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Sascha Segan of PC Magazine joins host David Lytle to talk about how the new generation of tech toys can make travel easier and safer. Sascha explains the ins and outs of unlocked cell phones, international roaming, buying local SIM cards, good carriers, and when you should consider carrying a cell phone when you're traveling abroad. They also discuss some of the best phones for international use, calling cards, using your laptop as a phone, and what to expect no matter which option you choose.

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Top Tips from This Podcast

See transcript below for links to more information.

  • Unlocked Cell Phones: Switch from carrier to carrier without buying a new phone from the company.
  • International Travel: Get a pre-paid SIM card to use with your unlocked phone.
  • Verizon/Sprint Users: Get cheap European pre-paid phones. Verizon/Sprint phones aren't compatible in Europe.
  • Japan/Korea: Rent a phone when you arrive.
  • Light Usage: For light usage calls, use the calling card/pay phone combination.
  • Internet Cafes: Make calls through the computer using Skype.

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

Announcer: Welcome to the frommers.com travel podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit www.frommers.com.
David Lytle: Hi, welcome to the frommers.com podcast. My name is David Lytle, editorial director of frommers.com. Today we're talking to Sascha Segan, who's the lead analyst for mobile phones at PC Magazine. At PC Magazine, he reviews about a hundred cell phones a year, and posts on the PC.com website, Gearlog.com, and AppScout.com websites. He's also a columnist for frommers.com, and has written or contributed to several books, including Priceline For Dummies. Hi, Sascha.
Sascha Segan: Hi, David.
David: How's it going?
Sascha: Pretty good. I'm sitting over here at the PC Mag offices, trying out some phones, and getting ready for the holidays, basically.
David: Oh, that's great. Sounds great. So, basically, when you're reviewing phones, do you just get a trial version from the companies, and you use them for a period of time, and you give them the thumbs up or the thumbs down?
Sascha: Yes, that's basically what I do. I have a six-page script of repeatable tests that I put every cell phone through, having to do with everything from sound quality to reception to how well it plays mp3s, takes photographs, runs games...I mark down on a spreadsheet the results of all of these tests and then write up a review.
David: Ah, interesting. I think most people are aware now that phones are no longer just phones, that they do so many other things. You can get your basic phone, to one with a camera, to one that plays music files, to something like a Treo now that will run Microsoft Office programs, and you can look at a spreadsheet while you're traveling on your train to work.
Sascha: The advantage of one of these multimedia phones for travelers is in reducing the amount of baggage you have to carry. If you don't have to carry a separate mp3 player, that might need a separate power supply and separate power port in your hotel room, or you don't have to carry a separate digital camera that, once again, needs a separate power supply and separate batteries, et cetera, that means you can travel a lot more light. You don't have to carry so much with you when you're walking down the street, and there's less to lose or steal.
David: Right, exactly. You could have one item that's covered under your insurance policy, as opposed to seven items that are covered. And it is always a great idea to travel as lightly and to be as nimble as possible.
Sascha: Exactly. That way you leave yourself open to spontaneity and to as many different kinds of experiences as you can have.
David: Yeah, exactly. So let's talk about some specific things that travelers might need to know about when using a cell phone, domestically or abroad. Recently, one of the topics that you and I had talked about previously was that the Copyright Office has declared that it's legal to unlock a cell phone. Can you first explain to people what that means -- the difference between a locked cell phone and an unlocked cell phone?
Sascha: Most cell phones that you buy nowadays through U.S carriers are locked to that carrier. Which means if you buy a Cingular phone, or a T-Mobile phone, for instance, you can only use that phone with Cingular or T-Mobile, ever.
David: OK, tied to the carrier.
Sascha: If you buy a Cingular GoPhone, you might not even be able to move it from pre-paid to post-paid. Unlocking means that you can use one phone with a wide range of different services. So you can use the same phone on Cingular or T-Mobile or -- and this is important for travelers -- local cell phone services in foreign countries that might charge much, much lower per-minute rates than you would get from Cingular or T-Mobile's roaming plan. So it's a great way to save money when you are traveling abroad and using a cell phone.
David: Is it more expensive to purchase an unlocked phone as opposed to a locked phone?
Sascha: You can find unlocked used phones on eBay. New unlocked phones are often more expensive, because you're not getting the $150 contract discount that you typically get when you're buying a phone with a contract, so you can buy used phones on eBay, and what the Copyright Office plan lets you do is, if you buy a locked phone through Cingular or T-Mobile, you can now call Cingular or T-Mobile, or go to one of several unlocking services on the Web, and they'll unlock it for you so that you can then use it with these foreign carriers overseas at lower rates.
David: Good to know. So, once you have an unlocked cell phone, what does somebody need to do to make that phone work, say, in France or Italy?
Sascha: There's a couple of things you need to know. First of all, it has to have the right frequency bands to work in your destination country. The United States works on 850 and 1900 MHz. Most of the rest of the world works on 900 and 1800. So you're going to need a phone that's either tri-band or, ideally, quad-band, which would include all of those bands, and then be able to roam anywhere in the world.

