By David G. Molyneaux, editor, Travel Mavens
When schedules go awry at home, we simply pick up our cell phones and make new arrangements. Instant communications are a given.
But when traveling internationally, you may find that your U.S. cell phone either does not work out of the country or that it costs you more per minute than you are willing to spend.
For the past year, I have carried an international cell phone that provides instant contact with family and friends in the United States and was essential for rearranging schedules at a reasonable cost.
My phone paid off the first day of a trip from Ohio to Scotland. Thanks to the air traffic in New York, I couldn't get to JFK to meet my connection to Manchester, England. When finally I arrived at JFK, the only flight left was British Airways' last plane of the night to London. Problem was: I didn't want to go to London. But I did, which meant I would also miss my train reservations from Manchester to Edinburgh, my train connections north and the car scheduled to meet me at a rural Scotland station for a drive to St. Andrews, where a golf game awaited.
In London the next morning, after a train ride to one station and a taxi to another, I boarded a train for Edinburgh. And powered up my new cell phone.
Making new arrangements
Over the past 7 years, I have tried several international cell phones with varying degrees of success. My newest phone, a Motorola V180, worked beautifully. It was programmed by Telestial.com to carry a phone number in the United Kingdom and enough prepaid minutes to last a week or more.
The UK phone number was important because people in the UK could call me cheaply. Their calls to me cost me nothing.
From my train seat in the English countryside that morning, I called the Fairmont Resort in St. Andrews, Scotland, to let them know I would be late and to cancel the car picking me up (phone time: 4 minutes, $2.21). The hotel called back to say the car service would call me (1 minute, $0). The car service called me to say I should call them from Edinburgh when I knew what time my train from Edinburgh would arrive (2 minutes, $0). I called home to the United States to tell my wife I was safely on the way to Scotland (15 minutes, $6.80). From Edinburgh I called the car service with my train's arrival time (1 minute, $.74).
In all, my cost that morning was $2.95 for 4 calls in the UK and $6.80 for a long, thankful talk with my wife in the U.S. In Scotland, the car was waiting at the train. And the golf, as expected, was wonderful.
Choosing a cell phone
No matter where I travel in the world, I want my family to be able to find me and call me with important news or a simple, "Are you OK?" Some travelers use handheld devices designed mostly for text messaging. I prefer a cell phone.
The Internet is full of international phone deals. You can rent a phone, buy a good phone or choose a cheap phone to use only in emergencies.
After research, I chose Telestial.com, which is designed for North American travelers whose personal cell phones either do not work or would not provide reasonably priced rates overseas. I found the Telestial website helpful, with several products to consider based on how I would use them. I was impressed that Telestial encourages customers to call if they need help determining which product to buy and which options to consider.
Your itinerary makes a big difference, as services vary by countries and continents. You can use the same phone, but it is re-programmed to fit your itinerary. For instance, if you decided to go to Spain for a month, your phone could be programmed with a local phone number in Spain.
Telestial's is a simple plan: You buy a cell phone that is designed for international calls, buy some minutes online, then slip a SIM card into the back of your phone. The flat SIM card, which is about the size of your pinkie toe, carries your cell phone number and is the software that drives the phone.
You buy prepaid minutes on the Internet, charge them to your credit card, and you are set to call and receive. Every time you make a call your phone tells you how many minutes you have left. If you want to buy more minutes, you can do that online. Your prepaid minutes stay with the phone from trip to trip, year to year.
In late May (2008), the Telestial website advertised a Motorola V180, including international programming, 10 minutes air time and a universal plug adapter for recharging at $159. The cheapest phone deal is $39.
What I like, what I don't like
Like about Telestial:
* Calling rates are reasonable. During three weeks in Europe, I paid about 40 cents per minute to talk to folks in the United States.
* My phone can be programmed with a foreign number. Friends or business people in my destination country can talk to me without making an overseas call.
* All incoming calls are free, as are incoming text messages.
* The phone has voice mail, which is important because your time zone may be highly different from the one in the United States. The phone that I used in India several years ago did not have voice mail. It's much nicer to wake up in the morning to check your voice mail instead of being awakened in the middle of the night.
Don't like about Telestial:
The company advertising is misleading when it tells customers that all incoming calls are free to your cell phone AND that your friends and family in the United States may call you on a toll-free number in the U.S. While both statements are true, the Telestial customer pays the cost of the toll-free call, which is 30-40 cents per minute. The toll-free line is a good service, because it means your family can call you at no expense to them, but Telestial should make it clear up front that the "toll-free" call is an expense to the cell phone owner, because each minute of THOSE incoming calls are charged.
I recommend Telestial, because it worked for me. I intend to keep my phone and use it again when I travel to Europe this summer.
If you decide to choose Telestial, make sure you indicate where you are going. Western Europe is easy and cheap, Eastern Europe a little more expensive. But some parts of the world are not ready for prime time. My only difficulties with a cell phone programmed by a SIM card were in Chile in 2006. That phone never worked well in Chile. A week later it worked perfectly in Argentina. Each time I had to switch SIM cards. If you are headed to Chile this summer -- for their winter -- you may want to make your calls on a land line.
Connecting at Sea: Cell phones on cruise ships