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Traveling overseas? Tips for saving on phone service

Cell phones and wireless data can be an absolute minefield when you leave the United States. Here are some valuable warnings and consumer tips from the FCC.

I'm an infrequent international traveler - paying two college tuitions is a great cure for wanderlust - but I've done enough to realize that, once you leave the United States, cell phones and wireless data can be an absolute minefield.  So I was pleased to see that the FCC takes the problem seriously enough to weigh in with valuable advice on the first day of summer - probably because it's the agency that gets complaints when consumers get burned.

How burned can you get? Before a brief trip to Europe last year, I was warned by an AT&T rep that I could face thousands of dollars in "data roaming" charges on my iPhone if I didn't remember to turn that function off before I landed in another country. (Want to read about someone who forgot? Click here.)

What I didn't realize till today, and thanks to the FCC, is that I could have partly dodged the problem by going to a Wi-Fi hotspot to download data to my phone.  Click here to read the FCC's whole tip sheet, "Wireless World Travel Made Simple." Here's some of its basic advice:

  1. Contact your provider. Your provider may have a plan to cover service outside of the United States.

  2. Check with your provider about Internet applications using Wi-Fi that may save you money.

  3. Turn off automatic downloads. Some phones and data services will automatically download data while the phone is on. Check with your provider or your phone's manufacturer to learn how to disable these automatic downloads.

  4. If you're a frequent international traveler, consider buying a "world phone" that will work anywhere. Check with your provider for more information.

  5. You may save money by purchasing a calling card overseas.

  6. Do not call mobile to mobile within foreign hotels. Use the hotel phones.

  7. Most hotels don't charge for incoming wireline calls, so pre-arrange a time to be in your hotel room for an incoming call from home.

  8. If you have an option of contacting someone in the country you're visiting at either a wireline or mobile number, call the wireline. It's likely to be cheaper.

  9. Be aware of the emergency calling number in the country you're visiting. VoIP services often lack some of the emergency calling features of a regular telephone, so be informed about these differences before using them.

The FCC also is offering a useful guide, with links, based on information from wireless companies and handset makers. The guide's headline also mentions VoIP  (Voice-over-Internet-Protocol) calls, but there's only a single reference to services such as Skype - clearly one of the best tools for making inexpensive international calls, if free meets your definition of cheap.  I'm not sure why the FCC downplayed that option. I'll write more about it another day.