Having a phone while traveling can be a huge asset. You can call ahead to hostels, make reservations for trains and busses while rushing between stops and keep in touch with people back home. The problem for most travelers is understanding how international calls will affect their own cell phone plans. International phone calls are expensive, but they are not the only option.
Many modern phones have the capability to make and receive international calls. These world phones, or “quad band” phones are typically used for businesses that frequently travel. Even with an international plan, you fees will likely be quite high when using your phone abroad. Most U.S. service providers will change around $2 a minute, making frequent calls a great way to destroy your budget. Bringing your phone from home is your best bet only if you plan on using it strictly for emergencies or if someone else is footing the bill.
One of the cheapest and easiest ways to use a cell phone in Europe is to buy a pay-as-you-go phone from one of the many electronics or communications shops scattered throughout most big cities. Phones will come with a pre-set amount of credit, or minutes and are typically between $20 and $60. When you run out of minutes simply buy a new SIM card or get your current card reloaded with more minutes.
Some hotels, rental car agencies or tour groups will allow you to rent cell phones while you are traveling. In some cases, this is cheaper than buying a pay-as-you-go, but pay attention to special fees and rates that may apply when traveling to new countries or when making calls at certain times of the day.
SIM cards are the smallest plastic chips that go in the back of your phone. When buying or renting a cell phone in Europe, you add minutes to the phone through the SIM card. In some cases, you can buy a new SIM card every time you need minutes. If you choose to buy a phone, get one that accepts SIM cards from several different service providers. This ensures that you can shop around for the best rates, rather than get tied down to one communications company.
One loophole for cell phone usage in Europe is to use a smartphone with a WIFI signal. With a WIFI equipped smartphone and a communications app, like Skype, you can make free calls around the world for pennies on the dollar. While this does limit you to making phone calls only in the presence of WIFI, it is exceptionally cheap and a great option for those who can plan their phone calls for convenient times of day.