Smart travelers dial for dollars
By Thurston Hatcher
(CNN) -- Sean Keener was traveling in India a few years ago when he decided to contact the folks back home.
He found a small store in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, where a merchant was selling calls from his telephone. They negotiated a price -- a few rupees per minute -- and he dialed the United States.
"I made a phone call home for an hour, which ended up being three or four bucks," says Keener, president of the travel Web site Bootsnall.com. "Not bad."
Not bad at all, considering the outrageous expenses some unwitting travelers run up when calling long-distance from the road.
"It's probably the number-one consumer complaint about traveling, other than the process of being abused by airlines," says Peter Greenberg, author of "The Travel Detective" and travel editor of NBC's "Today" show.
Avoid hotel phones
It pays to look before you dial, particularly in hotels, which often tack on hefty fees to call outside lines. Some countries add taxes on top of the fees.
"The only free phone call you ever get in your hotel is a wake-up call, and that's if they remember to call you," Greenberg says.
He favors cellular phones when he's on the road, using one for domestic calls and another GSM phone -- the standard for Europe and much of Asia and Africa -- when he's overseas.
"I've seen Fortune 500 CEOs never pick up hotel phones anymore. They use their cell phones," he says, noting that rates have fallen fast in the highly competitive industry.
If a cell phone doesn't work for you, prepaid calling cards often offer some of the best rates for long-distance dialing.
But prices-per-minute can vary widely from one store to another, and a card that may have good domestic rates may not be such a bargain for international calls, the cost of which can be tougher to determine.
Keener suggests waiting until you reach your destination before buying the card.
"You'll see some cheap phone cards that vendors at train stations and bus stations are selling that are going to get you a good deal," Keener said. Keep in mind that some cards may only work at specified phones.
Greenberg notes one other drawback of prepaid cards for business travelers -- no itemized bill for your calls.
"Prepaid cards phone cards are great for students, for backpackers, and to keep in your wallet in an emergency," he says.
Regular calling cards come in handy in a bind, but prepare to pay more for the convenience. A card from one major long-distance provider charges 59 cents per minute, plus a 99 cents-per-call surcharge. You can also use regular credit cards at some phone booths, but again, the costs can be steep.
Another option to consider if you're going abroad is eKit, a prepaid service enabling callers to use a toll-free number to phone to and from 61 countries. The service, which also offers e-mail and voice mail, promises low, competitive rates, listed on its Web site.
Hit the Web
Web-savvy travelers may be able to use the Internet to make calls back home, Keener says. If you know when the person you want to contact will be online, you can both use an instant messaging system with voice-chat capability. You'll need a sound card, speakers or headphones, a microphone and Internet access, but beyond that, it's free.
For a fee, but perhaps fewer complications, travelers might consider computer-to-phone calling, which requires only that callers have the microphone-equipped computer and Web access. Several sites offer low rates for domestic and international rates.
Greg Matusky, president of Gregory Communications in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, says his business has an 800 number that employees only use for calls when traveling. They even use it to reach a third party by setting up a three-way call from the office.
"It lets the call into the office, without fumbling and bumbling at an airport pay phone entering numbers from a calling card. At the same time, it's much cheaper than a hotel phone or a cell phone's roaming charges," he says.
It should come as little surprise that calls from those tempting phones in front of your airplane seat won't come cheap. GTE's Airfone, for example, charges a $3.99 connection fee plus $3.99 per minute. But it's more about convenience than economy.
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