But viable money-saving options exist, and like packing for different weather conditions, they can be matched to your travel style. To understand how they work, and compare their value, I sampled the most common plans on a recent trip to China. Here’s the 411:
Your regular carrier
Background: Without going too deep into telecommunications jargon, most of the world uses GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) bands of 850/900/1,800/1,900. AT&T and T-Mobile, for instance, utilize 850/1,900; international GSM bands (except for Japan and South Korea) rely on 900/1,900. As long as your phone is tri-band (900/1,800/1,900) or quad-band (850/900/1,800/1,900) — check the box, manual or phone settings menu — you can make calls from abroad.
Advantage: As easy as dialing from your home turf.
Disadvantage: You will pay exorbitant fees for “roaming” on another network.
Experience: In China, calling the States on my T-Mobile BlackBerry cost $2.99 a minute, the charge for using the country’s China Mobile or China Unicom carrier.
Bottom Line: If you need to make a really quick call, such as “Hi Ma! I made it! Bye!,” then go ahead and use your regular plan. Otherwise, keep the phone in off mode.
Prepaid phone card
Background: The cards are ubiquitous, sold in automated dispensers at airports, bodegas, supermarkets, youth hostels, etc. You will need a cellphone that works in your foreign destination or a land line. To use, dial the access number, then follow the prompts till your call rings through.
Advantage: Cheap investment (the cards come in increments of $5, $10, $20, $50, etc.), plus simple to use and to track down.
Disadvantage: Some cards are saddled with connection and maintenance fees, among other extra costs. . . . Calling the access number on your cellphone will result in a roaming charge. . . . The per-minute rate may be higher than other services. . . . . If you buy smaller denominations (a.k.a., not much time), you’d better talk fast, or you’ll be cut off mid-sentence. . . . Card is not rechargeable and only works for outgoing calls. . . . No texting allowed.
Experience: I purchased a $10 card from MyTravelPin.com via an automated dispenser at Washington Dulles. When I arrived in China, I followed the instructions and was delighted to hear my friend on the receiving end in Los Angeles. After a breathless debriefing about my travels, I was interrupted by a voice warning me of the waning time. Josh and I were cut off after a fleeting eight minutes.