Make the Right Call

By Roy Furchgott
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 4, 2007

The good news is that thanks to technology, staying in touch with home while vacationing in foreign countries can be easy, and it can be free. The catch is that it can't be both.

For instance, it might be easy to use your mobile phone to call the United States from foreign locales, but you can incur massive roaming charges: We're talking up to $4.99 per minute above the regular charges. Or you can make the call for free through an Internet phone service such as Skype, but you'll need a Skype account, a broadband Internet connection, a computer and a headset.

Unfortunately, no one can decide what cost-to-convenience ratio hits your sweet spot. Fast-changing rates, special offers by phone providers and technology that arrives fresh daily means that good deals are swiftly moving targets. You'll need a good Internet connection, a sharp pencil and a calculator with fresh batteries to sort through the options.

The easiest thing to do is simply carry your phone and pay roaming charges, heavy though they may be. But there are ways to lower the cost.

The Basics

First, find out if your phone works where you are going. Different carriers use different transmission standards for their phones. Most European countries use a standard called GSM. Most Caribbean countries use CDMA. U.S. carriers may use either CDMA or GSM, but to make it more complicated, American GSM and European GSM use different frequencies.

Your best bet is to look up your phone by manufacturer and model online to find the specification sheet. It will have details about which bands your phone has, and if it's a "quad-band" or "tri-band" phone, you may be in luck -- those phones transmit on more than one frequency and will often work in other countries. Such phones are fairly common. Both Cingular and T-Mobile work on GSM, so if you are already on either service, there is a good chance your phone will work overseas.

You can also call your service provider to ask about your phone -- if you don't mind the risk of spending your evening on hold.

Congratulations, Your Phone Works Overseas

If your phone will work at your destination, see if your carrier has a discounted international calling plan. For instance, Cingular offers a World Traveler Program that charges $5.99 a month to reduce roaming fees in more than 80 foreign countries. You can add or drop the service at any time. In some cases the reductions are significant -- calls from France and Germany that normally cost $1.29 a minute drop to 99 cents. In less-developed countries, not so much. Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Kenya, for example, are $3.99 a minute on both plans.

There's no charge to sign up for T-Mobile's international roaming. The roaming rates are a comparable 99 cents to $4.99.

You should also have a look at your international roaming charges. While they can be as high as $4.99 a minute, from some countries the rate can be as low as $1.29 a minute. If you are using the phone for emergencies only, that might be okay.

A problem with using your home cellphone overseas is that you'll pay the same roaming charges to call a boite across the boulevard as you would to call across the Atlantic.

In many countries, you can greatly reduce the cost of calls without buying a new phone, provided the country uses the GSM standard (most European countries do) and your phone is an "unlocked" GSM phone.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company