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international callsOne of the best things about traveling is calling home to tell your friends and family about your successful trek through the Sahara Desert or the latest twist in your Ireland road trip adventure. Unfortunately, some of us wait to recount our journeys until we get home because the thought of wasting money on exorbitant international calls makes us cringe. So we've put together an overview of your best bets when it comes to international calls, to help you stop worrying about expenses and start gabbing it up!

The easiest way to make calls overseas is to simply pick up the phone in your hotel room and give the operator the number you want to reach (assuming the operator speaks English). That route, however, is usually the most expensive because of pricey surcharges. There are several money-saving alternatives -- be sure to utilize all your options on your next trip abroad.

Traveling with a Smartphone: Cut Costs Overseas

Callback Companies
These services provide U.S. international long-distance rates in countries outside the United States. The process may sound a little bit confusing, but it's relatively simple and the least expensive way to make international calls, provided that you are spending a significant amount of time overseas (more than one or two vacations a year) and plan to stay connected by phone.

You begin by establishing an account with a callback service (see a few recommended companies below). Most companies charge a per-minute fee that varies based on destination. Quite often, this fee is less than you'd pay for a direct-dialed international call; a few hours of international calling on a single trip with a phone card or cell phone can easily surpass $20. The callback service will supply you with a U.S. phone number that is connected to the callback service's computer system.

Once abroad, you call this U.S. number for free or next to nothing, let the line ring several times, and then hang up. The computer will recognize your call request, and your phone will ring virtually instantaneously. On the other end will be a U.S. dial tone -- you can now make calls from international locations at extremely low U.S. rates. In most cases, you can press the pound key to make multiple calls from the same callback, and usually will not have any charges for unanswered calls. You will then receive a billing statement from the callback service, or they will bill your credit card automatically. Note that 800 numbers do not always work when calling from international locations, so contact these services before leaving the U.S.:

  • United World Telecom -- (877) 898-8646
  • ITL Kallback -- (800) 516-9993
  • AmeriCom -- (800) 820-6296

    Always read the fine print. Some callback companies only work with touch-tone phones. If you are in a country that still operates largely with rotary phones, you may not be able to use the call service that you paid for.

    This plan is best for travelers who will be making a lot of international calls throughout the year. If you're only taking a single week-long vacation, try a calling card.

    Beware: When using a callback company with your cell phone, you may still be charged high roaming fees -- even though you're dialing a U.S. phone number. Callback companies are probably your best choice when planning to make calls from a hotel's land line.

    Calling Cards
    Both local and long-distance carriers issue cards that can be used from any phone. In the United States, you dial a local access number or a toll-free 800 number, then punch in your card number and the phone number you're calling.

    Abroad, you call a local or direct access number, which connects you with an English-speaking operator who will connect the call. These numbers are provided by the phone company when you purchase your calling card; you can find them on the back of your card or in a country-specific directory.

    It's best to purchase a calling card before your trip, as you may have trouble finding one in the country you are visiting (or you may not find one in English). Calls are charged a per-minute fee that will vary based on international destination. It's best to research the rates of a few phone companies before you leave for your trip; a seemingly more expensive phone company may have lower rates for your particular destination. Be warned: Additional fees may apply for calls to cell phones and other wireless devices.

    International calling card rates tend to be substantially higher than standard domestic rates. Rates for calls into the United States from abroad vary by country and often have surcharges. Some foreign hotels, notably in Asia, block access to calling card numbers or charge several dollars simply to reach them. Foreign policies vary greatly; you might even find large surcharges for dialing toll-free numbers. Whenever possible, inquire about rates before making any call.

    You can save even more by signing up for a special international calling program with your regular long-distance company. By making a monthly commitment to one carrier, you can often get a fixed low rate whether you are calling to or from a foreign country.

    Some companies offering calling cards:

  • AT&T
  • Sprint
  • Verizon

    Prepaid Phone Cards<
    Prepaid cards allow you to buy up long-distance time in prepaid blocks. You are often provided with an access number and PIN code, and can make calls at low rates. There are several different types of prepaid cards on the market, available for purchase everywhere from Wal-Mart to the local gas station. Be sure to read the fine print before you buy any phone card, however, as few will offer access from international locations. Get more information on prepaid phone cards.

    Cell Phones
    Cell Phone Sim CardWant to make a call from a campground or remote village? There are cell phone plans that give you the ability to make calls from countries all over the world, from your own cell phone to a rental cell phone that you obtain in your destination. Only cell phones built to connect to GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) can work overseas; contact your phone service provider to see if your phone will work outside the U.S. For more information on using cell phones abroad, read International Cell Phone Guide.

    VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol)
    If you have a computer and an inexpensive (or free!) Internet connection, it may be cheaper to make a call over the Web rather than using a phone. Voice over IP services allow you to use your computer as a phone (for best results, you'll need a high-speed connection). Begin by setting up an account with your chosen provider, then download any necessary software and make sure your computer has a microphone and speakers.

    Do your homework before selecting a VoIP provider, as fees and calling rates can vary widely by service and country. Here are a few companies to consider:

  • OneSuite
  • Skype

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    --updated by Caroline Costello

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