Fly high, but keep your phone bill grounded

Plan carefully, and you can prevent a trip turning into a mobile phone bill nightmare, says Kate Hughes

Millions of us will make a break for foreign climes this summer, forking out an average of £2,100 for a holiday for a family of four, according to the Office of National Statistics. So the last thing we need while enduring the post-holiday comedown is a huge mobile phone bill for calling envious friends and family from the beach.

The good news is that the European Union has succeeded in curbing the costs of calling within the EU area, with the "Eurotariff" introduced last summer. The costs of texts are expected to go the same way.

But in the meantime, providers can hit holidaymakers and business trippers hard with call, text and data download costs, and your usual mobile habits in the UK could cost thousands of pounds from overseas.

Last summer, the EU imposed a cap on the amount a mobile provider in a member country could charge for calls made and received abroad. You should not pay more than 49 cents (around 35 to 38 pence) per minute to make a call and around 24 cents (18 to 19 pence) to receive a call per minute.

But making calls while abroad does not fall into any prepaid "bundle" of call minutes, so you will pay extra for the calls regardless of whether you have any free minutes or not in your package. And for now, any international text message will still cost you between 25 and 40 pence.

And that's not all. "It is common practice to charge a full first minute for any national or roaming call made, regardless of length," warns Ed Richards, chief executive of the communications regulator Ofcom. "If the call lasts longer than a minute, the remainder is charged per second or, sometimes, per 30-second interval. This means that a 20- or 30-second call could be charged as if it took one minute."

The cost of downloading data while roaming is the stuff of nightmares. It costs between £3 and £8 to download one megabit of data – that's the equivalent of one photo message. Trawling the internet or downloading a few emails to your blackberry could easily cost you £50 a time. Woe betide you if you download that essential last episode of The Apprentice – a couple of hours' worth of BBC iPlayer and you could very easily come home to a bill for thousands of pounds. Outside the EU things get worse as, generally, the further from the UK you get, the more expensive using your mobile becomes.

"We have concerns about the high cost of text, data and voice roaming," says Richards. "Before travelling, consumers must check their tariff and ensure that they are aware of the cost of making calls, texting and downloading data in advance."

"Racking up extortionate bills on your mobile is easy," adds Rob Barnes of price comparison site Moneysupermarket.com. "But by doing a bit of research, and being careful with your mobile usage, you can save yourself a nasty shock when you get your next bill."



Myth busting

"Assuming that you are saving money on expensive calls by texting or getting your friends and family to call you is a very common mistake," warns Barnes. "Because international text message costs are for now uncapped and unregulated, engaging in a text conversation with someone could cost you more than briefly calling the person. And people often don't realise that when someone calls them, the recipient, and not the caller will be charged the extra cost of the international call over the UK call."

Calling your voicemail is also a big no-no as this is a call to the UK. Recording a voicemail greeting, asking callers only to leave urgent messages, may mean that you don't waste cash retrieving messages from friends innocently asking whether you fancy a drink at your local pub while you are in Cambodia.



Passport control

Before you go, check out the international packages offered by the UK mobile networks, such as Vodafone's Passport service. These arrangements must be put in place before you go away. A month's roaming tariff can be anything up to £3, but can be free depending on your network. If there is a monthly charge, you will have to actively cancel it when you get home otherwise you will continue to be charged.

"This is probably the best option for you if you are going to be away for a while and will be using your phone a lot," says Barnes. "Otherwise, the cost of the service may not be worth it."

International networks, such as T-Mobile, which operates in the United States and Europe as well as the UK, may also offer better deals. Calling the UK from the US for example, will cost around 50p a minute, one of the cheapest rates available.

Dropping out

If you are overseas for longer than a few weeks, a local SIM card may be a better solution than using your regular phone provider. "Buying local SIM cards for your destination country will remove the international call cost altogether because when calling within that country, you are on a local not international call," Barnes suggests.

"This is most suited to travellers who are away from home for a few months, and may be calling friends in the local area."

A number of providers sell local and global SIM cards, such as Story Telecom (www.story telecom.com), Go-SIM, ( www.gosim.com) and Sim4Travel ( www.sim4travel.com) as well as the national networks in your destination country. Some even allow you to keep your existing number when you switch.

But one of the cheapest ways of calling internationally is to bypass the networks all together. Millions of people worldwide have come round to the voice over internet protocol (Voip), which allows users to call each other via the internet for free.

Although newer mobiles often have internet connection features, operating Skype from a mobile is a task for experts. But late last year, the 3 network released the Skypephone, a 3G internet phone with Skype capability. It means that as long as you are in a Wi-Fi area, you can contact other Skype users for free, or call non-users for only three or four pence. The Skypephone costs pay-as-you-go customers £49.99 and is free for contract customers on 3. Go to www.three.co.uk/personal/mobiles_/skype_/index.omp for more information.



For more information about the Eurotariff, go to http://ec.europa.eu/information_society/activities/roaming/index_en.htm

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