Using cell phones or public telephones and calling cards to call home while traveling
The use of mobile phones while traveling is covered in depth on a separate page, so let's talk here about using a landline phone in a foreign country to make telephone calls—whether to call home, to call elsewhere in the country, or to call a third country (perhaps to make further travel plans).
The three best ways to call home are:
- Use Skype, either at an Internet cafe or on your own laptop/handheld—Recommended (and practically free)
- Use a local public phone and a calling card.
- Use a rented cellphone with a fixed-price plan.
Do not use your hotel phone. Ever. Not even to make local calls; not even to call your home operator for a calling card or collect call.
At best, the hotel will charge you the same rate as a pay phone. More often, they will charge you a premium rate. They will even charge you to make what, at a payphone, would be a free call to an operator or calling card number.
The two easiest (but very expensive) ways to call home from the road are:
- Use your own cellphone from home (hugely expensive).
- Use your hotel phone (see the sidebar to the right).
I advise against doing either, except in case of emergency. It'll cost you several dollars at the very least, and potentially as much as $20 or $30 for a simple call.
Though they are slowly disappearing as mobile phones become ubiquitous around the world, public pay phones—whether street corner pay phones, or phones in a calling office or at the local post office—remain the easiest, relatively inexpensive way to make calls (though, again, Skype is cheaper and easier—if you can find a cybercafe).
There are two types of public pay phones: those that take coins and those that take phonecards (local pre-paid cards you can pick up at tobacconists, newsstands, and other outlets—not, this is different from calling cards, about which more in a sec). Many now also accept credit cards.
To make a call within the same city: usually dial the number without the city code (though in a few countries in Europe, you now always include the city code).
To make a call to a different city within the same country: usually dial the full number, including the city code (and any initial zero on it).
NZ: 64To make a call to another country: follow the instructions on the phonecard, or (to dial direct), dial the international prefix (usually 00—if you're in the U.S. it's 011), then the country code (see box on right), area code/city code (usually dropping any initial zero), and number.
How to pay for calls home—Making international calls
To call internationally (i.e. to call home from the road), you have three options: (1) Use a local international phonecard, (2) Call collect, or (3) Use a calling card issued by an American phone company.
Need to send or receive a fax?
I don't know why people bother with faxes in the age of e-mail, but sometimes you just have to send a fax—a few hotels still insist upon it to confirm bookings.
Your hotel will most likely be able to send or receive faxes for you, sometimes at inflated prices, sometimes at cost. Otherwise, most stationery stores, photocopy shops, and some tobacconists offer fax services.Which to use? The international phonecards are easiest but priciest per-minute.
Calling collect is pretty easy, too, and about the same price (though, of course, whomever you're calling is paying for it!).
Calling cards attached to a home phone service or credit card take a bit more time to set up (you have to sign up first), but usually offer the cheapest per-minute rates—though often coupled with a monthly fee.
Research all; choose the one that best fits your needs. Just going to make a few calls? Go with the local International phone card or calling collect. Planning to phone home a ton? A calling card is probably the better way to go.
Here are the details.
- International phone card. Works just like the regular phonecards for pay phones, only optimized for international calls—and available in larger denominations so you can talk longer.
Just go into any tobacconist or news agent and say you want a international phone card for the country you are trying to call.
He will offer you cards costing varying amounts, each good for a certain number of minutes. Go to any payphone and follow the instructions printed on the card.
Phone home - Calling card and collect call access numbers
- Call collect. For operator-assisted international calls, you can always dial the local number of operator assistance—it's usually listed right on a public phone. However, you’ll get better rates by calling via a home operator.
Any operator for your home country works; you don't have to be a subscriber to their particular service back home (you can have Verizon at home and still use the AT&T operator from France).
The twist: no matter what the company, you need to call a different number in each country to connect with them; the box on the right links to these lists.
- Use a calling card. A calling card is kind of like a credit card designed just for making phone calls. Some are pre-paid (generally, you can add more online as you travel); some are billed to you after the fact. You just dial a local, toll-free number—find them through the links in the box to the right—then punch in your calling card number and the number you are trying to call. That's it.
You can do this from any public phone (sometimes this requires you to insert a coin or phonecard, which will be returned), a rented cellphone (it might use up minutes, but they'll be local ones), or a hotel phone (by right this should be free, but many hotels sneakily charge you to connect your room to the toll-free number).
Note that you can get your calling card from any phone outfit. It doesn't have to be the company you use for your home phone's service—though you can often get a good deal and decent rates from them if you bundle the whole deal.
[If you do use your home phone provider, make sure you switch to whatever calling plan allows for cheap international calls (frequently, there's some sort of military plan, aimed at overseas soldiers but often available to anyone who asks, that will secure the cheapest rates), even if only for the month in which you'll be traveling.]
FOR NEW ZEALANDERS
In an emergency (or if you have tons of money to burn), you can always just dial direct. To dial direct internationally, dial 00, then the country code, the area code, and the number.
Again, make international calls from a public phone if possible because hotels charge ridiculously inflated rates for direct dial—but take along plenty of international phonecards to to feed it.