Over the years, I've developed sort of a "school solution" to the question of the best way to keep in touch while you're overseas: Have or get a wireless phone that uses the GSM system, get a local-country or local-region SIM card for that phone, and use it for incoming and outgoing calls. But a reader recently questioned that recommendation:
"In the smartphone age, is getting a local SIM card still the best way to keep in touch?"
The short answer is, "Yes, it still is for many people, but you now have more alternatives." Since our last review, communication has changed in two important ways: Smartphones have become a big factor among wireless users, and texting has supplanted voice for many travelers.
The Starting Point—What to Avoid
All the fuss about making special arrangements for phone communications to/from Europe is because the default approaches can result in gouges:
The worst way to phone home is to pick up the hotel room phone and use its "convenient" direct-dial system. A three-minute call can set you back $10 or $15, and many hotels charge $1 or more for each incoming call as well.
Although your regular AT&T and T-Mobile wireless phones—and a few others—work in Europe, you'll pay anywhere from 99 cents to $2.49 per minute for each call or 50 cents for each message And most older Verizon and Sprint Nextel phones don't work at all.
If you just want to be able to report occasionally, you can also use a phone card from a local pay phone—that's cheap, but a long way from 24/7 availability.
The bottom line is that for a combination of 24/7 availability and low cost, you have to use a wireless service—either your regular service, if it works, or a special service for your trip.
Wireless 101—for the Non-Techies
This section is for those of you who aren't up on the latest technologies. In much of the world these days, you potentially have access to two completely different wireless communications systems:
The GSM wireless phone system is used in more than 200 countries, including virtually all of Europe. You seldom have to worry about finding a hotspot to make or receive a call. The downside, however, is that access to the wireless phone system is available only through some telephone system, and, for the most part, you pay by the call or by the message.
Wireless Internet service (Wi-Fi) is increasingly available throughout much of the developed world, including many hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, libraries, and other locations. If you have a computer equipped for Wi-Fi, you can access the Internet any time you're in a hot spot with appropriate signal strength. Once you're in a "hot spot," your usage is unmeasured. But the downside is that lots of public Wi-Fi hot spots, including many at hotels, are "security enabled," and you have to pay for access by the hour or by the day.
The CDMA wireless phone system that Verizon, Sprint/Nextel, and several smaller companies use in North America doesn't work at all in Europe.
VOIP—The "App" Revolution
With a computer and Wi-Fi access, you can use systems such as Skype and Vonage for calls. Once connected to Wi-Fi, calls to and from other users are free and calls to/from landlines and conventional cellular phones are inexpensive—the Internet really doesn't care where you are.