How to Stay Connected (and Save Money) Abroad

In the days before cell phones, staying in touch while you were on the road was pretty straightforward. You found a landline, made a call, and paid your bill. But in the Information Age, it’s anything but easy.

Now, your cell phone may or may not make or take a call when you’re away (is it a GSM phone or CDMA?). It may work if you can connect to a wireless hotspot. Then again, it may not.

And then there are all those roaming charges! Communicating while you’re traveling, it turns out, isn’t that simple. I’ll help you make a connection.

Don’t bring your cell phone:

  • If your phone is incompatible with the system used in the country you’re visiting.
  • If you’re planning to leave the country for an extended period of time. Most international calling plans aren’t worth keeping for longer than a month.
  • If you are not entirely sure how to change the phone’s settings, but plan to “just use Wi-Fi” to communicate. You may hit the wrong button, and then get hit with a big roaming bill.

Bring your cell phone:

  • If you’re traveling somewhere your calling plan covers. (If you’re within the continental United States, you can feel relatively confident taking your phone anywhere.)
  • If you’re traveling internationally, and you’ve negotiated a reasonable calling plan.
  • If you’re a power user, know how to turn the roaming options on and off, know how to use a Wi-Fi hotspot, and consider yourself comfortable around a cell phone. If you have any doubts, don’t chance it; leave the phone turned off or don’t take it with you.

How do I know if my phone will work when I’m away?

The fastest way to determine whether your wireless device will work is by calling your cellular phone provider.

As a general rule, if you live in the United States, your phone should work in North and South America. Depending on the handset, it may work in Europe and Asia. Remember: Even if it’s compatible with a foreign carrier, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will make a call. You may need to activate a calling plan before you leave.

Not surprisingly, the system favors the cell phone carrier when the tables are turned. If, by chance, your phone does work overseas and someone calls it, you may be charged for the cost of the call (as high as $5 a minute) even if you don’t answer the call.

What’s the difference between CDMA and GSM—and does it really matter?

There are two major cell phone systems in current use: CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) and GSM (Global System for Mobiles). CDMA phones are dominant in North America, and GSM phones are used in much of the rest of the world.

For travelers, here’s how that translates: First, the systems aren’t compatible with each other. But some phones have the technology embedded so you may use either CDMA or GSM.

The benefit of a GSM phone is that you can remove your personal information, which is stored on a tiny card called a SIM card. That allows you to swap accounts without having to change your phone.

Theoretically, that allows you to take your phone with you when you travel. The gap between GSM and CDMA may be partially bridged by emerging technology, but don’t hold your breath—some incompatibilities will remain, probably for years to come.

So what’s the best way to communicate when I’m overseas?

Unfortunately, there’s no “one size fits all” solution.

If you’re traveling internationally or business and need to be in touch with the office at all times, your employer will probably cover the high cost of a calling plan or a SIM card. If you’re on vacation, it’s up to your budget and communication needs.

Each wireless company and manufacturer has slightly different rules and technical specifications for its handsets. Check their websites or visit one of their stores if you have specific questions.

For most leisure travelers, the following options are worth considering:

> Stay offline. It’s your vacation, after all.

Obviously, you’ll want to have some way of communicating with friends and family back home, but isn’t that what we have landlines for?

Between a public phone (get a calling card) and the occasional internet cafe, you’ll have plenty of choices when you’re away.

Why keep your devices on while you’re off the clock? Seriously, consider powering down your cell phone for the duration of your trip. You can do it!

> Consider a subscription-based Wi-Fi service. Companies such as Boingo, a subscription-based service that lets you connect to a network of hotspots at airports and other public areas, may offer the most bang for your buck.

For a monthly subscription fee, you can connect to a relatively fast wireless network. Boingo connects to hundreds of thousands of hotspots, and its iPhone app also helps you detect any wireless hotspot, free or otherwise.

You can use the high-speed connection to access a service like Skype or Google Voice to make free or reduced-rate phone calls.

> Try pay-as-you-go Wi-Fi. Another popular option is the pay-as-you-go wireless option. You can connect to a wireless network in your hotel, which allows your smartphone to make internet-based calls and get online.

In most full-service hotels, the wireless connection in the lobby is free, but you pay a daily fee to use it in your room. At budget hotels, the price of an unlimited Wi-Fi connection is usually included with the cost of your room.

> Spring for the pricey calling plan. Your wireless company would be happy to add a calling plan to your phone, but pay close attention to the pricing.

Not only will you pay extra for the plan, but you’ll probably also prepay for a certain number of minutes, and you’ll only get a discount on calls made and received internationally—a discount from the cellular phone company’s steep markup. If you’re on vacation, you may use it only a few times.

  • Tip: Though they don’t publicize it, most wireless carriers let you retroactively buy an international plan. So, if you’re overseas and you’ve already made a few calls then remember that you don’t have a plan, relax. Call your carrier, select a plan, and monitor your next bill closely.

