DennisBeaverJanuary 15, 2011 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

“Kate” is a student at Cal State Fresno who spent a semester at a university in the south of France. Before leaving, she learned from AT&T that her cell phone would work in Europe. But they never told her that she would be paying more than a dollar a minute to place or receive calls, and that her data plan was not valid out of the country.

“The first bill my parents received was close to $800. They paid it, but cancelled the cell service. There has to be something better than this. I have friends going this year who don’t want the same nightmare. Do you have any recommendations?” she asked us.

Several ways to save

Last week we began our look into problems associated with using our cell phones when traveling out of the country.

“Unbelievably high per-minute roaming charges for voice, and nightmarishly high rates for using data are routinely charged by U.S. cell carriers. But there is no reason anyone traveling internationally has to pay them to simply make a cell phone call or to send an e-mail,” Ken Grunski, president of San Diego-based Telestial, Inc., told me.

“While in some cases it might be best to use your U.S.-based wireless provider’s international roaming service – paying their exorbitant rates – for most travelers, it is money not well spent,” he firmly believes.

Telestial and a handful of similar companies make it possible to use a cell phone when traveling abroad and not feel taken advantage of by your wireless provider. As Grunski describes:

“There are two ways of using your cell phone overseas for voice calls and save a tremendous amount of money. If you will be visiting several countries, then you need a global roaming service offered by a specialty travel cell provider which lets you place calls at rates significantly less expensive than your U.S. cell carriers.”

“With some of these services – Passport being one – your friends can call a United States phone number and reach you wherever you are in the world. In general, rates are from half to two-thirds less than what U.S. wireless companies charge. They also offer something really exciting for friends and family back home, and that is a Google Earth-based, completely free, online travel journal which you set up before going on your trip.

“When the phone is turned on, a journal entry is automatically created showing images of your location, the weather and information from Wikipedia. You can upload pictures and your own text updates. So it adds another dimension to your trip at no additional cost.”

I asked Grunski, “What’s best for someone who plans on spending a longer time in a country, such as a college student on a semester abroad program?”

His reply: “For a single destination trip of three or more weeks, then it is far more economical to have a re-chargeable, pre-paid local cell number, which you can purchase in-country. This allows use of your phone very much as you would at home, with features such as free calling after a certain hour, or on weekends, perhaps even free calling to the USA.”

Watch out for data use

“But what about data?” I asked. “Are similar savings yet available for data use overseas?”

“While our company and others can sell what amounts to discounted data services, it is still expensive at the present time, and you need to be really careful to not enable data features on your smartphones,” he stressed.

“People have gotten bills for thousands of dollars, merely because the phone was turned on. Be sure that all data sources are completely turned off. Think of all those stock quote and weather apps that continually stream information to your phone. But the apps don’t know where you are and that their ‘free’ information is now costing you $20/mb in data charges. Checking your stock portfolio just could become a real Depression for you,” he told me with a laugh.

Do I have the right phone?

If you have AT&T or T-Mobile, chances are that you’re in good shape as they use GSM phones. Verizon or Sprint do not, but can provide international phones on their own rate plans. To use the SIM cards sold by companies such as Telestial, the phone must be “unlocked.” Unlock codes are available all over the Internet, and can usually be obtained by calling customer service for AT&T and T-Mobile customers.

“Just don’t let them sell you their international roaming services, unless you want it,” Grunski warns.

You and the Law rarely endorses a product or service. Telestial is one that we can. We have used their phones and calling services on trips to both Europe and Asia, as well as the Passport International Roaming SIM card. We saved a bundle and were always in touch and reachable at all times.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.