Now, if you have a tri-band or quad-band phone, you can call Cingular or T-Mobile -- and I haven't mentioned Sprint or Verizon yet for a reason. I'll get to them in a minute.

David: OK.
Sascha: You can call Cingular or T-Mobile and tell them to turn on international roaming. That'll let you roam with your home phone number abroad, but at pretty high rates, usually one or two dollars a minute. If you want to use the lower rates provided by local cell phone companies in foreign countries, you get your phone unlocked, and then either go to a company called Telestial.com, which is like celestial but starting with a T, or you go to a local cell phone shop in your destination country, and you buy a pre-paid SIM card. And that's a little chip that slips under the battery in your phone and essentially turns it temporarily into a foreign phone, and then you're paying the rates that those people in the foreign country pay at home.
David: Right. And with that SIM card, does that have a different telephone number, then?
Sascha: Yes, it turns --
David: Gives you a local number.
Sascha: Right, it turns your phone genuinely into a French phone or Spanish phone or whatever. So one of the difficulties there is that the documentation and the instructions for the SIM card may be in the destination language. Which, if you don't speak it, one of the advantages of going to Telestial here in the U.S. is they'll give you English-language tech support for these foreign-language packages.
David: That's good to know. I mean, it would be a horrible thing for somebody to arrive at their destination thinking they can walk into a local telecom shop of some kind, a phone shop, get their card, and then suddenly figure out they have no idea how to use it. They've saved money on something they can't use.
Sascha: Exactly. And if you don't speak -- you're in Italy, and you don't speak Italian, well, that's definitely a reason to go to Telestial before you leave and get everything set up in advance, as opposed to going to the Italian shop even if the Italian shop charges less.
David: Right, and we already know how hard it is to read and understand instructions in your own language.
Sascha: Now, I just remembered that I said I would get to Sprint and Verizon a little later. All of this unlocking stuff does not apply to Sprint or Verizon customers, because their phones use a totally different system. Sprint and Verizon phones can roam to about 35 different countries, including Canada, Mexico, China, South Korea, but nowhere in Europe, because they use radio technology that isn't used over there. So if you're a Sprint or Verizon customer and you're going to Europe, you may need to just buy a cheap European pre-paid phone.
David: So you can just walk in? What's the cost if you just walk into a phone shop once you get there? What's a phone going to run you, a cheap phone?
Sascha: A cheap new pre-paid phone with some service will run you probably $80, but you can find much better deals on eBay.
David: OK.
Sascha: Just go on eBay, find a used European phone, they'll send it to you, you could probably get one for $20 without a SIM card, and then you go get the SIM card either through Telestial or at a shop in your country.
David: OK.
Sascha: Then you can keep that phone forever and use it for future trips as well.
David: Sure, absolutely. Some people might be wondering, I mean, why do you need a phone anyway when you're traveling? Haven't you already made all your reservations, and you're going to be staying in a hotel, so...
Sascha: So you're saying that your plans never change while you're on the road, and nothing ever goes wrong?
David: I'm not saying that, but I'm saying listeners may be wondering, "Why must we tie ourselves to a cell phone?"
Sascha: I don't see it as tying yourself to a cell phone, especially if your cell phone has a foreign number that you haven't told people at home what it is.
David: Right.
Sascha: I really see it as giving yourself more power. It gives you the power to double check and change reservations; it gives you the power to call for information; it gives you the power to even call home, or be called by home, if there are things you're worried about or want to check in about.
David: Right, like children.
Sascha: Like children, or pets, or elderly parents.
David: Right. I just, I wanted to get that point out there. I know that when I've traveled and followed your advice on a previous trip, and actually ordered a phone from Telestial -- I still have it, and I've used it on a couple of different trips -- it's great. It's unlocked, I get a SIM card when I go to the destination. If I use up my pre-paid 25 minutes, I can go into, like, in Rome, go into a tobacco shop and just buy some more minutes. It's great for making phone reservations, changing your plans, getting directions. It's also a great way to challenge your language skills. There's nothing more exhilarating than finding out you've actually made a phone call, and used a foreign language, and been understood.
Sascha: Yeah, it's a cultural experience as well.
David: Yeah, exactly, which is what we always try and encourage people to do, is to live like the locals. So speaking the language and making a phone call is definitely what every local does in their area.
Sascha: It can even increase harmony within your traveling companions. Since I am the cell phone guy, when I go on trips, both my wife and I both have phones. And let's say that I want to go look at something and it doesn't particularly interest her, or I'd like to take a nap and she wants to go out to a museum.
David: Sure.
Sascha: Well, we can do that, with free knowledge that, "Oh, honey, I'm just going to take a nap, and when I wake up I'll call you, and we'll figure out where to meet."
David: Exactly. Exactly. It doesn't mean that you're also chained to your traveling companion, that there is even freedom within a group or a couple to sort of do your own thing.
Sascha: Right, and people did live without cell phones, of course, but I think cell phones can just help you live better.
David: And of course you would say that, but I agree with you. Do you have suggestions for specific international phones that you think are better than others?
Sascha: Yes. On Cingular and T-Mobile, I really like the Sony Ericsson models, including the Sony Ericsson W-300i, and the W-810i. The Motorola V188 is an inexpensive one on T-Mobile, and the T-Mobile Dash and Blackberry Pearl are two phones on Cingular and T-Mobile that are more sort of the business professional email phones.