> Purchase a SIM card. The SIM card, a small electronic memory card that identifies and configures your phone, can be swapped out on some phones, depending on the type of handset and whether the manufacturer allows it.

The most sophisticated phone users buy inexpensive SIM cards and use them for local phone calls and to receive international calls.

You can buy an inexpensive SIM card when you arrive, or you can buy one online. You will get a new local phone number when you switch cards.

If you’re planning to receive long-distance calls or need to conduct conference calls while you’re on vacation—and I sincerely hope you don’t—then a SIM card in most countries allows free incoming calls. You only pay when you call out.

In the United States, both ends pay for a wireless call. Go figure.

> Rent a phone. Companies such as PlanetFone and TravelCell will rent a phone on a weekly or monthly basis, which will allow you to make local calls.

The rates are pretty reasonable—less than $100 a month—but there’s a catch: You’re not getting a state-of-the-art smartphone that lets you conduct all of your social media business, take photos, and shoot videos.

It’s a basic phone that makes calls. Plus, the per-minute call rates may be significantly higher than on your regular cell phone.

> Buy a calling card. A prepaid phone card that allows you to make long-distance phone calls for a flat fee. To use a card, you call an access number—either a toll-free number or a local number—then follow the voice prompts to enter your personal identification number (PIN).

The cards can save a significant amount of money if you need to make a lot of phone calls to home base, whether you’re traveling domestically or internationally, but there’s a downside: They may also have a few surprise fees waiting for you. (See “Help, I’ve been scammed by a phone card!” below.)

Any questions?

If everything went smoothly all the time, I’d be out of a job. Here are some questions and concerns I hear from time to time.

Help, I’ve been scammed by a phone card! 

Phone cards can save you a lot of money if you need to make frequent calls back home when you’re overseas. They can also cost you more money than you expect.

One pitfall is your hotel, which may offer “free” and unlimited local calls, but charge a per-minute fee for calling certain numbers, including toll-free ones.

The best way to avoid this communication trap is to use a public phone or to use a cell phone to make the call.

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The other potential problem is the calling card. Your card may advertise that you can make thousands of minutes of calls for one low fee, but it often fails to also disclose that you’ll be assessed multiple surcharges that could make the phone card worth a lot less. Be careful to read the terms and conditions associated with the card.

The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates phone cards in the United States, has issued millions of dollars of fines against phone card providers for trying to deceive customers. It recommends that, in addition to reading the instructions, users pay close attention to all of the fine print included on the back of the card or the packaging, and that they make sure they understand the rates, conditions, and limitations that apply.

Look for additional fees, including terms like post-call, disconnect, hang-up, and maintenance, all of which refer to additional charges you pay when you make calls.

If you think you’ve been scammed by a phone card, you can file a complaint with the FCC’s Consumer Center by calling 1-888-CALL-FCC. That is, if you still have minutes left on your phone card.

My cell phone is locked. Many cell phones in the United States are “locked,” which means you can’t just swap out a SIM card. The only way to be sure if this is the case is to call your provider. Your phone can be unlocked independently, but you may run afoul of your mobile contract, the law, or both.

While it’s possible to unlock a phone via a repair specialist, a better way is to buy an unlocked phone to begin with. You’ll be able to use it on any compatible network.

Unlocked phones can be purchased directly through a wireless company, but you can also find them on Craigslist or eBay. You carrier will also unlock your phone at the end of your contract. All you have to do is ask.

What are hotel phones good for, anyway?

If you need to call another guest in the hotel or get in touch with the front desk, then by all means, use the phone in your hotel.

Otherwise, don’t touch it.

For years, hotels made obscene profits from their phones. Since wireless devices have cut into those profits, hotels in some countries have looked for clever ways of keeping the money coming.

Look out for the phone trap in the following places:

> Hotels in remote areas with little or no cell service. When the landline is the only game in town, then you’ll pay more. Lots more, probably. Years ago, I was hot on the trail of one hotel that installed cell phone blocking devices in-house, ostensibly to boost its landline profits. Very clever!

> Hotels offering “free” local calls. Some hotels offer “free” local calls as an enticement to use their phones. Only, they don’t really define “local,” and may not mention that they charge a fee to call a toll-free number. Read the fine print in your guest directory for the unfortunate details.

> Hotels in countries where cell phones haven’t been widely adopted. In developing countries where cell phones aren’t widely used, you’re much more likely to find a predatory hotel. But remember, these unscrupulous hotels can be anywhere.

> Bottom line: If you need the convenience of a cell phone while you’re abroad, be prepared to spend money on a calling plan or a SIM card. If you don’t require 24/7 access, you can still get all the conveniences of wireless communication by using a Wi-Fi signal from your hotel or at the airport. Or, you can unplug.

This piece was adapted from Christopher Elliott’s book How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler (National Geographic Books). 

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