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A nightmare article appeared on Yahoo.com recently: “Teen Hit with $6000 Bill After Using Facebook During NYC Vacation.” Where’s the follow-up article? “Girl’s Parents Bust Her Head to the White Meat For Racking Up $6000 Bill”? Of course I don’t condone beating children. What I do condone is being smart about not wasting money while on vacation. One of the ways I avoid wasting money is investing in a cheap, no-frills international phone.

Before my first trip overseas, I gave no thought to how I was going to call home.  I will never forget that last-minute call to my cellular company as I was boarding the flight out of New York.  I had to quickly end my conversation with the cellular phone representative, having accomplished nothing, as the flight attendant told me to end my call and put on my seatbelt.  Clearly, I had not planned well and spent my first trip to Europe armed only with an international calling card provided as a courtesy by the tour company.

While in Vienna, I used the calling card to call home. Not only was money deducted from card, but I was also charged 22€ (22 Euro — the equivalent of about $30) for using the hotel’s phone. That was an expensive mistake for a ten minute telephone conversation.

Despite the fact that I didn’t have my calling game plan in place, I had enough sense to turn off the data on my cell phone before I landed at Heathrow. Later, when I arrived back in the States, I saw a text message that welcomed me to Canada on the flight out from New York.  Canada???  I wasn’t charged, but that scared me enough to now turn off my data and my phone upon leaving American airspace.

In all honesty, it’s very easy to give yourself the ability to make calls and send texts to and from a foreign country. Every reputable cellular phone company offers a plan that can cover calling and data while traveling overseas. Most are subject to an additional monthly fee and other conditions.  

I might have chosen to add-on an international plan to my existing cellular service had I not been traveling internationally with my daughter on my second trip overseas.  In case we got separated, she needed to be able to reach me immediately.  When comparing the cost of adding international features to two existing plans vs. purchasing cheap international phones and adding pay-as-you-go plans to each, the no-frills option was most friendly to my budget.

On its face, just adding an international plan to your existing cellular account sounds like a small price to pay for global convenience, right?  I’m sure the savvy mind can navigate exactly how much it will cost per minute if in this country to call and text that country. However, I’ve personally heard plenty of horror stories of outrageous data roaming charges and other hidden fees.  If you don’t believe me, just ask the parents who had to bust their daughter’s head to the white meat.

I believe that it’s much cheaper to take along an international phone.  I also believe that it’s risky to rely on your American phone to work in other countries. My international phone worked like a charm in the UK and Jamaica while many of my companions’ American phones did not.

My no-frills phone cost about $50 and I’ve used it in six countries. It has paid for itself many times over.  I typically put about $50 on a pay-as-you go plan associated with the phone for each trip I take. Absent me turning into Chatty Cathy, the $50 more than lasts me for about a two-week period.  If I don’t use it all, it stays on my account until I use the balance.

Don't worry.  The phones available for purchase aren't this archaic.

Don’t worry. The phones available for purchase aren’t this archaic.

So, how does it work?  I purchased the phone from ekit.com  The phone came with a United Kingdom number, because that was my vacation destination.  The phone also came with an 800 number, and the ability to have a U.S. number assigned.  My family and friends could call me for free on the American number, and it rang through to the cell phone wherever I was.  Simple.  Easy.

Unless you plan to stay in contact with Craig ‘n Nem every second of every day, how much should you really be texting and working while on vacay anyway? I use my phone primarily to check in with my family, and to use in case of emergency. I use the Wi-Fi feature on my iPad to access the Internet, update to Facebook, send and receive emails, and tweet.

If you can’t bear to part with your American all-frills phone, go for adding an international plan to your existing bill.  If, however, you only need the basics, look into investing in an international phone.