Keeping in Touch
When I lived in Europe in the early 1980's, keeping in touch with home meant letters
, with the rare phone call
thrown in on special occassions. Now things are so much simpler, and more immediate.
I'm on the road for almost five months each year. To keep my business running smoothly, and stay in touch with family and friends, I now travel with a laptop and a cell phone
have become so common, you would think using one overseas would be a snap. Oddly enough, this is one of the most confusing
areas of communication, because it's not simply a matter of taking your own cell phone along and switching it on when you arrive. I explore the cell phone
options in depth here
Whether or not you carry a laptop with you, using the internet
to stay in touch is quick and easy. You'll find lots of tips and tricks for using the internet
while on the road here
Using Cell Phones in Europe
Europe uses a different cell phone system than what most companies in the US provide. Your cell phone may
work overseas, but probably it won't. I've used just about every option for cell phones in Europe, from using my own phone and service provider to installing local SIM chips, and experienced the good and bad in all of them.
If you want to cut to the chase, I find Option 4
the cheapest and easiest for most people. For just $49 you get a phone that works in over 140 countries;
you own it forever; and when you're not using it, it doesn't cost you a cent.
If you want or need to use a cell phone while you are traveling, these are your choices:1. Use your own cell phone2. Rent a cell phone3. Use local SIM cards4. Buy a Mobal World Phone for just $49
Option #1 Use your own cell phone
Over 80% of cell phones in the US cannot be used in Europe. Most countries and service providers in Europe uses a standard called GSM (900/1800 bands).
Only Cingular (AT&T) and T-Mobile offer this service in the US (but on the 850/1900 bands). If you use Verizon, Sprint, or Nextel, your phone will not work in Europe. If you use Cingular (AT&T) or T-Mobile your phone may
The cheapest phones
that come free when you sign up usually do not work,
because they only have the US bands (850/1900). If you popped a few dollars for a sexier phone, like the SLVR
it will probably be a quad-band
(850/1900 and 900/1800) that will work
in Europe. The only way to know for sure is to check with your service provider.
If your phone will work in Europe, you need to tell your provider to activate international roaming.
My own experience shows that there are multiple levels of international service they must activate. Be sure they know you want to be able to make and receive calls with the US while traveling in Europe, as well as make and receive calls within Europe.
There should be no charge for you to activate and use international roaming, but you will be charged
for air time,
usually at a rate of $1 to $2 per minute
depending on the country. That adds up quickly, and you can easily end up with a phone bill in the hundreds of dollars.
If you do use this option, you might want to keep your phone turned off,
except when you are making a call or if you are expecting one. If your phone is on, you will be charged air time
every time the phone rings, even if you don't answer it.
Option #2 Rent a cell phone
There are companies that offer European cell phones on a rental basis. After signing a contract with them you pay a deposit and rental charges
for the period of your trip. They'll send you the phone
a few days before your departure. Every time you use the phone on your trip, the air time charges
for your calls are deducted from your credit card
. Once you arrive back home, you send the phone back
to the rental company.
While this sounds neat and easy, the truth is that for the cost of between one and two weeks' rental charges you can buy a Mobal World Phone
. At the end of the trip, the phone is still yours. You can use it for future trips, loan it to friends or family, but when you're not using it it doesn't cost you anything.Some things to consider when renting a cell phone:
The cost of the cell phone rental (usually $3 to $8 per day)
Minimum rental period (some companies will impose a minimum of at least one week)
Minimum daily call usage (you may have to agree to a minimum call usage per day that you will be charged for, whether you make the call or not)
Delivery charges (as much as $30 for shipping and collection)
Deposits/credit card authorizations (most companies will demand a deposit or put a hold of up to $1000 on your credit card
Option #3 Using local SIM cards
Your cell phone has a SIM card
in it, a small computer chip
that contains the connection to your service provider, your account information, and may have some of your phone book listings stored on it. Your phone won't work without it.
In many countries you can purchase a pre-paid SIM card
that gives you access to the local network. You buy air time using pre-paid vouchers, widely available in tobacco stores, news kiosks
, and mobile phone stores. Vouchers usually come in amounts ranging from €5 to €50.
On the plus side, a local SIM gives you local rates,
usually around 10¢ per minute for calls within the country. You get a local number,
so your friends can call you on your very own Swiss phone number (or Italian, or French, whatever). Even better, with many SIM cards incoming calls are free
no matter where they originate. That means if someone calls you, even from the US, you pay nothing!
But you knew there had to be down side, and it turns out there are lots of them. First,
you can't use a local SIM in just any old phone. It needs to be a GSM phone,
capable of working in Europe (see Option #1 above).Second,
the phone needs to be "unlocked."
It turn out that phones you get from your service provider (i.e., Cingular or T-Mobile for GSM) are locked to their SIM chips, and won't work with any other SIM chip in them.
You see that fancy MOTOKRZR you paid $49 for when you signed up doesn't really cost $49. It costs substantially more, but service providers subsidize the cost to you because they're locking you into a multi-year contract that will make them lots of money. To ensure you don't replace their chip with somebody else's, they use software to lock the phone to the chip.
So, in order to use a local SIM in your own phone you would need to have your phone unlocked. Your phone company is unlikely to do this for you, for obvious reasons. Some third-party cell phone stores can unlock some phones, but they charge for this and it's not always successful.
The only other option is to purchase an unlocked phone, but these can be very expensive, since no service provider is subsidizing the cost.
Another down side is that you have to purchase a local SIM card for every country
you plan to visit, at anywhere from $20 to $80 per SIM card
before you even make a call. If you plan to visit even two or three countries, it adds up quickly. And SIM cards expire.
If you load air time at least once a year (with most of them) they remain active, but if you go past that year without loading any air time, the SIM card expires and you'll have to buy another one.
Option #4 The Mobal World Phone
The Mobal World Phone
at just $49 is an inexpensive alternative to using your own phone with international roaming or local SIM cards, or to renting a world phone.
After the initial purchase the phone is yours to keep, and can be used on future trips, not just in Europe, but in over 140 countries around the world. When you are not using the phone, it doesn't cost you anything.
With the Mobal World Phone
you get a UK number that remains the same, and works no matter where you are traveling. If you are traveling in the UK, incoming calls are free. In other locations incoming and outgoing calls are comparable to using a US service provider with international roaming.
Another nice feature compared to local SIM cards is that all support is in English. If you do need help, you can call Mobal for free from your phone and hear a friendly English voice, no matter where in the world you are.
For me the cheapest and easiest way to stay in touch by phone is to use the Mobal World Phone
Accessing the Internet
Most cities have dozens of internet cafés,
and even the smallest towns have one or two internet points where, for a few dollars
an hour, you can send and receive your e-mail,
search the web, upload photos from your digital camera, update your blog, or even make a video call
to anywhere in the world.
In the last year or two I have seen a huge growth in the number of hotels, even budget hotels, that offer wi-fi
access from the rooms. Sometimes access if free, but often the wi-fi is offered through a local service provider for a small fee (about the same cost as going to an internet café, but at least you get to use your own computer).
With your laptop in hand, you're not limited to internet cafés and hotel wi-fi. As the photo above shows (taken near the main square in Siena), there are often free wi-fi hotspots. Just look for someone sitting in an odd place, on a bench or steps, working with their laptop. Chances are they've found an unsecured access point.