Now, you might not be able to get your email while you're overseas, but at least you'll be able to make phone calls.

David: OK. That's good. I was actually, after the holidays are over I was going to get a new phone, because I have had mine for three years, and I was looking at the new Treo 680 and the Blackberry Pearl, trying to decide between those two.
Sascha: The big decision between those two is really around the Blackberry Pearl's kind of weird keyboard.
David: Yeah, it's tiny.
Sascha: It's tiny and it combines letters. What I've generally found is that, if you're coming from text messaging, if you're a person who used to text a lot on a regular phone, you'll love the Pearl, but if you're maybe an older person who thinks texting on a phone is insane and you need a real keyboard, then the Pearl is no competition to the Treo.
David: OK, good to know. Especially for business travelers who want efficiency, it's an important point to know. On a cost issue, what should somebody expect to pay? Let's say they're going to Europe for ten days, they want to get basically a temporary unlocked phone, and they'll probably use ten minutes a day, max. What should they expect to pay for something like that?
Sascha: If you go through Telestial you'll probably pay $50 or $60 for a SIM card with 20 minutes of calls on it, and of course you can recharge that SIM card as much as you want.
David: Yes.
Sascha: Now you can also get, they sell packages for about $100 or $120, you can get a phone with a SIM card with about $20 on it. You could also kind of roll your own, if you're a real adventure traveler -- go onto eBay, find a used phone for $30, get a SIM card at a shop in the local country for $30, and you end up only paying $60 instead of $120. The difference, of course, is in terms of convenience and tech support and English language speaking.
David: Right. I would say that that's a fairly low-cost addition to a trip, for freedom to go about and still be able to stay in contact with other people.
Sascha: And as you've found, you can use it for many trips. When you get a phone for foreign use, or when you unlock your phone, it's not a throwaway. SIM cards generally last between 90 days and a year without you using them, but the phone can just stay in a drawer forever and you'll power it up when you need it.
David: Right, exactly. For people who are listening who've never seen a SIM card, it's, what, about 3/4 of an inch by one inch, if even?
Sascha: Yeah, it's like half the size of a postage stamp.
David: Yeah. You take your battery out, typically, and there's a slot where it goes in, and then you put your battery back.
Sascha: Right, and once again, it's only Cingular and T-Mobile phones and some Nextel phones that have SIM cards. Sprint and Verizon use a different system, and that's why we're not talking about this stuff for Sprint and Verizon users. If you're with Sprint and Verizon, you either have to get a new foreign phone or go with their roaming rates.
David: You know, it sort of raises the question of, why are there so many different bandwidths? Why is there not a universal bandwidth that all phones can work on? Is this just the free marketplace?
Sascha: Yeah, well, it's the free market, and it's one of those situations where there were a whole bunch of little decisions that added up. For instance, when Europe established the 900 bandwidth for their cell phones, well, it turned out that part of that was being used by the U.S. Military over here, so we had a slightly-off-of-that 850, which was different, et cetera, et cetera.

