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Posted August 7, 2011
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Practical Traveler

How to Beat the High Costs of Dialing Abroad

IT’S hard not to feel ripped off when you get hit with unexpected roaming charges while traveling abroad — whether they come from making phone calls or checking e-mail. Take it from Jeff Gardner, who received an $11,000 bill from Verizon after spending four days in Jamaica. Before the trip, Mr. Gardner, who runs a fly-fishing business in Grayling, Mich., said he called Verizon to find out what it would cost to use his cellphone for calls and his wireless air card to check e-mail on his laptop while in the Caribbean. He said he was told that calls would be about $2 a minute and that there would be no extra charges for data as he was on an unlimited plan. The latter part turned out to be wrong.

Francisco Caceres

“I don’t mind paying a fair amount for fair service, but $11,000 for four days is ridiculous,” said Mr. Gardner, who used his phone sparingly on the trip. He also tried to check and send e-mail using his laptop’s wireless card, but quickly gave up after the e-mails didn’t go through. Still, his Verizon bill said more than 500,000 kilobytes of data was transferred while he was in Jamaica, an amount Mr. Gardner said is 100 times what he normally uses in a month.

As travelers increasingly use smartphones abroad in the same way they do at home — to check e-mail, update Facebook and Twitter and pull up online maps — many are facing costly roaming fees, which providers charge when customers use their phones outside their service area. In fact, roaming charges have gotten so out of hand that the Federal Communications Commission has proposed a plan that would require wireless companies to send their customers a voice or text message when they are approaching their plan’s limit, when they have reached that limit and when they are starting to incur roaming fees. A survey by the commission found that one in six mobile users have experienced “bill shock” from unanticipated roaming charges or other confusing fees.

Carriers say they already offer alerts via text message or e-mail when consumers approach or go over certain usage thresholds. But the Federal Communications Commission says such warnings vary widely by provider and type of service covered and that consumer protection is insufficient. When Mr. Gardner complained to Verizon about his $11,000 bill, for example, the carrier told him he was repeatedly sent roaming alerts via text and e-mail. But he never got the alerts since his cellphone and e-mail didn’t work in Jamaica.

Thomas Pica, a Verizon spokesman, said, “We send a welcome message to our customers informing them of international rates where they are roaming as well as text alerts,” and added that the carrier just expanded those alerts to begin when a customer hits $25 and continue at different increments to $1,000 and then again every $1,000 after that.

So how do you avoid the charges? This week’s column tackles phone calls. Next week’s will look at everything else — from checking e-mail to using online maps and updating Facebook and Twitter — all of which involve transferring costly data. Below, Part 1 of the Practical Traveler’s guide to bulletproofing your wireless bill while abroad.


The cheapest way to make local calls while abroad is to use an unlocked cellphone that can work with other carriers’ networks, along with a prepaid local SIM card — a removable chip that determines the phone’s network and number. “You’ll always save a lot more money doing that than using the roaming rates from your carrier,” said Charles S. Golvin, an analyst with Forrester Research. In general, incoming calls will be free and making local calls as well as sending texts will be cheaper.

First, ask your carrier if your phone can be unlocked. Customers of AT&T and T-Mobile will have the best luck with this because their signals are compatible with more foreign carriers. Most cellphones that operate on Verizon and Sprint aren’t compatible with networks outside the United States, making unlocking beside the point. If you use one of those carriers, decide whether it’s better to pay the carrier’s roaming rates and simply limit calls or buy a basic, unlocked phone for calls and texts (which can usually be found for $40 or so) in the country you’re visiting.

If you arrive with an unlocked phone, purchase a prepaid local SIM card (typically $20 or so) and pop that in the phone to make calls at lower local rates. Travelers who want the security of having a SIM card before they land can buy one at sites like Telestial.com or OneSimCard.com, whose prepaid local SIM cards offer rates lower than most American carriers. For example, Telestial’s $39 “TIM” SIM card for Italy comes with about $7 (5 euros) of airtime credit, free incoming calls and rates of about 14 cents per call and 21 cents per text for numbers within Italy. By contrast, Verizon’s calling rates in Italy range from 99 cents a minute (with a Value Plan) to $1.29 a minute (with a Standard Plan). Sending a text costs 50 cents. Telestial also offers regional SIM cards, which offer low calling rates for multiple countries.

The drawback: using a local SIM card means you won’t be able to use your own number, so you’ll need to let your contacts know — or set your phone to forward all calls to the new number, a move that could trigger high call fees if your regular home-based plan doesn’t include international calling. Also, family or friends calling you from the States will be charged for an international call.


If you have access to Wi-Fi, use Skype (skype.com) or another Internet telephone service like Truphone (truphone.com), which allow users to make free calls over the Internet to anyone who also has downloaded the service. Both offer apps for calls on your smartphone, so you don’t have to be traveling with a laptop to use the service.

If you want to make calls over the Internet to people who don’t use Skype or Truphone, you can pay as you go (expect to pay 2 or 3 cents a minute) or sign up for monthly plans to make unlimited calls in certain countries for a flat fee: $13.99 a month for Skype calls to land lines and mobile phones in more than 40 countries, or $12.95 a month for calls to landlines in 35 countries and mobile phones in 9 countries with TruUnlimited.

Skype also offers a free app for video calling on newer iPhone and Android devices with front-facing cameras, so you can have free face-to-face conversations.

Viber (viber. com) is another application for iPhone and Android phones that lets you make free phone calls and send text messages over Wi-Fi to anyone who also has the application installed. For a list of more than 500,000 free and paid Wi-Fi locations around the world go to Jiwire.com.


On a recent trip to London, Dan Keller, president of a medical writing and audio/video firm in Glenside, Pa., accidentally dialed a number on his contact list, probably as a result of the keypad being pushed inadvertently while the phone was in his pocket. While that number showed up only once in his phone’s call log, he was billed for 13 calls, all 1 or 2 minutes each — which came to a total of $46 in roaming fees. “I called T-Mobile and told them my phone showed that only the first call was correct. They said I must have called it all those times,” Mr. Keller said. The lesson: Be sure to lock your keypad to avoid inadvertent pocket-dialing.

For good measure, turn off data roaming on your smartphone to block e-mail, browsing, downloads and apps. If you don’t, your bill can quickly skyrocket. More on that in next week’s column.

Reprinted from The New York Times, Travel, of Sunday, August 7, 2011.


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