New developments in making calls overseas affordable
Good news is on the horizon for Europeans who like to stay in touch via mobile while travelling.
Starting in July 2012, the European Union will be lowering its cap on the roaming rates phone companies can charge for overseas calls and texts, from 0.32 euro a minute to 0.24 euro a minute. The cap will continue to drop each year until July 2014.
It's unclear at this stage how the cap may affect data charges for visitors to the EU. However when the changes do go into effect, it will be a small, but welcome reprieve from the high bills that most travellers face when making calls or using the Internet outside of their home network.
In the mean time, there are many cost-effective options for using your mobile phone abroad, and each one has its pros and cons. Opting for a temporary international rate plan on your own phone is the most convenient option, but can cost a bundle. A SIM card is the cheapest and most flexible option, but it means using a different phone number. Skype is free but requires an Internet connection. Rental phones are cost effective if you use them often, but are less so for one-off trips. Phone cards are cumbersome; you have to push 25 keys over the course of a few minutes to place a single call.
Since we last took a look at the issue, several new tools have come onto the market hoping to solve this traveller dilemma. I reviewed these services to help you make the right call.
In many ways, Viber is like Skype. The smartphone app routes free calls and text messages to other iPhone/iPad and Andriod users via the Internet, enabling you to cut down on international roaming charges. You can only contact people who have also downloaded the app, and you need wi-fi or a 3G Internet data connection to use the service.
Unlike Skype, Viber lets you use your existing contact list and displays a Viber icon next to the contacts who have also downloaded the app. (Skype and other services force you to import or manually re-enter your contact list.) When I was out of service and received calls, Viber sent me a text message. The only advantage to Skype's app – which lacks these features – is that it has been around longer, downloaded by more people and thus, can connect you to a wider number of users.
Through Tep, North American visitors to Europe can rent a smart phone that may cost less than buying an international calling-and-data package. When your trip is over, pop the smart phone inside the provided envelope and mail it back to the company. Depending on where you live and are visiting, you can have the phone delivered to you or pick it up from a central urban location.
Since you know your rates up front, you're unlikely to be hit with "bill shock" for calls and Internet browsing. But since the service debuted last spring, it is still smoothing out various problems.
For example, my two calls to customer service were exasperating, 40-minute affairs. During one of them, a representative directed me to the wrong place to pick up the phone downtown. When I did get a hold of the device, it still had the name and personal information of its previous user -- meaning the data hadn't been fully wiped from it. But the device itself worked as promised, and sending the phone back in the mail worked smoothly.
The price: Rates vary, typically $31 per device, and $4.10 a day for unlimited calls to landline phones in Europe and the US. Internet use costs $16 per day.
When it debuts this autumn, this service promises to eliminate roaming charges for travellers worldwide. Pop a chip in your GSM phone (like those used by AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile) and whenever you leave your home telecom network you will often be charged low, competitive rates instead of outrageous ones. Case in point: An American visiting Australia and calling back home would pay $0.17 per minute on Polar Wireless, compared with $1.70 on AT&T or T-Mobile. However, not every country provides similarly steep savings. An American visiting India and calling home would only pay a slightly lower rate on Polar Wireless than on other options.
Unlike a standalone SIM card, the Polar Wireless chip allows you to keep your existing phone number. No more having to give people your new number or deal with call forwarding. You can also continue to use your phone's existing contact list.
Since the product hasn't been released, its promises have not been put to the test. It appears that the product uses a "call-back" system, which means it causes a significant time delay in placing each call. You may not want to sign up for the service until the product has been adequately reviewed.
Macs, iPhone 4s, and iPad 2s can now make free video calls as seamlessly as Skype, which up until now had been the gold standard in video conferencing. For it to work, each party must have online access, which means a traveller has to be tethered to the free wi-fi in a café or hotel lobby. It will work on an Internet data plan, but FaceTime eats up data usage quickly, at a rate of about three megabytes a minute or more.
Though calling is free, iPhone 4 and iPad 2 users need to download the FaceTime app ($.99). Mac users will need to download the app, or the new Lion operating system (about $30), which is integrated with the app.
You can use your existing contact list to send someone an invitation to chat, though you'll have to make sure you've noted their phone number with the full international prefix, such as 011 or +44, if you haven't already, to allow calls to go through while overseas. Not feeling photogenic? You can decline an invitation and then respond by another method, such as text, e-mail, or voice if you prefer.
While some improvements have been made, the industry is still missing a solution that can deliver cheap calls on the devices that are most popular with business travellers and entrepreneurs without large corporate expense accounts, like many models of Blackberry, Nokia, Samsung and LG. Ironically, business travellers are the ones who are the most in need of staying in touch affordably while travelling overseas. Your move, Skype.
Sean O'Neill is the tech travel columnist for BBC Travel