Holiday call charges – why we still get done roaming

The new capped tariffs don't apply everywhere, finds Sue Hayward, but costs can be cut amid the confusion
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The Independent Online

The post-holiday blues often kick in the moment you land on home soil, but the financial pain might come a little later – when your mobile phone bill hits the doormat.

Taking a mobile on holiday is essential for many of us – whether to call home to let family know we've arrived safely or to make the occasional work call. But even if you check the call charges before heading off, you could still be in for a nasty shock.

"Around 80 per cent of us don't think twice about the cost of calls that we make abroad," says Rob Barnes, head of mobiles at the price-comparison site moneysupermarket.com. But with some "roaming" charges costing as much as £2 per minute, those holiday calls can bring bumper profits for the network.

Under European Union regulations that came into force last September, roaming costs across the EU are now capped at a maximum of 38p per minute (including VAT) to make calls and 19p per minute (inclusive) to receive calls. According to the UK telecoms regulator Ofcom, these charges are set to fall each year until 2010 – when, it says, "the current roaming regulation is due to end".

Ofcom adds that operators are now also obliged to send customers a free text when they arrive in another member state with information on the cost of making and receiving calls.

But even under this new regime, "there's still a very healthy profit margin for network providers", says Eddie Murphy, a telecoms expert from Priory Consulting Services.

While the new "Eurotariff" has cut call costs by around 50 per cent, the problem is that "it's only EU-wide and not across the whole of Europe, which in itself creates confusion for consumers," Mr Barnes points out.

"If you're going on holiday to Turkey," he adds, "you could make the mistake of thinking you're covered. But Turkey's not a member of the EU so you'd be charged between 70p and £1.50 a minute depending on your provider."

Ofcom is also concerned that, despite the EU charge capping, hidden fees remain. "It's common practice to charge for the first full minute, so a 20- or 30-second call can be charged as if it takes one minute," says Ed Richards, chief executive of the regulator.

If this is confusing, adds Mr Barnes, it's even worse once you're outside the EU. "There are so many different, convoluted tariffs. O2, for example, has several separate overseas call options." Add to this the problem that some call-centre staff aren't clued up when it comes to giving accurate pricing information before you travel, and you can easily face an inflated bill for a quick call.

And once you've made the call, "you often don't have a leg to stand on," says Mr Barnes, "as proving you were given bad advice is difficult."

Rather than imposing standard roaming charges to call home, many mobile firms do offer packages aimed at reducing the cost. But once again it's not straightforward: some of these cost nothing and some you pay for. Vodafone's Passport is free but you'll need to ask for it to be included on your account by contacting customer services. You'll then be charged a 75p connection fee plus your standard call rate when ringing home from abroad, so if you've got inclusive "free" minutes within your existing package, this can reduce the expense still further. But the service isn't available in North America.

Orange's Frequent Traveller costs £2 a month and claims to save customers up to 50 per cent on call rates worldwide. But in some cases the saving can be as low as just 8 per cent – when calling Ireland, say. And it can be hard to work out which deal is best.

Other ways to cut your call costs include actively choosing which network to switch to abroad, as most phones automatically lock on to the strongest signal at the time. "Before you go, identify which network will be cheapest," says Mr Murphy at Priory Consulting, and this can be done by calling your existing provider. "Most are partnered with foreign networks and it's relatively easy to change networks on your phone."

Switching off your voicemail can save pounds too. Even if your phone is turned off, calls to your voicemail will still cost you money. So ask your network provider to remove the facility temporarily.

'It's a battle to prove you were given bad advice'

Barry Compton, 41, a jeweller from London, has found himself out of pocket several times after using his mobile abroad.

"Whenever I go on holiday, I contact Vodafone to ask for the cost of calls home," he says. "Invariably, the call- centre staff don't seem to know, and when they come up with a price, I usually seem to get charged more as they've got it wrong."

Barry has also had problems trying to avoid roaming charges. Before going to the US, he contacted Vodafone's customer services department, as the company had advised. "I was charged for the calls, yet they assured me it would be free."

On a recent trip to Dubai, he was billed over four times the price he'd been quoted. "The reason I check before I go is so I can decide the cheapest way to make calls. In Dubai I was staying with a friend who has an internet phone; if I'd known I'd be charged £1.60 a minute by Vodafone instead of the 38p quoted, I'd have asked to use her internet package, which would have cost a few pence a minute."

Barry got in touch with Vodafone and has been promised a refund. "But once you've made the calls, it's always a battle to prove you were given bad advice."

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