How to Make Cheap Phone Calls From Abroad

When you're traveling internationally, phone costs can be astronomical. Here's how to get around it.
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VENICE, Italy -- Talk about the ultimate vacation: lunch on the northern island of Torcello at the real Cipriani's -- not the knock-off versions around the world trying to peddle themselves as the real thing.

Sunset dinner on the Giudecca Canal. Hazelnut gelato, chocolate and whipped cream under a hazy moon at midnight as the tide seeps over the storied tiles of the Piazza San Marco.

Then you try to call home and tell your friends all about it, and ... poof! The magic is gone.

International telephony remains the ultimate stain on an otherwise perfect vacation. Calling from one country to the next without using computers is a throwback to the Cold War era. Each country jealously guards its telecom borders, and you have no idea how much you've spent until you've spent it.

And expect to be gouged. I have seen international phone bills larger than the plane tickets that launched the trip in the first place.

So in the vein of keeping your fabulous summer vacation actually fabulous, here are my tips for international telephony:

1. Never, ever, use a U.S.-based cell phone when you travel.

I'd love to be in the meeting in which

Verizon

(VZ) - Get Report

or

AT&T

(T) - Get Report

execs decide what their international calling plans will cost.

Do they break out in peals of sarcastic laughter and high fives as they decide, as is the case with Verizon, that calling from, say, Germany to the United States will cost about $1.50 per minute, plus about $4.00 per day on top of your existing plan (which, by the way, lies dormant while you're away)?

Bottom line: Don't use an American phone abroad. It's a complete rip-off.

2. Stay off local cell phones.

Yes, I know. I, too, have felt the pull to get a local cell phone and wander through the antiquities as I chat away about the Mets. That is, after all, what the locals do. But don't get suckered in.

Unless you can maintain a fulltime foreign cell-phone account in the country where you're doing the calling -- Orange in England, for example, won't help your Orange in France account -- you will pay through the nose.

Cell phones in other countries are not subsidized by the carrier as they are here in America, so they are not cheap.

Then you will need a local SIM, or digital identity. SIM prices vary from affordable -- say 5 euros in Italy -- to insane -- 40 euros or more in France.

And then there are the minutes: You don't buy minutes, you buy euros. Then the phone company decides what you have spent. No joke. I've burned through more than $75 on a single call.

3. Use a local calling card on the landline in your hotel.

I realize it sounds insane that your hotel phone is the best place to make calls, but in my zillions of miles of travel, I've found that to be the current best answer, but with a twist. Use a local country phone card to call internationally.

Most hotels leave 800 numbers unbilled, or charge a flat, one-time fee. And since much of the world is much smaller than in the U.S., many countries have sophisticated long-distance plans aimed at the entire populous.

So you can call essentially any country in the world for peanuts, as long as you can procure the right deal: usually a third-party calling card, number and access code.

These plans are widely available at local Internet cafes. You can expect plenty of travel hilarity in using local calling cards, starting with a marvelous interpretive dance as you attempt to buy one. Pay cash, and get ready for plenty of tinkering with phone menu options in foreign languages.

But there is no beating the price.

My card, from a company called Seven, cost me all of 5 euros. That's what I would have paid for about three minutes on my cell phone, and I got about an hour and a half of calling out of the card.

And the quality? Great. I even used the card to call into my radio show from Venice, and I'm betting not one of the listeners could tell.

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Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.