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Four Ways to Save on Calling When Abroad

Follow these tips to help ensure you don't get a monster phone bill the next time you travel overseas.
June 3, 2011

Frequent business travelers might have to factor in new cost when abroad this year: Sky-high fees for international mobile phone calls and data use.

While carriers such as Verizon, AT&T and Sprint have made it so the new generation of mobile calling applications -- including Skype Mobile, iCall and Talkatone -- work on business smartphones, they've also been raising per-minute call rates, the cost to send and receive texts, and fees for visiting a website or downloading a file. If you travel to Sweden, for example, Verizon will charge you $1.29 per minute or 99 cents if you prepay for a discounted plan. Take the train to Slovenia and you'll be charged $1.99 per minute, or $1.49 with the same discount.

Text rates are similarly steep. For example, AT&T charges 50 cents for each text sent when overseas. Data rates can run from $5 up to $20 per megabyte, or enough to download just a few Web pages.

The phone company representatives I spoke with all say the higher fees reflect the overall cost of mobile roaming internationally. That means the impact on your bottom line when using your mobile device internationally can be significant.

Follow these four tips to make sure you don't get a monster phone bill the next time you travel abroad:

1. Call your phone carrier before you travel.
All major carriers offer online international sales-support staff and discounts for calling in and planning ahead. So call them and make sure you fully understand these issues:

2. Use Wi-Fi for calling, messaging, conferencing and accessing the Web to avoid international roaming charges.
Reference your phone's manual or contact a representative at your phone carrier and ask him or her to walk you through the process of optimizing your phone for overseas use. This usually involves the following steps:

Remember, roaming begins as soon as you cross international borders. Also, many phones have features that limit updating email and social networks only over Wi-Fi networks.

3. Take calls only from clients.
As hard as it may be, stay off your cellphone as you wander the antiquities of, say, Rome or Athens. My rule of thumb is that my friends and family will understand if I don't call. My clients will not. So, I take client calls only and do everything else -- dialing out, calling my mom and checking my email -- using a low-cost Wi-Fi connection.

4. Consider using smartphone calling apps.
These can be big money-savers since they use low cost Wi-Fi connections instead of pricey international cell networks to provide service. Skype Mobile, for example, charges about 30 cents per minute for a call in Italy. I also like Palo Alto, Calif.-based Tango's app, because it offers a free video phone service. And if your business supports what's called session initiation protocol (SIP) mobile service -- that is the standard used by such tools as GoogleVoice -- consider Czech Republic-based Acrobits's Softphone app ($7 to download). The app is designed to work with more company-oriented internet calling technologies and should provide a more professional experience than other services.

Master these four steps and you may stand a good chance of coming back from your overseas trip with some new business and without a whopping cellphone bill.