.g., 1 week, 1 month, etc.) and this can be set up while you’re on the phone…” (more)
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