By Tim Leffel Travel columnist
updated 9/18/2008 1:22:01 PM ET 2008-09-18T17:22:01

Start asking people about international cell phone and data bills and you’ll get a lot of scary stories. Most aren’t as shocking as Steve Surjaputra’s tale of a family who was billed $19,370, but what’s surprising is how often people get socked with hundreds or thousands of dollars after what they thought was minimal use.

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Las Vegas resident Mamta Odhrani had a typical reaction after her $400 surprise from T-Mobile following 10 days in India and Hong Kong, “I felt like I hardly ever even used my phone.”

Eileen Kugler of D.C. spent a month in South Africa with her husband volunteering at a local school. They spent extra for an international plan through their carrier before leaving and only used the phone to communicate occasionally with their elderly parents. Yet they returned home to a “staggering $440 bill” from AT&T.

“When I returned home from a month in Europe we got a bill for about $200 and I thought, OK this isn’t too bad,” says Marti Lindsey of San Diego. “Then the next month’s bill came with an additional $700 in charges.”

“I used a cell phone in Israel to call Thailand and I ended up spending $1,000 in one week,” says Stephanie Lund, a public relations account supervisor in New York.

These bills are not unusual. It is commonly $1 to $3.49 plus taxes for calls from another country to the U.S., even if you just cross the border into Canada, plus you’ll probably pay the price of a soda for every text message. “The worst country is Russia,” says Earl Lum, president of EJL Wireless Research. It is about $5 a minute to call from there back to the U.S. using your cell phone!”

Data charges are even worse. Every e-mail, every map lookup, and every Google search can generate charges ambiguously billed as something useless like “0.016 per kb.” Some have found out the hard way that phones locked up in a hotel room safe were still downloading e-mails continuously, to the tune of over $100 a day.

After hearing tales like this from dozens of travelers, it’s obvious that a) most travelers have no idea how high international roaming charges really are and b) the U.S. cell phone carriers like it that way. Here are a few alternatives to predatory voice and data roaming charges abroad.

1. An international e-mail or voice plan

Some carriers offer an unlimited international data plan for BlackBerry users that avoids the escalating charges for every message. The prices are all over the map ($20 a month for T-mobile’s before adding fees, $65 a month for AT&T’s) and you usually have to sign up for a one-year agreement. Unless you are frequently out of the country, you’re essentially handing the carrier a donation all the other months in order to avoid being gouged when you travel. Plus this doesn’t cover voice, text messaging, posting photos, or surfing the web. That can cost you another $200 for 100mb at AT&T — an amount of data equal to just 100 photos or 25 songs! AT&T should at least be commended for making this information easy to find at their world packages site. Here’s the ugly voice rates rundown from Verizon on PDF, but with Sprint it takes some serious detective work to find voice or data rates for each country.

With all carriers, an international voice plan just buys you a discount on per-minute rates to and from other countries. Mike McAllen misunderstood that fine point when he added a $5 a month international voice plan to his contract before heading out on vacation. “Imagine my surprise when I had a $1,500 bill when I returned from a week in Mexico.”

2. Cell phone purchase or rental abroad

International business travelers paying their own bills have long relied on unlocked international tri-band or quad-band phones. When they arrive at a new destination, they switch out the SIM card for a local one, load up with a prepaid phone card, and pay local rates thereafter.

Vacationers will usually save a fortune just buying a cheap phone on arrival and getting pre-paid minutes. When the minutes run out, buy more — no surprise bill in the mail after getting back home. In Thailand, for example, $100 will get you a basic unlocked phone, the SIM card, and around 80 minutes of talk time (at 60 cents a minute) to the U.S. — with free incoming calls.

3. Phone and BlackBerry rentals
A number of companies offer programs that get around the need to deal with your own U.S. or Canadian carrier. You either rent or buy a phone from the likes of Mobal, Travelcell, or Cellhire and pay only for the minutes you use. Incoming calls are free in some cases, with outgoing ones generally the same or lower than what your own carrier charges. These services are usually “carrier neutral”, so they roam on whatever local network is the strongest, resulting in better call quality. These services work best in Europe and parts of Asia where there is competition and a common standard. For Latin America and much of the Caribbean, you will still pay dearly to stay connected no matter what.

4. Wi-Fi phones
If you have the new iPhone or another device that can make calls through Wi-Fi, tweak your settings as soon as you get off the plane so that the only time you are using the data function is when you are in a hotspot. That way you surf for free or whatever you are paying for the wireless Internet connection. With a software plug-in like Truphone, you can also make cheap voice calls over the same Wi-Fi network.

5. Extra step solutions
If you’re willing to work a little harder, you can get cheaper calls on your regular cell phone. If you download an application called Jahjah, your calls get routed over a VoIP connection and you pay anywhere from nothing (from some countries, and if both of you have it loaded) to 35 cents a minute tops. Other services work on a callback system. With RebTel, your recipient calls the number showing on their phone and that connects to you with only local charges. These methods add a layer of hassle, but again the costs are a fraction of what the oligopolies charge.

6. Skype and local phone cards
“You always say you are going to use your phone just for a minute and the next thing you know you have racked up several hundred dollars in charges,” says wireless industry consultant Shonika Proctor. “The best thing is to leave the darn thing turned off.” If you are traveling with a laptop, you can use Skype at any wireless hotspot or your own wired or wireless hotel room. Many Internet cafes have the service installed and headsets already plugged in. Either way you’ll pay pennies per minute to make phone calls to anyone from your preloaded account. (Skype to Skype calls are free.)

For a quick call when not online, it’s usually far cheaper to use a phone storefront or a calling card and a payphone, especially in Latin America. A call from a Mexican pay phone or kiosk, for example, costs just under 50 cents a minute to the U.S. Using your own cell phone will cost you two or three times that amount, with spotty coverage and call quality. In countries such as Peru or Panama, you can pop into any phone kiosk or Internet café and make an international call for 5 to 25 cents a minute, routed over a VoIP system. You can check your cell phone’s voice mail messages, then respond to any of them that need a reply — and use the savings for a nice dinner!

Tim Leffel is author of the books "Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune" and "The World's Cheapest Destinations". He also edits the award-winning narrative Web 'zine Perceptive Travel.

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