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SEPTEMBER 25, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 12

Talk Can Be Cheap for Tech-Savvy Travelers

Illustration by Glen Baxter.

Like the dreaded minibar, hotel phones can lure even the most experienced traveler into breaking the bank. Simply getting up-to-date on the kids, neighbors and life back home can quickly result in a preposterous bill. The question begs to be asked: Why, in an era when long-distance companies are practically paying consumers to use their lines, do hotels feel comfortable tacking on surcharges that can easily add up to $25 for a 30-minute call? Add to that the IDD rates—which seem to be the worst available—and a single 20-minute phone call from China to Singapore can end up costing as much as $90. Ask hotels about this and the answer is invariably that the surcharges help them recover their investment in telecommunications technology.

Unless you ask up front, it is difficult to tell how much you're going to end up paying. Charges vary from hotel to hotel, and even within chains prices can slide up and down wildly. Only rules-happy Singapore limits the amount hotels can squeeze their guests for the pleasure of using the phone. The charge is set at 17 cents for every outgoing call and $1.44 for calling-card calls.

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But in the rest of Asia, travelers are at the mercy of the innkeepers. Or are we? Calling cards are the most obvious method of eluding the charges. But using a calling card from AT&T or Sprint still triggers a hotel surcharge in most places. Mobile phones are a good option, unless you travel to Europe or the U.S., where your phone may not work.

Another strategy is to sign up for a callback service such as Kallback or Aquila. To initiate a callback you dial your personal "trigger" number, let it ring once and hang up. The system then calls you back at your pre-programmed location and connects you to your desired number through a long-distance line, usually based in the U.S. The system can also be programmed to ask for you by name when the hotel switchboard answers.

Internet long-distance companies such as offer extremely competitive rates on long-distance calls (as little as 9 cents a minute depending on where you're calling). The line can sound oddly digital, and in Asia Deltathree's service is only available in Hong Kong. But the service only takes a few minutes to set up on the Web and then you can call away. First you dial a local number, type in your ID and password and then the number you wish to call. You pre-pay for your calls with your credit card, and you can track your costs at the company's website. Other companies plan to offer similar services in Asia soon. So the next time you're on the road and want to phone home, think of your options first.

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