Can you afford to phone home?

Melanie Bien looks at the cost of using your mobile abroad as operators face an EU probe
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The Independent Online

Holiday-makers who were planning to take their mobiles abroad this summer might be having second thoughts after the launch of an investigation by the European Commission into price-fixing.

The probe – which centres on suspicions that Vodafone, Orange, BT Cellnet, One2One and their German counterparts have been colluding to fix the prices that subscribers are charged for using phones abroad – could prove bad news for mobile phone operators' profits.

Many people who take their mobiles abroad aren't aware what the charges are for calling from a beach in Greece or a nightclub in Cyprus – until they receive the bill on returning home. Mobile costs may be dropping in the UK, but this is not the case if you use your phone abroad.

BT Cellnet is the most expensive network to use on holiday: customers in Spain pay 99p a minute to call the UK. Text messaging, one of the cheapest ways of using your phone at home, can also be much more expensive, depending on the network. BT Cellnet customers are charged anything up to 44p to send a text message from Spain, compared with a few pence for the same service in the UK.

If you do decide to take your mobile abroad, warn people at home that not only will they have to pay more to call you, you will also have to pay to receive a call. Those calling a mobile abroad from the UK will have to pay at least an extra 30p a minute. And BT Cellnet customers in Spain are charged a hefty 94p a minute for receiving a call from the UK.

The European Commission is launching its investigation at a time when more of us are taking our phones abroad than ever. According to exclusive research from high-street mobile retailer The Link for The Independent on Sunday, the age group most likely to take their mobiles on holiday are 18- to 29-year-olds. Many of these say they plan to use their phone to meet up with friends in clubs or to send text messages to friends at home.

It is not just the young and single who are taking their mobiles on holiday; the research suggests it appeals to all age groups. For example, parents with older children who might not be travelling with them find it is a good way of keeping in touch.

According to the research, most people take their mobiles abroad so home or work can contact them directly in case of an emergency. But the other reason given – that holiday-makers are wary of the high cost of using hotel phones or foreign payphones – is not such a good one when you consider that a mobile bill could easily put these charges in the shade. It may be more convenient to use a mobile, but you will have to pay for the privilege.

Most Brits take their mobiles to Spain, Greece and France – the most popular tourist destinations. But The Link has also received an increasing number of queries about exotic destinations such as Mexico and Prague as flights become cheaper. "Holiday-makers are worried they'll find it hard to make international calls in more exotic destinations," says Joe Garner, marketing director for The Link. "They'd much rather make a call from their mobile than, say, try to buy an international phonecard in a foreign language."

When buying a mobile phone, an increasing number of customers now ask whether they can use it abroad, whether they can send text messages and whether they are restricted if they opt for pay-as-you-go.

If you plan to use your mobile phone overseas, you will probably need to get your phone internationally enabled before you leave, which you can do by calling your network.

Most phones can be used in continental Europe and the rest of the world. Most new pay-as-you-go mobiles work abroad, though some of the older ones have restricted use. In some cases the phone can only be used to make and receive calls to and from the UK, and can't be used for local calls in other countries.

It is worth making sure you know how to access your voicemail from abroad as there is nothing more irritating than knowing you have a message which you can't retrieve.

But most importantly, it is essential to check exactly how much you are going to be charged for using your phone in a particular country, as charges vary. Most of the networks do offer special deals for using contract, pay-as-you-go phones abroad. BT Cellnet customers can pay an additional £2.99 a month and get discounted call rates (incoming 28p/minute, outgoing 60p/minute, local 65p/minute). In most cases, it might be worth text messaging rather than calling to save money, but again, check with the operator.

Holiday-makers also need to look after their phones carefully should they take them abroad. The chances of losing your mobile phone, breaking it or having it stolen can be considerably higher when on holiday. Check your insurance cover before you travel.