Get ready: The cost of international mobile voice and data is getting downright obscene.

Calling home -- or the home office -- from abroad was never cheap. But if you were careful and crafty, you could communicate affordably: My favorite trick was to pick up a cheap phone or calling card in the local country I was visiting. But in this age of the no-value American Peso -- oh sorry, dollar -- that is all changing for the worse.

Sure, foreign carriers -- say, a Vodafone Group ( VOD) or Orange SA ( OGE - Get Report) -- are still happy to sell you a cheap 20-euro phone and a pay-as-you-go plan in say, 50 euro increments. But how those euros are charged against real minutes depends on many factors such as the county you are dialing from and to.

So costs are high for international calling: Fifty euros of wireless usage have lasted me as little as 45 minutes for some calls. And at today's $1.50 per euro, that means one 20-minute business yack wandering down the Champs-Elysees could easily set you back $50.

Do the math: Over a week of traveling and checking in at the shop, a four-figure cell-phone bill is a real possibility.

That means -- for the first time in my memory -- domestic American cellular operators' near usurious international calling plans might actually be the cheaper way to stay connected abroad. These solutions involve either paying up front for a more expensive, global-enabled phone from your carrier if their technology does not work well around the world, or renting a world phone, either through your provider or independently. Either way, you got nailed on usage big-time: $5 per minute -- or what folks used to pay for phone sex -- was not unheard of for some countries. And it can get worse than that.

Now there are free and low-cost Internet telephony alternatives such as Skype. But I cannot recommend them for business-class calling. Quality is still unstable, in my experience. And while local calling on a landline is still cheap, that is no slam dunk in Europe, even in better hotels. Quality is shaky and getting an open landline outside of a working office can be a hassle.

And though there are some steps you can take to protect yourself, you probably should do like I do, bite the bullet and get a phone here before you go. Being out of touch these days is simply not an option.

Dial T for Tips

A few words to the international-calling wise: Before leaving, be sure to call your carrier and ask about foreign calling deals. I got a nice discount just by calling and being nice about it. Either way, be sure you know your minutes, your plan and where you can and cannot make and take calls. And don't get sucked in by internationals who chat on their mobiles all day and all night. Budgeting you and your employee's calling is your only defense. So plan ahead.

But don't be afraid to nickel and dime: Borrow the phone of a local business or friend. Telephony usage for most businesses and residences is very reasonable, both wired and wireless, so they won't feel nearly the burn you will. And payback with dinner is a nice way to stay friends.

Also, be very careful about calling from country to country on a mobile phone. The cost of those calls is essentially unknowable until you get the bill three months later. And here, the sky is the limit in terms of cost. I've seen nearly $10 a minute for some calls. And don't be fooled into thinking texting is cheap. You will be charged per text message, and fees can vary widely. Fifty cents per hit is not unheard of; but that can get much higher faster, depending on the call specifics.

Here is what you need to know for the major American wireless carriers: Knowledge and discipline is your only means of staying out of paying more for the cell phone than for your airfare.


Verizon ( VZ - Get Report) offers a few global-savvy phones, like the Motorola z6c, that start at about $179. It also has a Global Rental plan that starts at about $4 per day. The company sweetens the deal with 24/7 phone support -- as it should, considering what you are going to pay. Outgoing voice charges from Europe to America are around $1.29 per minute, with incoming rates in the 38-cent-per-minute range. Text messages run 65 cents each and data is a numbing 29 cents per 10 kb, enough for a just a few emails. Here is more on Verizon Wireless' plan.


Sprint ( S - Get Report) keeps it simpler than its bigger rival, but certainly not less expensive. Sprint relies on mostly rentals for its international customers, depending on whether you are a Sprint or Nextel user. Plans start at $45 dollars per week to rent a basic Nokia 3120, but rise fast: A Nokia 6630, for example, is a very pricey $70 a week. And usage is the same punishing $1.29 per minute average for Europe, though Sprint does have a decent value on data. It runs at a not-too-awful 16 cents per kb. But text messages are a frugal 15 cents each. So that may be an answer there. Check out Sprint Ahead.


This mostly Western U.S. carrier partners with a worldwide cell phone rental company called WorldCell TravelComm. Weekly rentals run $40 for the first week, but usage costs, frankly, are brutal. We were quoted Italy-to-U.S. call rates in the $2.29 range but there are discounts for prepaid cards and discounts for Alltel customers, which I am not. Fifty minutes starts at $75 for Italian calling. But Alltel does have an interesting tiered plan for business users. If you pay $68 a week for a phone, usage rates drop to $1.89 per minute from Italy. There is a $30 shipping fee for the phone.


AT&T ( T - Get Report), with its more world-friendly phone infrastructure, offers relatively attractive international calling options. The AT&T World Traveler plan costs $5.99 per month and offers discounts on usage costs. Plus, many of the company's American phones work around the world without need for a rental unit. I found that a Samsung Blackjack I am testing will, in fact, work in Italy. But again, it won't be a bargain. I can expect to pay $1.29 per minute for international roaming, and a hefty 2 cents per kb for data. Now that may sound cheap but that's only enough data to barely load a Web page. Considering that you pay $50 a month for unlimited Internet access on a hard wire, costs add up fast. Text messages run 50 cents each, though my voice usage will drop to 99 cents if I opt for the monthly international roaming package. This is actually not a bad choice if you are an AT&T customer. For more, try AT&T Roaming.


The friendliest overseas deals come from this much-maligned American operator. T-Mobile, like AT&T, supports a more world-savvy phone standard. Most of its phones will work abroad. The good news is there are no special charges I could find for international roaming for most devices. You do, however, still have to activate something called WorldClass Service by registering on the My-Mobile Web site.

Usage is almost not awful at 99 cents per minute on average for Europe. Data rates are also reasonable: 1 cent per kb. But texting is not super cheap at 35 cents per message.

Assuming you are an AT&T or T-Mobile customer, these are about the best deals out there. As ugly as that sounds, I'm afraid -- for this summer, at least -- it's about as good as it gets.

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.