Then when 850 all filled up and yet more companies wanted to enter the cell phone space, the United States managed to find a little bit of space at 1900, but in Europe somebody else was using that, so there was a little bit of space at 1800. It's really just, there was a lack of coordination.

David: OK. It's actually kind of funny that they infringed upon the U.S. Military's bandwidth.
Sascha: Well, the U.S. Military isn't using it in Europe. And it's actually amazing how much of the spectrum is used by the military.
David: Right, not a surprise. I mean, government agencies in general, it's like television bandwidth in the United States, you have to lobby to get your frequency, and a lot of it is reserved for military and government applications.
Sascha: Exactly. And while European countries are pretty good at coordinating with each other, and North American countries are pretty good at with coordinating with each other -- for instance, the U.S. and Canada use all the same technologies and spectrum bandwidths -- there's not usually much cooperation across the Atlantic on these kinds of things. And Japan and Korea use their own systems entirely.
David: Really?
Sascha: Yeah, for a long time Japanese phones were completely incompatible with the entire rest of the planet. They've only started to come together recently.
David: So if you're traveling to Korea or Japan, basically you're going to have to get a phone on the ground.
Sascha: Yeah, and those are actually the last places where renting a phone becomes a good idea.
David: OK.
Sascha: With going to Europe, or to most of the rest of the world, renting a phone is more expensive and less convenient than just getting a cheap pre-paid phone, but in Japan and Korea, it's a different marketplace, the rental companies are really affordable, and you can actually just rent your phone at the airport. It's what I do whenever I go to Japan.
David: Yeah, just get it from the airport and go.
Sascha: Yeah.
David: If somebody is renting a phone, let's say from Telestial, or they're buying a cheap one from eBay, how much time should they allow? You don't want to do this two days before you're getting on a plane.
Sascha: No. I would say, if you're going through Telestial, allow yourself two weeks to get everything together.
David: OK.
Sascha: If you're planning to do the ultra-discount eBay route, allow yourself a month.
David: OK. That's good, yeah, because it's individuals.
Sascha: Yeah, and who knows what will pop up on eBay when, and who you'll have to argue with? It's, as always with traveling, one of those questions of money versus time. You can always save money if you're willing to spend more time, and vice versa.
David: Right, exactly. I know that one of the consistent postings on our message boards that we have about cameras and phones and other gadgets on frommers.com is this complaint that they didn't get their phone in time. And I think that's sort of relative in people's minds, how quickly they think they can get the equipment they're renting. So it's good to know that -- allow two weeks for a standard company, a month for eBay.
Sascha: Yeah. If you decide to go without a phone and you still want to make calls home, you do have options. A lot of people on the message boards, I've noticed, still like using calling cards from pay phones.
David: Right.
Sascha: And pay phones are becoming a lot less common across most of the world, because almost everybody has cell phones now.
David: Right.
Sascha: But for a really light-duty, outgoing-calls-only solution, you can get calling cards, once more at those tobacco shops, that are pretty cheap and will let you make a couple of calls. Or sometimes you can go into Internet cafe and use a service like Skype, where the calls are free but you'll be paying for the computer time.
David: Exactly, so you can go into an Internet cafe and pay like 5 euro for a half an hour to have access to Skype.
Sascha: Right. And the question there is that you have to find an Internet cafe that supports Skype, because they may or may not allow some programs on some machines, and we're getting back to the reason why I prefer to bring a cell phone, because it's in my control.
