Hints on Phoning Home from a Travel Pro

By Mike Dobson

It is one of the paradoxes of our networked lives that business travel continues to increase in frequency, even though we are connected to our customers in more ways than ever before.While the customer meetings are always beneficial, being on the road provides challenges that can cost you time or add to the expense of your travel.In this article, we share with Directions readers, who are frequently called upon to travel from the U.S.to other countries, some strategies on controlling the costs of calling the U.S.when traveling abroad.Feel free to visit my website for more international travel strategies.(ThereArePlaces has prepared a series of articles aimed at sharing our strategies for "taming business travel.")

Calling the U.S.while traveling abroad
Unexpected expenses have a way of "popping up" when you travel abroad on business.One source of continuing irritation for most business travelers is the high cost of telephone calls back to the office. Several options can help to control these costs but you need to decide on the strategy that is right for you before your departure.

Rule 1. Try to avoid calling a number in the U.S.directly using the hotel's phone system.Many business travelers make the mistake of calling home from their room, only to find out that their brief "It's on the right side of my desk" call resulted in a $20 to $30 charge on their hotel bill.If you are tempted to place a direct call from your hotel, avoid unpleasant surprises, and ask the hotel's operator about surcharges before you phone home.

Local Calling Cards. One of the less expensive ways to call the U.S.from abroad is to purchase a "telephone" or "calling" card, at your destination.(These cards are usually available at a news or tobacco shops.) The cards are normally offered by the national phone company of the country and provide good value.Most cards can be used for international calling.
  • Modern "calling cards" are smart cards equipped with an embedded processor that debits the calls made with the card from the value remaining on the card.
  • Many foreign payphones require the use of a calling card to place a call and do not accept coins or other forms of currency.
  • Problems with the use of local calling cards are that you need to understand how to operate the phone and how to connect with long distance services.
  • If the phone does not have a menu in English (quite common in Europe), you may need to speak to an operator who may or may not speak English.
  • You need to find a payphone and cannot call from the comfort of your room.
We find local calling cards a "must have" for international travel and use them to call U.S., as well as to make local and long distance calls whenever necessary.We buy a card with the equivalent of a $20 value and replace it if needed.

International Calling Cards. Consider signing up for a "calling card" from a U.S.based telephone carrier such as AT&T.There is no fee for signing up and these cards allow you to use the carrier's network to place calls from abroad to home.The cost of these calls will be charged to your home phone.In order to use these services, your phone company must have an agreement with the carrier whose calling card you.
Many large companies provide executives and employees who travel frequently with corporate calling cards that are billed directly to the company.

The card works as follows:
  • Before you depart, check with the calling card issuer's Web site where you will find a printable list of "calling card contact" numbers for countries around the world.
  • While traveling, call the toll free number for the country you are in and you will usually be connected to an automated system that will require you to enter your calling card id and pin.English speaking operators are available if you need assistance.(Calls to an "800" toll free number are not allowed most calling card companies.)
Some foreign hotels place surcharges on calls to the contact numbers for calling cards such as AT&T's, so check to see if the hotel adds a surcharge to any calls that you might make to access your carrier's service.Another downside of these types of cards is that there is often a surcharge if you use them from payphones.

The biggest advantage of the International Calling Card is that they connect you to a reliable, long distance service that offers operators who speak English.In addition, they are convenient to use because they do not require any cash outlay while traveling.

Call Back services. If you need to call back to the US often, you might consider signing up for a "Call Back" service.Call Back services provide you with a U.S.based number that you can call from any international destination.
  • When you call, the number will ring but not be answered.
  • After a few rings, you hang-up and the system will call the number you dialed from and provide a line that can be used to call the U.S.at a lower cost than many other methods.
If you are interested in this option, enter "Call Back services" in your favorite Internet search engine and you will find numerous companies who provide service plans that might meet your needs.

International cell phone rentals.
If you want flexibility and are willing to pay the price, consider renting an international cell phone from one of the many vendors who provide this service (enter "international cell phone rental" in your favorite search engine). Rentals of this sort are more expensive that using calling cards but cost about the same as using your own cell phone.

The advantage of a cell phone rental is that you will have one contact phone number for the duration of your trip (regardless of how many countries you visit).
  • The rental includes the phone and all adapters and accessories necessary for all of your destinations (which you disclose during the rental process).
  • The phone will be sent to your home, so you need to arrange this service in advance.There is a modest fee for delivery and return of the phone.
Usually the rental will include a package of minutes (from 30 to 250) with the prices of a minute decreasing as the number of minutes purchased increase.It is important to note that most companies base the cost of any additional minutes you use on the price of the minutes included in the original package.
  • In essence, if you do not plan to call much and buy the minimum package you will pay a high price for the minutes in the plan and an equivalently high price for all minutes beyond those included in the plan.
  • In addition, most companies will rent you the phone and charge you for minutes only as you use them but this is the most expensive option, unless you plan to use the phone only for emergencies.Remember, you will pay for both incoming and outgoing call minutes.
The cost of minutes also varies by geography and countries are collected into "zones" where all calls are the same cost.For example, most European countries are included in a single zone and all calls to you or from you anywhere in Europe are charged at the same rate.When you call a number in a country in another zone, the price per minute is higher than an in-zone call, so check the countries included in the zones offered by the provider you choose.

Depending on the plan you select, you should be prepared to pay from $1.50 to $3 per minute for calls within a specific geographic zone and more for calls to countries in other zones.

If you are going to travel in remote destinations, you should consider renting a satellite phone, as other wireless services will likely be unavailable; of course, the prices for minutes on satellite phone systems are unbelievable.

Using your multi-band cell phone. If you have a phone that is designed to work in international locations, you should consider using it while on vacation.
  • Most phones that work internationally are advertised as "global" phones and feature a multi-band capability (tri-band or better) provisioned to work with GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) or other networks at home and abroad.
  • GSM in the U.S.and abroad operate on different bandwidths, which is why the phone must be equipped to operate on multiple "bandwidths." Contact your cellular provider to make sure that your phone is provisioned to work with the network where you will travel.
  • In addition to using a GSM capable phone, you will need to have a roaming agreement with an international telephone service provider.
Information about you and your user account is kept on a SIM card (Subscriber Identity Module), a removable computer chip inside your phone (usually underneath the battery) that keeps track of your phone number and the services covered by your existing carrier contract.
  • If your carrier has an international roaming agreement, your existing SIM card will allow you to place calls internationally and have them charged on your wireless phone bill.
  • If you prefer to use an international carrier, you can sign up for their service and use the SIM that they will provide.
Using your cell phone while traveling internationally (if it is capable of international service and appropriately provisioned) can be very handy but relatively expensive, with rates running $1 to $3 per minute.(T-Mobile has extremely competitive rates, although its service area in the US is somewhat limited.)
  • Remember, calls to you from the U.S. will be international long distance calls.
  • If you want to use your cell phone just for outgoing calls, your carrier may be able to filter out U.S. based calls for you but will charge small monthly fee for doing so.If you are interested in this option, you must arrange it with your carrier before you depart the U.S.
  • An unexpected disadvantage to using your phone abroad is that as soon as it connects to the network you will receive SMS spam welcoming you to the system and offering fee based information services.

Published Sunday, February 6th, 2005

Written by Mike Dobson

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