You Can't Call There from Here

Cell tips for the international traveller.

Your cell-phone won't work when you fly to Munich — or just about anywhere else in the world. That's because GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications), the European cellular standard, is quickly gaining acceptance everywhere but North America. In the good old US of A we use three different standards.

What should you do when you're traveling overseas? If you fly to Europe or Asia occasionally, you can rent a phone at most major airports. At London's Heathrow, for example, Budget Rent-a-Car leases cell-phones for about $8.70 per day, but beware of the calling rates. Within the United Kingdom, peak-time calls are about $1.30 per minute; if you call back to the States, rates climb to nearly $3 per minute.

What if you're traveling internationally on a regular basis? Then it makes sense to buy or lease a GSM phone and get a cellular account on the other side of the pond. Ed Henning lives in London, where he heads up the European branch of Ziff Davis Labs. He uses the Vodafone service and a Nokia phone. Vodafone covers 25 European countries and has GSM packages that start at about $34 per month, plus a $46 connection fee. "You land in Germany," brags Henning, "and up it pops. You can even get alphanumeric messages over GSM." (You can't, however, sign up for the service from the United States. In England call Vodafone — 1635-33-251 — and ask for its Vodacom service.)

If your expense account can't withstand those rates, sign up for an international calling card with AT&T (800-222-0300), MCI (800-444-3333), or Sprint (800-859-4626). While there are per-call surcharges, these cards generally avoid the hefty long-distance fees charged by local phone companies in other countries. They also enable you to talk directly to an English-speaking operator in nearly every country.

International calling cards won't give you mobility. For that you'll need to use a pay phone to check your voice mail back home. In Europe, pay phones that take change tend to be unreliable. Here's a tip: buy a debit telephone card — which you stick into a slot in the phone. They're generally available at newsstands and tobacco shops and they cost about a dollar.

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