How to stay connected
Staying in touch during overseas adventure travel
The international phone options are as varied as traveling style. The one thing you don’t want to do is use your hotel phone, unless someone else is picking up the bill or you have an international calling card and your hotel doesn’t charge for toll-free numbers. Here is a guide to some of your choices.
First, though, you need to answer three questions
- Do you need to stay in touch? There are advantages to truly being away from contact with your every day life. You can always leave the numbers at hotels where you’re staying. Or if you’re on an Big Chill Adventures trip, just give our office number to your contacts and tell them to call us if they have to get in touch with you.
- Is your mobile phone GSM compatible? The standard mobile-phone network in Europe, and much of the world, is called GSM. Some mobile phones, including most smart phones, use the same GSM technology and others use a system that is incompatible. Within the GSM network, different regions operate on different bands. The United States uses two bands, and most of Europe uses two other bands. A GSM phone that’s tri-band or quad-band operates on both US bands, plus one or both European bands so it works well at home and abroad.
- How often do you travel and why do you want to stay in touch? Do you do a lot of international traveling? Do you want people to be able to call you, or is it just important for you to be able to call home? Do you think you will be making many calls in the country in which you’re traveling?
Having answered those questions, here are the major options for a person who travels for leisure.
- If you have a GSM mobile phone:
- Use your own cell phone with an International Calling Plan
Most major U.S. phone companies give you the option of choosing a plan that allows you to make international calls. Each company offers different plans for various prices that work for a number of phone models and in designated countries, so be sure to check that your plan covers the destinations in which you plan to travel. You can turn the plan on just before you leave and have it discontinued as soon as you get back.
- Your cell phone number will stay the same
- The names and numbers that are currently programmed into your phone will still be available to you overseas without your having to transfer them to another device
- Other than adding an international calling plan, it doesn’t take much planning
- Per-minute calling rates vary for different countries and even an international plan can be expensive depending on where you’re traveling
- You’ll be charged for incoming calls, even if you don’t answer them. Be sure to tell your friends and co-workers not to call except in emergencies
- If you forget to turn off data roaming, you may be surprised with huge bills for unwittingly roaming such as when the phone constantly checks for new emails.
- You have to remember to call the phone company when you get home to discontinue your plan
Bottom line: This is a great choice for someone who does not anticipate making many phone calls and wants to be reachable in an emergency.
- Buy a local SIM card for your own cell phone
Another option is to buy a Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card to use in your own phone while traveling internationally. A SIM card is the part of a cell phone that holds the identity information and other personal data; if you switch your own SIM card for one that you purchase in another country, you can have all the benefits of a local phone (such as low in-country calling rates and a local phone number) without having to buy a whole new phone. You can then use an international calling card to call home (see below)
However, the option of replacing the SIM card is only available on unlocked GSM phones and you may not be able to legally unlock it (e.g. AT&T will not unlock the iPhone). You can purchase prepaid international and country-specific SIM cards from Web sites such as Telestial or just buy one when you get to the country you are visiting. You can buy a SIM card at a mobile phone shop, as well as (in many countries) at a newsstand. SIM cards, which generally cost around $5, come with a European phone number and starter credit.
- You can buy additional prepaid credit as you go
- Rather than buying a whole new phone, you can simply buy a SIM card for your existing phone — which is cheaper and takes up less space in your luggage
- You’ll enjoy low local rates for calls within whatever country you’re visiting
- It may be very expensive to call the United States unless you use an international calling card
- This option isn’t available to travelers with phones that are locked or don’t operate on the GSM network
Bottom line: This is a great choice if you anticipate making lots of calls while you’re traveling.
- If you don’t have a GSM mobile phone:
- Purchase or lease an International cell phone
Another option is to buy or lease an international cell phone for use whenever you are overseas. These phones do not work at home in the US – they are dual-band phones compatible with other countries, and not what the US uses. You can buy/lease one on-line before you go, but it is often less expensive to buy one when you get to your destination country from a mobile phone store. If you don’t travel that often, leasing may be a better option. Verizon has leasing options for their customers and there are other companies that also lease mobile phones.
Bottom line: Buying an international phone is a great choice for people who frequently travel internationally. Leasing one can be good for people who travel less frequently
- Calling Card
Buy a pre-paid calling card in the country you are visiting. These are often sold at newspaper stands. The card has a code on it that you enter into the phone every time you make a call from any local land-line or payphone. Buy from a reputable source.
- It takes no advance planning of any type and can be quite inexpensive
- It works for both local and international calls
- An automated voice typically tells you how much you have left on the card before each call
- You can use it with any phone that has low local calling rates
- This is for outgoing calls only. You will not have a phone number at which people can reach you
- You need to have a phone to use
- Some foreign language automated messages are frustrating to wait through before you can place your call
Bottom line: This is a great choice if you just want to be able to call home occasionally
- You have a phone with wireless capability
Another option besides making a traditional cell phone call is using a Voice Over IP (VoIP) service such as Skype, which connects calls via an Internet connection. Skype is often used on laptops, and it is now available on many smartphones as well. Skype users can talk to each other for free, and can make calls to landlines and cell phones at affordable rates.
- It’s easy and inexpensive or free
- The connections are great quality as long as you have a good wireless connection
- You need a laptop or smartphone with the Skype app
- You need to find a wireless connection
- You may need to pay for the wireless connection