James Daley: Make calls in Europe - at your peril

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The Independent Online

The last few mobile phone operators finally brought their charges for making calls in Europe in line with the new price caps last week – meaning that you'll no longer need to pay more than 33p a minute for making calls within the EU, and no more than 16p a minute for receiving them.

This is great news for the millions of consumers who have been ripped off whenever they have used their phones in Europe over the past decade – often paying upwards of £1 a minute, even for receiving a call.

But don't be fooled into thinking that the EU cap is the end of extortionate phone charges. If you're travelling outside of Europe, high charges are alive and well – and if your phone roams on to the wrong network, be prepared for an even nastier shock.

I've travelled to the US a couple of times over the past few months, where it still costs me well over £1 a minute to make calls back home and 99p a minute to receive them. I'm a Vodafone customer, and while I usually receive a nice text reminding me to stay on Cingular – Vodafone's US partner – to receive the best rates, there's no telling what my phone will do.

When I got back from my most recent trip, I discovered that I'd been paying almost £1.50 a minute for the calls I made back home, rather than the already extortionate £1.25 that I had expected. This, my friendly Vodafone representative told me, was apparently because I had accidentally roamed on to another network. I certainly remember seeing that I was connected to Cingular when I arrived – yet at some stage, my phone surreptitiously decided to side-step on to a more expensive network.

The solution, the rep said, was to change my phone's network selection settings to manual before I go abroad – something that proved as complicated as it sounds. I am someone who counts themselves relatively tech-savvy, and it still took me 10 minutes of fiddling around on my phone to work it out, which left me thinking that the likes of my mother – who still can't send a text message – would have no chance when she goes overseas.

This, of course, is just how the operators like it. And while in my case the additional cost was just an extra 25p a minute, it can be a whole lot worse in some other countries and on some other networks.

Most phone companies have special packages that can help to lessen the cost of travelling abroad, but they don't always bother to promote them very hard as they're happy to let as many customers as possible pay their high prices. Things are moving in the right direction, but it's still well worth taking time to do your homework on charges and networks before you travel abroad if you want to make sure that you don't get fleeced.

* It was great to see HSBC finally backing down over its decision to scrap interest-free overdrafts for graduates this week – a great example of how consumer protests can really make a difference. The move will have come too late to stop many customers walking out the door, though. And I imagine that many more may still decide to move, angered as much by the patronising tone of the bank's correspondence as by its change in policy.

It's worth remembering that the bank has only committed to keep interest-free overdrafts for graduates for the next year, and is yet to make any firmer or longer-term promises. The bank is clearly scrabbling around for ways to bolster its bottom line during what have become difficult times, so, unfortunately, there is no guarantee that it's not already working on other equally cynical ploys. Let's hope that it learns from the latest sorry episode.

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