David: Right. Exactly, and if you're using Skype, which I am using Skype right now to talk to you, you're going to be talking out loud in a space, so if you're doing this in an Internet cafe...I've never been in an Internet cafe where they have private booths.
Sascha: That's an excellent point.
David: Right. And it's sort of the idea with cell phones in general, the annoying guy who talks loudly and you hear one end of a conversation that you don't want to be part of, it would be the same thing in an Internet cafe.
Sascha: Well, speaking of that, did you hear about the airlines that plan to allow to cell phones in the air soon?
David: Yes. I think that's a horrible idea. If they can sequester a space -- and I can understand it if it's a long-distance flight, the possibility of, especially business travelers, who need to be in communication. But otherwise, a plane is the last place I want to hear somebody's one-ended conversation.
Sascha: What I really like is the idea that apparently these in-air telephony services can allow, if they choose, everything but voice, and I think that's a great idea. So people can send text messages and emails, et cetera --
David: Oh, absolutely.
Sascha: Without talking.
David: Right, exactly, then it's much more of a PDA function and less of a telephone function where you're actually talking to one another. That I would go for.
Sascha: And especially in the rest of the world, you'll find that people use text messaging a lot instead of making phone calls.
David: Right. American teenagers and all the Danish.
Sascha: Not just the Danish, all the Europeans! I think everybody except Americans and Canadians.
David: Yeah, it's just fascinating just how communications has changed because of the rise of this form of technology. Text messaging and email and mobile telephones. Something to talk about another time, but I was reading an essay last night about false connections that are created by technology. This idea of false intimacy where you think you've made a connection by communicating with somebody on a message board, or, you know, where they think they've created a community yet you actually don't know the person you're talking to.
Sascha: Right. Who are these people on the message boards?
David: [laughter] Exactly. They're our valued customers, that's who they are. We're getting close to running out of time here, and I think we've only touched on a few things. Is there something else that you would like to get out to our listeners?
Sascha: Yes. If you go to PCMag.com, you can find a lot of reviews of cell phones. If you go to PCMag.com and search for the words "unlock phones," you can find instructions on how to unlock your phones for travel and a great roundup of the best pre-unlocked phones to buy.
David: Oh that's good to know.
Sascha: And if you go to frommers.com, I don't know how well the search is working, but I've written some recent columns about Telestial and buying foreign cell phones that can really help people out.
David: Yeah, if they go to frommers.com and they enter "cell phone" into our search terms and just search in the drop-down menu across "Deals & News," it'll bring up your columns.
Sascha: So yeah, go to PCMag.com for the phone reviews, and then frommers.com to find out how to get the foreign card in there.
David: Great. Thank you, Sascha. This has been really informative, and as always, it's always great just to chat with you.
Sascha: It's always good to talk to you, David. I'll be glad to do this again whenever you want.
David: Good to know. Have a good holiday.
Sascha: Thanks, you too.
David: OK. Bye.
Sascha: Bye.

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Announcer: This podcast is a production of frommers.com. For more information on planning your trip, or to hear about the latest travel news and deals, visit us on the Web at www.frommers.com and be sure to email us at editor@frommermedia.com with any comments or suggestions.


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