Going on vacation is supposed to be a relaxing affair, but things can tense up quickly when you realize how much you’re paying to use your cell phone overseas. That’s because all those calls you make for pennies here in Canada cost $2 or more a minute when you’re lying on the beach in Barbados making dinner reservations. “Before you go away, do some research on what calls are going to cost you and what the best options are,” says Marc Choma of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association in Ottawa.
The place to start is with your cell phone company. It will post international rates on its website, as well as a list of which countries it offers service in. Inquire if it offers any special deals that cover the area you’re visiting. You won’t have any trouble getting a package that covers the U.S., but it’s harder to save money elsewhere. For instance, the cheapest plan Rogers offers for Southeast Asia is $230 for 100 minutes. If you are going to make a lot of calls, it’s worth it. But otherwise stick to the roaming rate of $1 to $3 per minute. Or try text messaging: it’s 60 cents a minute.
Another thing to ask is whether your phone works overseas. Why? Because just as Apple and PC aren’t compatible in the computer world, there are two competing cellphone standards: CDMA and GSM. CDMA is more common in North America, but GSM is popular in the rest of the world, and a CDMA phone won’t work in a country that only has GSM service.
One solution is to buy a new phone on vacation. In Europe and Asia especially, you can easily buy a phone at an airport kiosk. In the U.K., Vodafone sells phones for about £30, or $56 Canadian. With a pay-as-you-go card it’s 20 pence a minute (about 37 cents Canadian) versus $1 to $3 using your own phone.
A friend of mine who travels frequently has an even better way. When his plane lands, he heads to the nearest phone outlet to buy an SIM card–a fingerprint-sized device found in the back of all GSM phones. By swapping his phone’s SIM with one from the local phone company, he pays the cheaper local rates. In Singapore, for instance, a SIM card cost him $50 (U.S.) but he paid only 20 cents a minute.
The downside of swapping SIMs is your phone number changes. Also, phone companies prevent you from switching SIMs by “locking” their phones.One solution is to have two phones: one for home and another unlocked phone so you can change the SIM wherever you go, says Salim Jamal of RoamSimple.com, a Toronto company that sells SIM cards to international destinations for about $19 and second-hand unlocked phones for $50.
Of course, there’s another alternative that costs nothing. Just turn off your cell phone on vacation. Then you can really relax.