Generally, hotel surcharges on long-distance and local calls are astronomical, so you're better off using your cellphone or a public pay telephone. (One hotelier told me recently that he isn't making any profit on phone calls because most guests now use their own cellphones instead of making calls from their rooms.)
If you don't have a cellphone, you can buy prepaid calling cards in denominations up to $50 at many convenience groceries and packaging services. For international visitors these can be the least expensive way to call home. Many public pay phones at airports and elsewhere now accept American Express, MasterCard, and Visa credit cards. However you pay, local calls made from pay phones in Virginia cost 35¢ (no pennies, please).
Most long-distance and international calls can be dialed directly from any phone. For calls within the United States and to Canada, dial 1 followed by the area code and the seven-digit number. For other international calls, dial 011 followed by the country code, city code, and the number you are calling.
Calls to area codes 800, 888, 877, and 866 are toll-free. However, calls to area codes 700 and 900 (chat lines, bulletin boards, "dating" services, and so on) can be very expensive -- usually a charge of 95¢ to $3 or more per minute, and they sometimes have minimum charges that can run as high as $15 or more.
For reversed-charge or collect calls, and for person-to-person calls, dial the number 0 and then the area code and number; an operator will come on the line, and you should specify whether you are calling collect, person to person, or both. If your operator-assisted call is international, ask for the overseas operator.
For local directory assistance ("information"), dial 411; for long-distance information, dial 1, then the appropriate area code and 555-1212.
Just because your cellphone works at home doesn't mean it'll work everywhere in Virginia, thanks to our nation's fragmented cellphone system. One of my cellphones using GSM (Global System for Mobiles), which is used by much of the rest of the world, can go dead out in the country, while my CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) model works perfectly well. It's a good bet that your phone will work in major cities whatever system it uses, and you will have near-statewide coverage with Verizon Wireless, which uses CDMA. On the other hand, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint can be weak or disappear altogether in rural areas. Take a look at your wireless company's coverage map on its website before heading out.
If you need to stay in touch at a destination where you know your phone won't work, rent a phone that does from InTouch USA (tel. 800/872-7626; www.intouchglobal.com) or a rental car location, but beware that you'll pay $1 a minute or more for airtime.
I find it less expensive to buy a prepaid "throwaway" cellphone, such as from Tracfone (www.tracfone.com) or its subsidiary Net10 (www.net10.com). You can order from the websites in advance, or pick up a Tracfone and a prepaid card at national drugstore chains such as CVS and Rite Aid, or at the ubiquitous Dollar General outlets (rare is the Virginia town that doesn't have a cheapo Dollar General). Walmart, Target, Kmart, and Safeway are Tracfone and Net10 retailers.
Tracfone models cost as little as $10, with prepaid cards beginning at $20 for 60 minutes of nationwide airtime good for 60 days. Net10 phones start at $30 and include 300 minutes of nationwide airtime good for 60 days. Neither charges extra for domestic long distance.
Without Your Own Computer -- Most public libraries in Virginia offer Internet access free or for a small charge. Hotel business centers have access, too, but often charge exorbitant rates.
To find cybercafes in your destination, check www.cybercafe.com. Most major airports have Internet kiosks that provide basic Web access for a per-minute fee that's usually higher than cybercafe prices. Check out copy shops like FedEx Office (formerly, FedEx Kinko's), which offers computer stations with fully loaded software (as well as Wi-Fi).
With Your Own Computer -- I've been writing Frommer's guides so long that I remember when hotels competed by equipping their rooms with hair dryers and coffeemakers, which are pretty much de rigueur today. Now they try to one-up each other by providing high-speed Internet access for their guests' laptops. In fact, most hotels and motels in Virginia, regardless of price, offer wireless (Wi-Fi, for wireless fidelity), and some also have high-speed dataport connections for laptops, the latter using an Ethernet network cable. The service is complimentary at most hotels and bed-and-breakfasts, but others -- especially large chains such as Marriott and Hilton -- charge about $10 a night.
Many airports, cafes, and especially coffee shops are Wi-Fi hotspots, offering free or low-cost high-speed access. Wi-Fi is even found in some campgrounds, RV parks, and entire neighborhoods, such as King Street in Old Town Alexandria. To find public Wi-Fi hotspots, go to www.jiwire.com; its Wi-Fi Finder holds the world's largest directory of public wireless hotspots.
Most laptops sold today have built-in wireless capability, but wherever you go, bring a connection kit of the right power and phone adapters, a spare phone cord, and a spare Ethernet network cable -- or find out whether your hotel supplies them to guests.
Voice-over Internet Protocol (VOIP)
If you have Web access while traveling, you might consider a broadband-based telephone service (in technical terms, Voice-over Internet Protocol, or VoIP) such as Skype (www.skype.com) or Vonage (www.vonage.com), which allows you to make free international calls if you use their services from your laptop or in a cybercafe, and the people you're calling also use the service. Skype also has a "Skype Out" service which lets you make calls from your computer to landlines for a small per-minute fee (depending on which country you are calling). Calling cellphones is more expensive. Check the sites for details.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.