Map Out a Strategy for International Calling

Why consider the cost of international calling during your trip?

International travel involves some obvious big-ticket investments: airfare, accommodations, and even food can become costly. Everyone frets over these charges.

Phone bills are not on the front line of concern. But those monthly bills arrive and bust more than a few travel budgets. It is an expense that is so underestimated that travelers make careless, expensive mistakes.

These charges often carry premiums when made in a hotel room, or eye-popping roaming charges on smart phone accounts. But a few sound strategies enacted before leaving home can make a big difference.

The strategy you choose will be dictated by your destination, your phone and its capabilities, and, of course, your budget.

Telephone Companies and Calling Cards

In some destinations, it could be far cheaper turn off your smart phone and visit a telephone business that sells cheap international calling time. In parts of Latin America, for example, you can pay under $2 U.S. dollars per minute at cabinas telefónica, a place where you’ll be assigned a private stall and a phone. Simply make your call and then pay the attendant.

A few caveats: always check the price-per-minute before starting the call. Rates should be displayed on the walls or in printed form. It also pays to ask someone local about the places with reliable connections and honest attendants.

In other destinations (Europe is an example), international calling cards are sold at convenience stores and hotels. In some countries, you simply swipe the card’s magnetic strip on a public pay phone and gain access, while other places require a code that is under a scratch-off cover on the card itself.

Costs can be quite cheap, but the cards are past their prime in many places because public telephones are far less common these days. Using the cards on a hotel phone can lead to nasty access fees.

International Roaming Plans

Many of us would rather use our own mobile device and bypass public telephones. But the first important question is this: will your particular phone function in your destination country?

To answer, find out if your device standard is GSM or CDMA. Your mobile phone company should be able to provide this information quite easily. In some places, CDMA  phones are rare, while in others, it is the prevalent standard. In those places, your GSM phone won’t work.

Again, your phone company (or a simple web search) should provide this information. Don’t waste money on a roaming plan if your device won’t function within the correct standard!

AT&T offers international plans that significantly lower the roaming charges you’ll pay in another country. They come with annual and monthly rates. Purchase on a monthly basis unless you’re a frequent international traveler. On the monthly deals, be sure the month will include all the days you’re away from home.

T-Mobile has ONE Plus™ International for $25/month that allows some added benefits such as unlimited in-flight Wi-Fi on Gogo-enabled flights and unlimited mobile hotspots.

Verizon’s Travel Pass starts at $5/day for Canada and Mexico, and $10/month in other international locations. Note that the charges are per device rather than per account. Monthly pricing runs from $15-$40, and there is a pay-as-you-go option that charges by the minute. Don’t assume your destination is included on the list of covered countries.

If your provider isn’t mentioned here, simply check for an international roaming plan. Make the buy for the shortest amount of time necessary to ensure your travel period is covered.

Buy a Temporary SIM Card

Mobile phones use a memory bit called a SIM card (short for Subscriber Identity Module) that allows the phone to access your provider’s service. The card pops out of the phone and can be exchanged.

Some travelers temporarily replace the SIM card in the destination country (after arrival and customs clearance), which means the phone will operate as a device native to that country. But it’s not always a simple transaction.

For example, some places will not permit the purchase of a SIM card with a credit card issued in another place. These regulations change frequently, so you’ll have to find out what prevails in your destination.

There is a SIMsmart Europe card that the vendor claims will work in 170 countries and be purchased for as little as $20 USD.

As with the roaming plans, it’s important to estimate the extent of needed international service for the trip. Many travelers want to make short calls back home on a regular basis and choose the lower-end options.

iPhone FaceTime

With smartphone access to Wi-Fi a feature called FaceTime allows Internet-based calls at no cost.

Once the internet connection is made, look at the settings on your iPhone and make sure FaceTime is enabled (in the “on” position). Then, simply call someone in your address book who also has FaceTime enabled and you’ll be face-to-face with them on the iPhone. The FaceTime connection has its own distinctive ring that is separate from the ringtone for conventional phone calls you receive.

Anytime the internet provides international access, costs drop significantly. No smartphone? There are other ways to access Internet-based International calling options.

Mobile Phone Apps

Computers share Voice over Internet Protocol, commonly abbreviated as VoIP. You don’t need to be a technical genius to understand that VoIP will enable you to make calls on your mobile phone without using conventional phone lines. You’ll be connecting via the Internet.

There are plenty of mobile apps available for download that will help with this process.

One is called Viber, which allows free texting, calling, phone messages and location-sharing. It will pick out people in your address book who are already using Viber, and you can call them with the touch of a finger. Viber works using Wi-Fi or 4G connections.

The Vonage Mobile VoIP Calling App works in a similar way. You can connect with other users anywhere in the world via the Internet.

If you connect via 4G with any such app, remember that roaming charges and data downloading charges could apply. This is a good time to turn the page and consider data roaming charges when overseas.

Watch Out for Data Charges

If your smart phone is enabled to receive data, you could be looking at a very unpleasant bill upon your return home.

This was a mistake I made in Mexico that wound up costing about $200 USD. I had falsely assumed that roaming data charges for Mexico were similar to the U.S. Too late, I discovered that is true only of certain phone plans — but not mine.

Always check with your provider to see if international data roaming is available at a discount, just as the call roaming plans are offered.

If you don’t need access to data while on vacation, turn off data roaming on your phone. Your owner’s manual or company help desk should be able to show you how to do so.

Perhaps you don’t own a mobile phone, or you haven’t been too impressed with the options suggested to this point. There are other ways to enjoy international calling on a budget.

Skype and Webcams

Anyone with a child studying abroad can tell you about Skype.

The Internet-based service allows people separated by great distances to chat with audio and video. Most devices come equipped with a built-in camera. If yours does not, a web camera that can be purchased at most computer stores for about $50.

Internet cafes around the world frequently are equipped with web cams for the purpose of using Skype, or some similar platform.

Skype membership is free, and you can speak for free with anyone else with a Skype account. You share video and voice calls, along with instant messaging and file sharing.

For Skype calls to mobiles and landlines worldwide, rates start at $6.99/month for most destinations. Rates and terms will vary by country, so become familiar with the rules for your destination.

Whatever option you choose, be sure to ask questions. Above all, make your prime consideration what works best in your intended itinerary.