Bits & Bytes: Alternatives to costly cell phones while travelling

On a recent vacation in the United States, rather than pay the relatively high roaming rates charged by Canadian cellular providers, I decided to explore alternatives.

T-Mobile offers prepaid phone kits (which include a GSM phone, a GSM SIM card and US$10 in call credits) starting at about US$59.95 with a US$20-30 rebate.

Alternatively, their low-end prepaid phone kit can be purchased (without rebates) from Target stores for about US$39.95. Purchasing US$100 worth of prepaid call credits bumps the customer to their gold rewards level, which provides 10-cents-per minute call rates (including national U.S. long distance and roaming) and a one-year expiration period (instead of a 90 days).

Calls to anywhere in the United States and to 1-800 numbers (including those we lawyers like to use for conference calls) are only 10 cents per minute (as compared to about $1 per minute charged by Canadian cellular providers for local calls while roaming).

Calls to Canada are US$0.50 per minute (the regular US$0.10 call rate plus a $0.40 per minute long-distance fee) compared to the approximately Cdn$1.60-1.70 per minute charged by Canadian cellular providers.

If you want to save even more, and don't mind the extra bother, pick up a pre-paid long distance card to use in combination with the U.S. cell phone.

The savings on incoming calls can be equally good. Many of us have low-cost long distance plans, some of which even include a bucket of monthly long distance minutes. Call forwarding, available on many office PBX systems (although in some cases limited by the office administrator to only local calls) can be used to forward incoming calls to the U.S. number that you'll get with your new phone.

Adding a call forwarding feature to a home or small office line may be as low as $5 per month. You may even be able to call forward your Canadian cell phone number for the cost of the normal long distance rate charged by your Canadian cellular provider (which may be approximately $0.25 or $0.30 per minute, although some will also charge you local airtime rates). This makes the cost of receiving calls very competitive compared to the approximately Cdn$1.20 per minute that may be charged by Canadian cellular providers.

With a one-year expiration, it is likely that any unused time can be carried forward for a future vacation or business trip in the United States. And as long as you add an additional pre-paid card (which start as low as US$10) before the one-year period expires, your expiration will get bumped for another year. So on a going-forward basis, the cost of maintaining the U.S. cell phone can be as low as US$10 per year.

One of the annoyances I experienced in purchasing a new cell phone was the recycling phone number problem. Basically, most phone carriers re-use old numbers several months after they have been de-activated. The problem is that the prior "owner" may have signed up on various services to receive SMS or MMS messages. Not only is it annoying to have your phone beep each time you receive one of these, but they are also chargeable.

Fortunately, many phone carriers provide a web portal to manage your service, which allows disabling the receipt of these types of messages and may even allow you to create a new "alias" that can be used to bypass the block on the old "address."

If you have a voice over IP (VOIP) adapter, bring it along. If you are staying at a hotel that only offers wireless internet access or which requires you to authenticate yourself before you can use the internet connection, then you'll need to also bring along a router.

My preference is the Linksys wireless travel router (model WTR54GS) which is compact, allows you to share the internet connection among multiple computers, contains a wireless access point, and even works with hotels that offer only wireless internet connectivity.

Having Skype installed on your laptop is always a good backup to have, particularly for a trip overseas - don't forget to bring along a headset with microphone to plug into your laptop. Signing up for SkypeOut will let you make calls from your laptop to any phone in the world, in many cases for pennies per minute.

If you can't be bothered talking into your computer, consider one of the many Skype wireless handsets that are now available. The Belkin Skype phone can be purchased for as low as Cdn$183 (at Besides the obvious cost savings, having access to Skype or another VOIP alternative can be important in case you experience problems with cell phone reception at your hotel.

Alan Gahtan is a Toronto-based technology lawyer. His web site is

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