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When traveling abroad, you have communication options

Before going to foreign countries, travelers might wish to contact a communications company to help them decide the best strategy to address their cellphone needs.

June 16, 2013
(Aidan Crawley / Bloomberg )

Question: I am traveling to Germany and will stay five weeks. I have an iPhone 4 with service through AT&T. I would like to use my phone for calls, primarily within Germany, and sending and receiving text messages. Should I look for service in Germany? Should I buy a throwaway phone while there for calls and use my iPhone solely for sending and receiving text messages? Should I get international service? What is the least expensive program?

Ira Lewon

Thousand Oaks

Answer: You've heard the horror stories about people who return to the U.S. and find they have a $1,400 phone bill? You haven't?

John DiScala has. DiScala, better known as Johnny Jet of the website of the same name, didn't have that monster phone bill — he has an international calling plan that gives him a good rate — but his wife, Natalie, did. She carried her iPhone without an international plan and, well, oh my.

These lessons are difficult and costly. Staying connected can be expensive, but not $1,400, experts told me. Still, "five weeks in Germany is a long time, and depending on how much voice, text and data you use, it could get very expensive," said Andy Abramson, chief executive of Comunicano, a Del Mar, Calif.-based marketing communications agency. In 2012, Abramson traveled 266 days, visiting 13 countries and 82 cities.

Looking at AT&T's plans on its website, you know he's right. At the high end: $120 for 200 minutes of international calling plus $1 per minute for every minute you exceed. For text messaging: $60 for 600 messages and 25 cents for every message over that. If you have young people who want to communicate with you that way, that allocation will be gone in a week.

If you want to use your iPhone abroad with local service, you'll need to get it unlocked. I thought I'd give that a try. Sebastian Harrison, founder and president of CellularAbroad, based in Playa del Rey, had warned me that if I had a subsidized phone — that is, if I bought a phone with a two-year contract and thus paid less for the phone — I probably wouldn't be able to do it. I called AT&T ([800] 335-4685), and sure enough, "It is currently not eligible under a two-year commitment," the agent told me. "When that contract is up, we can put in the request." When will that be? Sept. 14, 2014.

If I could unlock my phone, I might go with a country-specific SIM card — that is, the little chip that allows you to connect to a local service. That has its advantages, but "the process can take what seems like a whole day," Abramson said. "You'll also have to top up from time to time when you run out of credit. And in some countries, if language is a problem, and if you don't have a local credit card, you have to [pay] cash, plus you have to find a place to do that."

Abramson likes Truphone (http://www.truphone.com), for which his company has been the North American communications agency since 2006. It "offers a global SIM card, local numbers in the USA, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Australia and Hong Kong, plus roaming rates that are 30-60% lower" than your carrier's international rates.

Harrison's company also offers plans that can save users money and helps them avoid having to hunt down a local company for the SIM card. "The problem with that is that there are not a lot of companies that cater to needs of foreign travelers," he said. The rates, he noted, may not be as competitive.

If you're caught in the no-unlock-zone, the solution may be to get a phone while you're in Germany or buy or rent one from a company here, which CellularAbroad does. You might take a mobile hotspot with you from such a company and use it to hook up to wireless with your iPhone. That means you can use Skype or another VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) service for inexpensive calls to the U.S. The big caveat: Make sure your data and voice roaming are turned off on your phone. In fact, Harrison suggests removing the SIM card to ensure you don't accidentally turn them back on.

Harrison notes that one size doesn't fit all when it comes to communication strategies. Just as a travel agent should not try to make every person buy the same vacation package, no traveler's communication needs are the same, which suggests putting yourself in the hands of a company that can assess those needs and recommend what works for you.

Yes, it's complicated, but it doesn't have me longing for the good old days. Or does it? I was cleaning out boxes recently and came across a communiqué to my parents, sent from Spain where I was a university student. Method of delivery for my best wishes on their 33rd anniversary: telegram. I laughed at its quaintness. Today, I want to be connected to home.

Or is untethering a travel enhancer? I'm not sure. I do know that if you're 20 and your parents have no clue about what you're doing or where you are most of the time, you will have adventures that you'll never divulge. I still haven't.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.

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