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
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