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Phone Home, but Without Emptying Your Pockets

July 02, 2000|ARTHUR FROMMER

Ever been stung by a phone call made from overseas? Ever been billed $50 for a six-minute call placed from a hotel in Frankfurt?

The options for saving money on overseas calls fall into roughly three categories: your own long-distance phone company account (here you generally save the least), prepaid telephone cards bought on your trip (here you often save more) and "call-back services" (here you can save the most). Below is a quick overview:

U.S. phone companies: Call your long-distance carrier or log on to its Web site to learn the access numbers (usually toll-free) from your overseas location that will connect you to an automated service. Enter the number you're calling, followed by your home phone company account number.

The call goes directly on your home phone bill. A typical rate for Sprint customers calling the U.S. from London, for example, would be $4 a call plus $1.83 a minute.

To improve on that, you can sign up for a plan that, for $3 to $4 a month, will reduce the cost of calling the U.S. from London to as little as 89 cents a call plus 10 cents a minute with MCI's "Everyday International" plan; for information, telephone (800) 444-4444. Rates with AT&T's "One Rate Global Plus," (800) 355-9651, are roughly comparable. Sprint's "International Traveler Plus Foncard," (800) 746-3767, is pricier.

These plans are a good option if you travel enough to justify the $36 to $48 annual cost. But some hotels may still add on service charges if you call from your room.

Check Internet sites for details: AT&T,; MCI,; Sprint,

Prepaid phone cards: In Europe and many other parts of the world, you can buy at newsstands (and, depending on the country, at other outlets such as tobacco shops and cell-phone stores) a "stored value" card to use with public phones. You usually can buy cards with different amounts of talk time, and the per-call cost often will be less than using your long-distance carrier. But be careful not to buy a higher-valued card than you're likely to need; you can always buy another if your first card runs out.

In London, for example, calling the United States on a British Telecom card will run you about $1.13 a minute, a bit more than the U.S. phone-company discount plans, but the card doesn't carry setup charges as the U.S. plans do.

Other prepaid cards work as they do in the States: You call a local number, then enter the phone number you're calling plus a personal identification number.

Call-back services: Online sites such as, and offer callback services with rates as low as 12 cents a minute from Britain and 12 to 17 cents a minute from elsewhere in Europe, with no minimum charges or monthly fees. You just call a U.S. number, let it ring once and then hang up. An automated system rings you right back with a U.S. dial tone, and the call is billed to your credit card.

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