By Travel columnist

It's his housemate's birthday, and Ian Rosenfeldt wants to send birthday wishes from his hotel in Costa Rica. Two of his calls don't go through and one is a wrong number, but his credit card is charged anyway. What's going on here? Does the phone company really get $43.31 for each call that goes astray?

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Q: During a recent trip to Costa Rica, I decided to call my housemate on her birthday. I knew I should have used a calling card, but I decided to make a quick call with my credit card instead. I used one of those “international long-distance phones” you find in hotel lobbies.

I made phone call number one. No answer, so I tried to track my friend down on her cell phone. Call number two: no answer. Call number three: oops, wrong number.

OK, here we go. Call number four: finally, an answer. I sing “Happy Birthday” in Spanish, we have our conversation and all is well.

Or is it?

I expected that the actual conversation was going to cost a fair bit. What I didn’t expect was to come home and find a charge of $43.31 for each of the three calls that did not make a connection. That’s $129.93 for nothing.

My credit-card statement lists the phone service company as NCIC. I’m afraid to contact this company directly for fear of getting dinged with even more outrageous long-distance charges or hidden charges.

In the end, my birthday call has cost me $190.49 — the $129.93 for no connections and $60.56 for the one actual call. Can you help me get rid of the extra charges?

— Ian Rosenfeldt,Toronto

A: It’s no secret that calls made from your hotel are costly. But $43.31 for a call that didn’t even go through? Come on.

I’ve experienced the same thing in Europe, particularly in Eastern Europe (my phone bill for two nights in a Warsaw hotel once set me back $500). It turns out that every call — even the attempted calls — were subject to a ridiculous markup.

After Poland, I came up with a rule that has served me well on my travels: Don’t even look at the phone in your hotel room. Pretend it doesn’t exist. (I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the more entrepreneurial hotels one day began charging for incoming calls, too.)

Your situation is slightly different, because the hotel had nothing to do with the pricey calls. You were dealing with NCIC: Network Communications International Corp. of Longview, Tex., which bills itself as the largest privately owned operator-service company in the United States.

A look at NCIC’s rates suggests that your credit-card charges are far too high. I asked company representative Donna Sumrow to take a look at your bill. She did and determined that, indeed, a mistake was made when you placed the calls. NCIC credited your account for $129.93, leaving you with only the charge for the call that went through.

So what went wrong?

“The technicians are researching that,” Sumrow told me. “They are really not sure.”

Well, I am sure of this: Next time you need to make a call, either use a calling card or get a cell phone. There’s only one reason I can think of to pick up an “international long distance phone,” and that’s if you’re faced with a life-or-death emergency.

Next time, send a postcard.

Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman and a nationally syndicated columnist who specializes in solving your travel problems. Got a trip that needs fixing? Send him a note or visit his Web site. Your question may be published in a future story. Want to sound off about a story? Try visiting Elliott's forum.

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