Many convenience groceries and packaging services sell prepaid calling cards in denominations up to $50. Many public pay phones at airports now accept American Express, MasterCard, and Visa. You can use a public pay telephone, although these are increasingly hard to find. Many public pay phones at airports now accept American Express, MasterCard, and Visa credit cards.
Local calls made from most pay phones in the District cost 50¢. Most long-distance and international calls can be dialed directly from any phone. To make 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 expensive -- charges of 95¢ to $3 or more per minute. Some numbers have minimum charges that can run $15 or more.
For reversed-charge or collect calls, and for person-to-person calls, dial the number 0 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 directory assistance ("Information"), dial 411 for local numbers and national numbers in the U.S. and Canada. For dedicated long-distance information, dial 1, then the appropriate area code plus 555-1212.
If you are American and own a cellphone, bring your phone with you to D.C., making sure first, of course, that your cellphone service does not charge excessively -- or at all -- for long-distance calls. In fact, if you are from outside the country and own an international cellphone with service that covers the Washington area, bring that phone along. The point is, that hotels often charge outrageous fees for each long-distance or local call you make using the phone in your hotel room.
AT&T, Verizon, Sprint Nextel, and T-Mobile are among the cellphone networks operating in Washington, D.C., so there's a good chance that you'll have full coverage anywhere in the city -- except, possibly on the subway. Verizon has long been the sole provider of Metrorail's wireless service, but now the system is in the process of expanding cellphone and wireless services to include those provided by AT&T, Sprint Nextel, and T-Mobile; coverage infrastructure should be in place by 2012. You can expect reception to be generally excellent throughout the city.
International visitors should check their GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) wireless network, to see where GSM phones and text messaging work in the U.S.; go to the website www.t-mobile.com/coverage.
In any case, take a look at your wireless company's coverage map on its website before heading out. If you know your phone won't work here, or if you don't have a cellphone, you have several options:
You can rent a phone before you leave home from InTouch USA (tel. 800/872-7626 in the U.S., www.intouchusa.com or 703/222-7161 outside the U.S.).
You can buy a phone once you arrive. All three Washington-area airports sell cellphones and SIM cards. Look for the Airport Wireless shops at Dulles International Airport (tel. 703/661-0411), at National Airport (tel. 703/417-3983), and at BWI Airport (tel. 410/691-0262).
You can purchase a pay-as-you-go phone from all sorts of places, from Amazon.com to any Verizon store. In D.C., Verizon has a store at Union Station (tel. 202/682-9475) and another at 1314 F St. NW (tel. 202/624-0072), to name just two convenient locations.
If you have Web access while traveling, 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 allow you to make free international calls from your laptop or in a cybercafe. Neither service requires the people you're calling to also have that service (though there are fees if they do not). Also look into Google's phone calling option, www.google.com/voice, which allows free calls in the U.S. and charges varying rates for calls to destinations outside the U.S. Check the websites for details.
Internet and Wi-Fi
More and more hotels, resorts, airports, cafes, and retailers are going Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity), becoming "hot spots" that offer free Wi-Fi access or charge a small fee for usage. Most laptops sold today have built-in wireless capability. To find public Wi-Fi hot spots in Washington, go to www.jiwire.com; its Hotspot Finder holds the world's largest directory of public wireless hot spots (458 throughout the Washington area, last time I checked). Or, you could just head to your corner Starbucks, which has offered Wi-Fi service with its lattes for quite some time, although, depending on your service provider, you may have to pay for it.
Likewise, all three D.C. airports offer Wi-Fi service, but, depending on your service provider, you may have to pay for it.
If your laptop does not have wireless capability and/or the hotel where you're staying is one of the few that does not offer wireless service, 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.
Increasingly, hotels provide guests computer and Internet access on one or more computers in the hotel business center, often as a complimentary service. Both of D.C.'s Embassy Suites Hotels, the Downtown location and the Convention Center property, are two examples. Check out copy shops like Kinko's (FedEx Kinko's), which offers computer stations with fully loaded software (as well as Wi-Fi). Washington, D.C., is lacking in Internet cafes, probably because everyone here carries her own personal connection with her, via Blackberry, laptop, iPhone, or some other form of PDA. I know of only one public Internet cafe: in Dupont Circle's Kramerbooks and Afterwords bookstore, 1517 Connecticut Ave. NW (tel. 202/387-1400), which has one computer available for free Internet access, with a 15-minute time limit.