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.
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.