Telephone service for travel
Telephones are a crucial part of modern living while at home, and they can be an excellent tool for keeping in touch and planning while traveling. This article covers some options for sending and receiving calls while on the road.
Many hotels and motels charge set rates for all calls made from in-room telephones. The cost of these calls is generally higher than an ordinary call made from a residential or business phone. This is because the hotel or motel is not only recovering the cost of the phone call but also the cost of the telephone and support equipment. There may also be other service fees for toll calls as many hotels have an automatic price required service where their telecommunications provider advises them of the cost of a toll call and the room number the call was made from. They may also have a telephone service charge for calls to toll-free numbers. Check the call rates before making a call.
Take care when making calls from pay phones . Many pay phone services are provided by specialist providers who charge higher fees to cover the cost of equipment and payphone booth. If paying by credit card there may be a substantial minimum fee. Check the rate card in the booth and, if you cannot find one, don't use the phone if you don't want to be ripped off.
You may find there are courtesy phones available at airports and similar places for making local calls for a taxi or similar traveller services. Look out for these as you may not need to use a pay phone.
Pre-paid phone cards
Many telephone service providers offer pre-paid phone cards that can be used from pay phones or ordinary telephones. Access to these services is often through a toll-free telephone number that can be called from any phone without charge. Rates can be surprisingly cheap - so cheap that you may even wonder how they can provide the calls at such a low rate. These providers are often exploiting some financial loophole in telephone rates, so read the fine print to see when and how you can get the lowest rates - there may be particular times or days that the rates apply.
Some telephone service providers offer a Calling Card option that can be used with an existing telephone account. In the past, telephone operator used to accept reverse or transferred charges calls, however, due to fraud and increasing costs, a calling card now replaces those services. These services sometimes also offer an international operator service in the caller's language. Charges appear on the caller's telephone account and may be a convenient way for business travellers to charge their telephone calls.
Hotels and motels will often charge for calls you receive, even for messages taken by the reception desk. Ask what their telephone charges are before giving out a hotel or motel telephone number for people to call you.
If you are going to be out of range of a telephone, but still want to receive calls, Voice mail may be a good option for you. Most telephone service providers offer a voice mail option, either as an add-on to an existing landline or mobile telephone or as a stand alone service.
Using a cell phone while travelling can be a convenient way to be reached through one number worldwide. Having a phone at all times allows you to reach local hotels, restaurants and museums while on the run.
Using your phone in countries other than its "home area" is called roaming and the price varies depending on your provider and the country being roamed in. For most cases, the price can be rather high, but there are some alternatives (see below).
The most widely used cell phone standard in the world is GSM, or Global System for Mobility. For most countries (other than the United States, Japan and Korea) this is the main standard, and it can be used across countries. If you have a dual-band or tri-band phone, this means you have an even greater chance of using your phone. GSM phones are known for having a SIM chip (subscriber identity module) which provide the "identity" for the phone, including the phone number and cell phone carrier info.
GSM works on several different frequencies. Most of the world uses 900 MHz and 1800 MHz. The United States is "different" and uses it at 1900 MHz and 850 MHz (also called 800 MHz). Therefore, a dual-band phone will work in most places around the world with GSM, such as Asia, Europe, Australia, Africa and South America. A tri-band or quad-band phone (adding the 1900/850 Mhz bands) will cover the US as well. Japan and Korea are famous for not having any type of GSM at all, instead opting for PDC and CDMA, respectively.
For a GSM phone to work in the US:
Some older phones need to select or allow a roaming change from a user menu. Bring your manual or make sure you know how to access the menus. An explaination and listing of who is on what system and frequency, including old systems is at Siemens.
Roaming is convenient, but may give you surprise on your next phone bill. Usually making local phone calls is pretty reasonable while roaming, but making and receiving international calls can be very expensive. (See section below on SIM cards for alternatives) If possible, check with your home carrier to find out what the rates are beforehand, or you may unsuspectingly be making a USD $5 per minute phone call. GSM phones allow you to choose a local carrier manually to attach to when roaming. Some carriers will advertise on billboards at airports, trumpeting the advantages of using them while roaming.
Consider using SMS (short messaging service) as a cheap alternative to making per-minute phone calls. These text messages can be sent between phones, with up to 160 characters per message. While SMS messages are more expensive when overseas (from USD $0.30 to $1 each), they are cheaper than international calls and can be very useful for keeping costs down.
Another advanced feature (depending on your carrier) is ringback service which allows you to send a request to your home carrier to ring your phone and connect to someone in your home market, thereby keeping costs low. For example, Hong Kong carrier Orange allows its users to dial special code while internationally roaming which will connect to local Hong Kong numbers at a lower rate than direct dialing. This command typically looks like: "**130*<phonenum>#" and the caller waits for a call back, initiated from Hong Kong.
For GSM phones, local prepaid SIM cards are a godsend. The SIM "chip" in GSM phones can be swapped out, effectively changing the carrier and phone number of the phone. Many countries sell prepaid SIM cards that you can buy for cash, quickly establishing a new phone number and credit for making calls. No account setup, credit card numbers, bank accounts, passports or IDs are necessary. To add credit to these SIM cards, you can buy "top up" or "add value" cards from newsstands, telephone stores or convenience stores.
Charges vary by country/carrier, but per-minute costs for voice calls are often the best option for folks needing local calling service. The SIM card and phone number are usually valid for a month or two, staying active as long as you "top up" the card with more credit.
For example, in Malaysia with a prepaid SIM card from Maxis/Hotlink, incoming calls are free, while outgoing calls are charged in 12-second blocks of time at around US $0.15/minute local, or US $0.70/minute across the country. In 2004, it cost about 68 ringgit (US $18) to buy a prepaid SIM card with 50 ringgit (US $13) of call credit. Because of the cost, this option makes sense for folks who will be staying at least a week, or expect to do lots of calling locally for business, or want to be reached by locals at local rates.
In remote locations, without cellphone coverage, a Satellite Telephone may be your only option. This service is expensive compared to other alternatives but is surprisingly affordable if one considers the technology involved. The service is frequently used by shipping, including pleasure craft, as well as expeditions who have remote data and voice needs. Your local telephone service provider should be able to give more information about connecting to this service.