Stay in Touch the Smart Way
If you or someone in your family is going abroad this summer, there are new ways to stay in touch. But don't bother taking your cell phone.
That's because most North American-based cell phones won't work anywhere else in the world. The technology is different. Asians and Europeans carry phones that ring around the globe, but it'll be a year or so before our cell phones become equally versatile. So we have to improvise.
First of all, you should never dial directly from an overseas hotel using the local long distance provider. You'll pay through the nose. Many Americans dial toll-free numbers provided by AT&T, Sprint or MCI-Worldcom that allow them to dial at much cheaper rates using a calling card. But listen carefully to the ol' Sav Trav: If you haven't checked how much you're paying recently, you should. I carry an MCI-Worldcom calling card. Just for the heck of it, I called 'em up the other day. "What does it cost me," I asked, "to call the U.S. when I'm in Europe?" I learned I pay a connect fee of almost four dollars when I dial that toll free number overseas. Then I pay $1.45 a minute to talk during the day, 94 cents a minute at night.
"Seems pretty steep to me," I said to the agent on the phone. In no time, I had a new plan that cost a fraction of the standard rate: 99-cents to connect and 45 cents a minute. Wow! That meant I'd cut the cost of a five-minute call home from more than $11 to about three bucks. And there's no monthly fee or other hidden charge. So if you opened an account with a long distance carrier a long time ago as I did, you might be on an outdated, way-too-expensive plan. Don't count on your calling card provider to call you to let you know.
On my last two trips to Europe, I carried a cell phone. One night in March, while riding in a taxicab in Berlin, my pocket rang. It was my 15-year-old son calling to say he'd scored a lacrosse goal in the first game of his season. What struck me was how unimpressed he was with the technology; I, the geezer, was knocked out. And thrilled. On that trip, I carried a Bosch World Phone that provided me with a Washington, D.C., area code. Your local cell phone service provider should be able to point you to someone who can do that.
In July, when my office reached me poolside on the Mediterranean island of Menorca, I'd rented a little Nokia phone from a London-based company. They overnighted me the phone with a London number before I left on my trip. I paid about $40 for a week's rental, a $25 shipping charge, and $5 a minute to call from Spain to the U.S. The nice thing about having a London number was it kept Stateside friends from calling me for frivolous reasons, since they had to pay for the call's bounce from the U.S. to the U.K. At many international airports now, you can rent a cell phone when you get off the plane, returning it when you depart.
Now, there's no excuse to be out of touch on the road.
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