Even when they want to get away from it all, it seems that most people just can't disconnect from their wireless devices. Look around any airport gate lounge and you will see them, the communications addicts, tapping away at their lap tops and speaking a little too loudly on their cell phones.
Since I last wrote about this topic a year ago, there have been several new entrants into the international cell phone rental and sales market. A simple Google search will yield dozens of results, but once you start researching you will soon learn that some companies charge exorbitant rates or stitch you up with extra conditions, hidden fees and pitfalls. It may come as a shock to some people that U.S. cell phones usually aren't compatible with phone systems in foreign countries (unless of course you have invested in a GSM tri band phone -- which operates on a 900, 1800 or 1900 frequency), so here a few companies that can help keep you connected while on the road. It may also be worthwhile to note, especially if you are staying in a particular country for an extended period, that in many (or should I say most) other countries, cell phone companies do not charge for incoming calls -- so weigh up that fact when it comes down to choosing between purchasing and renting here or abroad.
My advice is to evaluate your telephone needs, whether you will be making calls or largely receiving them, whether you need to be contactable at all times, or you plan to be the one calling home. Hotel phone rates are very expensive but often, just investing in pre-paid phone cards at your destination will likely be the most economical way to make calls.
Unlike U.S. phones, you will require a roaming or individual country SIM (Subscriber Information Module) card which is a memory chip that you insert into your phone that has all your account data on it, including the telephone number itself, your address book and text messages.
I like the Roadpost (tel. 888/290-1616; www.roadpost.com) website, because it is clear, easy to understand and it doesn't make you wade through pages of fine print to get to your actual price. With World Cup fever in the air, I began my search with Germany. If you think you'll be more likely to receive calls than make them, or if you are pretty confident you won't go over your chosen included minutes, then their rates are pretty decent. All rates are for a 30-day rental period which suits the traveler who is taking a substantial vacation. The basic plan is $59 (with no included minutes) but like all plans, incoming calls, voicemail and call waiting are fee. There are no activation or roaming charges so if you cross borders you don't have to worry. A 30-minute plan is $79, a 100 minute plan is $139 and a 250 minute plan is $249. The sting lies in the overage minutes which start at $2.49 a minute (unless of course you are in the terrible position of having to call Uzbekistan and the rate sky rockets to $6.49 per minute. Your Nokia 3210 rental kit comes with the Nokia 3120 handset, a spare battery (fully charged), a hands-free headset, travel charger, adapters for your destinations, a leather carry case, user guide and business cards pre-printed with your Roadpost phone number. Standard delivery is an additional $25.
Mobal (tel. 888/888-9162; www.mobalrental.com) still appears to be among the cheapest options in cell phone rental services or sales. If you travel regularly (or you hope to in the future), consider purchasing one of their GSM phones. Unlike other GSM phones, where you need to buy individual pre-paid SIM cards to insert into the phone in each destination (which means that you can't use your phone when you arrive at your destination, that you will have to spend a bit of time looking for a cell phone store and that you will constantly have different phone numbers to remember) the Mobal cell phone comes with one international number that you will have for life (with no activation or non-usage fees). The Motorola C117 is currently priced at $49 (reduced from $89) and that is the purchase price not the rental price. The phone is guaranteed to be useable in 140 countries and comes with a Mobal SIM card (with a U.K. phone number), a battery and a free set of five PowerConnections travel adapters, so you can charge your phone in any country in the world. Although making calls is somewhat cheaper with Mobal than several other companies (ranging between $1.25 and $1.95 per minute for local calls and higher for calls back to the U.S.), they do charge for incoming calls except in the U.K. where incoming calls are free. Call charges are per minute in $US and are debited from your credit card. You will be sent email statements detailing the charges, including fully itemized lists of the calls that you have made. SMS text messages are $0.80 per message and incoming text messages are free of charge. Standard delivery is $10.
Telestial (tel. 858/274-2686; www.telestial.com) offers a series of international roaming SIM Cards for sale that can be inserted into any GSM compatible cell phone that you buy in the U.S. (i.e. from them) or overseas. The Explorer SIM card on offer can be used in over 100 countries and is priced at $49, giving you free incoming calls in most European destinations (over 50 destinations in total) and flat outgoing call rate to mobile and fixed line numbers, starting at $0.45 per minute. The Explorer comes with $10 starter airtime credit, billing in U.S. dollars, voicemail, and the same low rate to cell phone or landline phone. Incoming SMS are free and outgoing text messages are only $.40 and there is no yearly contract, monthly charges or credit check. Their phones start at $99 (Motorola 3788) if you are happy with a GSM 900 phone (will not be in operation in the U.S., Canada or certain countries in South America) or alternatively higher GSM phones with North American capabilities (the Motorola v180) are priced from $189. The site also features a number of special promotions for purchasing cell phones for travel to individual destinations from Aruba to Australia.
The "Sweden Ice Hotel" special is priced at $199 and includes a Siemens a70 cell phone (GSM 900-1900 frequency), cell phone service, a Swedish SIM card by Vodafone, $30 starter airtime credit, a local cell phone number in Sweden, free incoming calls, voicemail and text messaging. This package represents a $64 saving. Additional airtime vouchers are available throughout Sweden at local convenience stores.
The Australia and New Zealand "ANZAC" special is priced at $219 and includes a Siemens a75 cell phone, an Australian SIM card, a New Zealand SIM card, a global plug adaptor kit, local phone numbers in each country, starter airtime credit ($15 in each country for a total of $30), free incoming calls, calls to the U.S. are only $0.22 per minute, calls billed at one-second intervals, voicemail and SMS text messaging. Save $69 with this deal. All specials are valid until August 31, 2006.
For short term travel, especially to the U.K., Travel Cell (tel. 877/235-5746; www.travelcell.com) offers some of the lowest rates available and free incoming calls. They also provide additional discounts for students traveling for longer periods of time. For example standard weekly cell phone rental starts from $29.99 per week plus $4.50 for additional days, but if you are a student staying for three months or more, the rate becomes $29.99 per month. Local calls at your destination can start as low as $0.59 per minute and only $0.69 back to the U.S. or $0.79 per minute to other European destinations. Other international calls from the U.K. can go up to $1.99 per minute. In France, local calls are $0.69, calls to the U.S. are $1.39 per minute and elsewhere $4.99 per minute with all incoming calls being free. Travel Cell also has added extras like a toll-free number that you can provide to people the U.S. to call you without paying international rates, hands free kits, data kits, car chargers etc.
If you are traveling to Europe, you can take advantage of 1800 Fly Europe's (tel. 800/359-3876; www.1800flyeurope.com) discounted airfares, accommodation packages, car rentals and cell phone specials. Book any car rental, hotel or airfare with them until June 30, 2006, and you can rent a SIM card for only $1 per day (normal rental charge is $35 per week.) There are no activation fees and the SIM cards can be used in over 65 countries worldwide. They also have France-specific and Italy-specific SIM cards on request. A shipping and handling charge of $20 applies for all SIM card rentals.
Book any car rental, airline ticket, or rail pass online also by June 30, 2006, and you will receive a free seven-day cell phone rental including activation charges. All you pay for is shipping and air time charges. If you need a phone for more than seven days, you will be charged $2 per day for each additional day. Please refer to discount code OK1 when booking.