Cell Phone Tips for Travelers

  • Going Places?

    With more Americans spurning ‘staycations’ in favor of long-distance jaunts to Paris and Tokyo, cost-conscious travelers are probably wondering how they’ll save on cell phone bills abroad. Sure, there’s a dizzying array of ways to stay in touch, but not all are cost-effective, or even worth the effort. And many are just plain confusing. Still, if you’re traveling outside our borders this holiday season, you’ll probably need voice communication and access to your e-mail. MainStreet tapped the experts for tips on both, so whether you travel a little, travel a lot or just love to talk, you’ll be prepared no matter where you are. Photo Credit: Getty Images
    Hello, Operator
  • Hello, Operator

    Samir Kathari, vice president of products and the co-founder of finance website Bill Shrink, says travelers should ask themselves two things before boarding the plane: First, “Do you need your phone to ring locally?” And second, “what is your current plan?” Chances are, you’re either a short- or long-term traveler, and depending on those needs, you’ll either want to keep, amend or forgo your current plan. Before traveling, call your provider to get the scoop on international rates. Get answers to these three questions: 1.    How much will I pay per minute for calls back to the U.S. and for domestic in-country calls? (Note that rates vary from country to country, and sometimes even by region within a country.) 2.    Will I pay if my phone rings and I don’t pick up? 3.    How much will I pay to send and receive SMS messages? 4.    Is there a data service I can sign up for? What are the rates? Sky-high fees—$2.99 per minute in Malaysia, for example, if you’re using AT&T —will likely astound you, but at least you’ll know what you’re working with. “Everyone’s so addicted to being in touch, we’re afraid of losing touch,” says Johnny Jet, founder of the travel site johnnyjet.com. “The horror stories are of people going abroad without updating their plan.” Photo Credit: Getty Images
    Hang Up on Roaming Fees
  • Hang Up on Roaming Fees

    For the occasional jet-setter who doesn’t talk on the phone that often, Kathari recommends signing up for an international add-on plan with your current provider. Most everyday phones work around the world, but make sure yours is “tri-band,” which means it will work on all three GSM frequencies, since networks abroad may use a different frequency than the one your phone runs on in the U.S. Of course, rates vary by provider and location, but bringing a $5-a-minute phone call down to 33 cents per minute is obviously worth the extra $4.99-$10 you’ll spend on the temporary add-on to your plan. “It’s a good short-term option,” Kathari agrees, “and that might make sense if you’re someone popping into Italy for a week, and you want to the ability to be in connection with people in the U.S. Really, you’re buying a discounted rate for your roaming calls.” After changing your plan, make sure to call your provider again to confirm that the changes went through. Speaking of plans, we like AT&T’s World Connect, which offers travelers discounted rates for $3.99 a month, and T-Mobile’s International Talk & Text, which just launched this week and has plans starting at $69.99 per month. Pros: You get to keep your current plan and only pay an additional one-time fee. Cons: Talk enough and those minutes add up. Photo Credit: Getty Images
    Rent a Phone
  • Rent a Phone

    Let’s say you’re a guy — or you just don’t like to chat on the phone, period. Why pay for your special international service? You shouldn’t. Renting a phone is the smarter option for light talkers, says Sebastian Harrison, president of Cellular Abroad. Especially if you’re visiting only one country. “It really depends on the person’s itinerary,” Harrison says, because “not every phone in the U.S. even works overseas, and usually the ones that do are the higher-end phones.” So, if you’re only making the trek to one country, or more importantly, your phone isn’t enabled for that country, you should talk like the locals do. Harrison suggests getting a rental phone through your destination’s local service provider, or Cellular Abroad’s website, which offers phone rentals by country. Another option is Travel Cell, a cell phone rental provider with locations around the world. In France, for example, you only pay $1.99 a day for the service, which gives you free in-country text messages and phone calls, with an additional 89-cent fee for outgoing calls. Pros: Most rental phones are prepaid, so you know what you’re getting up front. Also, you don’t need to worry about whether the phone’s going to work when you need it. Cons: Country-hoppers will need a multi-country phone if you rent. We recommend National Geographic’s Regional and Multi-Country phones, which were designed with world travelers in mind. Photo Credit: Getty Images
    Get a SIM Card
  • Get a SIM Card

    If you’re staying abroad long-term, or if you are a self-professed chatterbox, then renting a phone, or paying roaming fees with an add-on service, isn’t going to be cost-effective. Both Kathari and Harrison recommend buying local SIM cards, which not only give you a local number, but also allow you to make calls at a particular country’s inexpensive local rate. You can buy them prepaid, and also by country or region, depending on your itinerary. Two places to find them are Cellular Abroad and Telestial.com, which offer cards ranging from $17-$79. “Go for the big guys,” says Kathari, who also suggests using Google to research any SIM card brand a traveler hasn’t heard of to check out customer reviews and assess how well the card works. Kathari also likes Carphone Warehouse, an electronics retailer based in the U.K. Pros: Pre-paid means no mystery charges, and SIM cards are easy to find at newsstands, so if you forget to buy one at home, you’ll still be covered. Also, you get to keep your everyday phone. Cons: You’ll need an unlocked phone, which are rarely sold in the U.S., so you’ll probably need to get yours unlocked. Call your provider to find out how to do this before leaving, or expect to wander around looking for someone to do it at your destination. Photo Credit: Getty Images
    Get the Message, Not the Fee
  • Get the Message, Not the Fee

    “If you turn on your phone, and don’t use it again, every time somebody calls and it goes to voicemail, you pay for that,” Harrison warns. Kiss such superfluous costs goodbye by doing one of following: 1. Ask your provider to turn off voice and data, then check your messages using a different phone by calling your own number and entering your voicemail code. Most providers will allow you to do this for up to three months. 2. Set your iPhone to “Airplane” mode, which turns off Bluetooh, cellular and Wi-Fi. You will still be able to use iPod and PDA features, though. Photo Credit: Getty Images
    Never Use the Hotel Phone
  • Never Use the Hotel Phone

    Here’s an insider tip: Step away from the hotel phone. Hotels can charge whatever they want: $10 for a call—and sometimes more than that—isn’t worth it to you, or your wallet. Tell mom to send an e-mail or call. Photo Credit: Getty Images
    Place an Internet Call
  • Place an Internet Call

    It goes without saying that you shouldn’t surf the Web while traveling if you haven’t changed your plan, but all cell phone providers offer data plans, and you can take advantage of services via your laptop by using Voice Over Internet Protocol (VolP), used by services like Skype and Google Talk to make phone calls over the Web. Another option is Vonage, which lets users connect online for only $14.99 a month for the first three months of use. Pros: Easy setup, plus it’s cheap. Cons: Some countries’ lack of proper connection or state-sanctioned programs might leave you stranded, while others block VolP entirely. Some users also complain that these connections don’t sound the best. Photo Credit: Getty Images
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