More and more Americans want to enjoy the convenience and security of a wireless phone when they travel abroad, and it's getting easier to do it.
Cellphones are great for parents wanting to stay in touch with a traveling child. They are also ideal for anyone who wants to stay in contact with friends or family without having to leave behind a list of call numbers. There's no fumbling with currency or struggling to figure out an unfamiliar foreign phone.
The cost of all this convenience can vary considerably, depending on whether your existing wireless phone can be used abroad or you need to rent one. Rental costs also vary dramatically from company to company, so be sure you know all the charges before you commit.
The easiest and often the cheapest way to enjoy a cellular phone abroad is to take your own. Several US wireless carriers sell phones that work here and abroad, allowing you to take both your phone and your phone number on a trip. People calling you from the United States dial a local number, while you pay international roaming charges.
"Your features follow you. Your data applications follow you. It's as if you were still here," said Alexa Kaufman, a spokeswoman for Cingular Wireless.
Cingular, which is in the process of buying AT&T Wireless, charges $1.29 a minute for calls made or received in Europe. It charges 79 cents a minute in Canada and Mexico, $1.69 a minute in Australia, and $1.99 a minute in the Caribbean, South America, Central America, Eastern Europe, and Asia. The charge is $2.49 a minute in the Middle East, Africa, and Israel.
AT&T, Cingular, T-Mobile, and Nextel all sell phones that can operate in the United States and in more than 200 other countries operating on GSM, for Global System for Mobile, networks. But not all the phones sold by these companies can work on international frequencies, so check with your carrier. If your phone does have the capability, be sure to have your carrier activate it before departing. Activation fees sometimes apply and roaming charges vary.
For travelers who don't have a wireless phone they can take abroad, the next best option is renting. Lots of companies rent wireless phones (a quick Internet search yielded more than a dozen), but costs can add up quickly with fees for equipment rental, shipping, calls, and even special surcharges. It's best to shop around.
I checked prices at three companies and found wide variation in the charges. Equipment rental fees, including phones, carrying cases, chargers, adapters, and in some cases special business cards with the phone's number on them, ranged from $20 a week at Rent-A-Cellular to $49 a week at InTouch USA to $8 a day at Cellhire. Shipping charges were typically in the $20 to $30 range.
Calling rates depended on the type of service I wanted. InTouch USA charged $1.99 a minute for incoming and outgoing calls if I wanted a US number, so callers from the United States wouldn't have to dial an international number to reach me. For a local number in France, the destination I was pricing, the charge was $1.50 a minute. An InTouch representative said surcharges would also apply, 12 percent for the French number and 19 percent for the US number.
Cellhire offered a French number and charged $2.10 for all incoming calls, $1.80 for calls made within France, and $2.40 for calls made to the United States.
Rent-a-Cellular also offered a French number and charged 85 cents a minute for incoming and outgoing calls made in France. Incoming calls from the United States were free and calls to the United States were $2.45 a minute. Rent-a-Cellular used to operate a kiosk in Terminal C at Boston's Logan International Airport, but it pulled out last fall when all international flights were transferred to Terminal E.
Several rental car companies offer "free" wireless phones with rentals in Europe, but fees still apply so compare prices carefully. Avis, for example, contracts with Hirefone, a British cellular rental company. Hirefone charges no rental fee for the first seven days, but $5 a day thereafter. There are also shipping charges of $15 each way and calling rates of 92 cents a minute for all incoming calls and $3.17 a minute for outgoing calls. Someone wanting a US number would pay higher rates.
Bruce Mohl can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.