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Perhaps you've fumbled with bewildering instructions on a foreign phone or accidentally run up a $200 phone bill with a few innocent calls home from a hotel in Europe. If not, you don't have to find out the hard way that one of the easiest, simplest and cheapest way to make calls while on the road is to use a phone card. Here are some of the benefits:

  • Phone cards don't require pumping unfamiliar coins into a machine.
  • They eliminate or reduce exorbitant hotel surcharges.
  • They replace collect, operator-assisted and third-party hassles and surcharges.
  • Calling with a phone card is often less expensive than other calling methods.
  • With a phone card, you know what you're paying for, as rates are easily accessible.

    Do I Need a Phone Card?
    Since many U.S. cell phones don't function overseas without a costly international calling plan and pay phone charges written in foreign languages can prove difficult for an English-speaking caller, a phone card can be a lifesaver when you're traveling abroad. Choose a phone card that's right for your specific destination. Learn how most calls are made in the country and what kinds of phone cards are commonly used. A pass through the better guidebooks can offer considerable assistance in this area.

    For more options when traveling abroad, see International Calls.

    When traveling domestically, a phone card isn't a necessity if you have a cell phone that gets good reception throughout the country. However, a backup phone card is a good bet in case your phone dies or loses service.

    During Hotel Stays
    In Costa Rica, a hotel phone call could cost up to 20 times more than a call with a phone card. A recent visitor to Orlando made three brief calls to her home in New Jersey from her hotel room without using a calling card. Cost: $65!

    While direct dialing from your hotel is clearly a bad move (unless you enjoy funneling your money toward expensive hotel phone fees), don't assume that dialing from your hotel with a phone card is your cheapest option. It is possible to make a call with your phone card from a hotel room and be charged twice simultaneously -- once for using the hotel phone to make a local or toll call and a second time for using the phone card.

    Most hotels apply minor surcharges to both local and toll calls. In the case of local calls, hotels usually charge a flat fee for each call; for toll calls, they often charge a percentage of the cost of the call. Research your hotel's calling fees before you dial. You may have better luck walking to a pay phone than lounging in your hotel room while you chat.

    Which Type of Card?
    Prepaid cards are usually for a set amount or number of minutes, such as $20 worth of calls or 100 minutes. In these cases, you either swipe the card or punch in an access code and the card is valid until your money or time runs out. In some locations, you'll find multiple card types: some that can be swiped and others with dialing codes.

    Standard (or non-prepaid) cards are billed to a credit card or your calling card account and require a PIN number. There can be a slightly greater risk when using these cards; if someone swipes your PIN number, he or she can use your card at will without limit until you discover the number has been stolen. Standard cards are usually available from your telephone company.

    Which card is for you? As always, check your phone company's rates for your destination to get the best deal. If you're going on a trip for an indeterminate amount of time and don't want to be limited by the time restraints of a prepaid phone card, choose a standard phone card. If you're concerned about losing your card or if you want a fixed limit on minutes for a talkative teenager, try the prepaid option.

    Where to Buy Phone Cards
    Especially stateside, this issue is complicated by the sheer abundance of calling card companies. Our advice: Buy from a reputable, well-known company or outlet, or from a vendor you trust.

    If the bulk of your calls will be made within the country you are visiting and you have an adequate grasp of the language, purchase a phone card that has low local rates when you arrive in your destination. However, it may not be worth your time and money to attempt usage of a local phone card in, say, Africa. Buying a phone card is a waste of your vacation savings if you end up angrily throwing it in the trash after an hour of listening to an automated operator provide you with instructions in Arabic.

    Convenience stores, newsstands, and small local shops in or near train stations and airports often carry phone cards. In Spain, for example, you'll find them in tobacco shops; in Australia, at food stands and in machines; in Russia, at newsstands (kiosks) and in post offices.woman on the phone

    Phone cards are also available on the Web through sites like CallingCards.com and PhoneShark.com.

    Prepaid cards from the large telephone corporations (such as Verizon and AT&T) tend to be substantially cheaper than their standard calling card rates. However, many smaller calling card companies beat the big guys by quite a bit on price. Shop around!

    Keeping Time
    Most reputable card companies will tell you how much you have used at the beginning and end of each call, and many phones will count down the remaining time on your card on a digital clock on the phone itself. If you're not calling with a prepaid phone card, be sure to check the clock once or twice during the conversation -- time can fly when you're chatting it up!

    Free Calling Cards
    Why pay when you can get something for free? Credit card companies, phone companies, football teams, airlines, hotels, Web sites, you name it -- all have offered free calling cards to customers at some point. Keep your eyes open for these deals.

    Calling Card Cons
    A traveler we know learned the hard way about a condition of her calling card plan with one of the major phone companies. If she dialed "0" and the number, then put in her calling card code for payment, she was billed up to $9 per minute! Only if she dialed a number buried in the fine print did she get the advertised $0.30/minute rate. Remember to always read the fine print.

    We've seen cases where disreputable dealers will sell used cards, then blame the card's deficiency on the consumer and refuse a refund. Shop at your own risk when purchasing a phone card from a questionable Web site or street vendor.

    Additional Considerations
    Many phone cards allow you to dial several numbers in a single "session." Listen to the options or read card directions to determine if this is available -- you may save a few bucks. For example, if a hotel charges a single, one-time surcharge for you to call the calling card company's 800 number and you can make several calls in that single calling card session, you save big.

    Certain phone cards are also "rechargeable." You can buy more minutes when you run out without having to change access codes, PIN numbers, etc.

    "Collect Them All!"
    One interesting offshoot of the boom in phone cards is their status as collectibles. Many calling cards are decorated with regional, national, event-specific or other interesting imagery. Buy a pretty card and add another memento to your travel scrapbook!

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    --updated by Caroline Costello
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