Using your mobile overseas doesn't have to break the bank, writes Lee Atkinson.
It's 8pm in Sydney; 10am in Germany. We're just about to board a train, then a plane, for the long haul back to Sydney, when a telephone call from 17-year-old Alex, who has just left home to try his luck in the big city and has been flat-sitting for us while we are away, reveals he has managed to lock himself out. "Who's got the spare keys," he asks.
"Ah ... you do," is our reply from the other side of the world.
Alex is, of course, like all 17-year-old home-leavers, flat broke. He knows no one in the city. He has nowhere else to stay. It's up to dad, standing on the train platform in Munich, to try and sort it out. Fast forward 15 minutes, after several phone calls to friends and distant relatives in Sydney, and we've organised somewhere for Alex to stay and told him how to get there.
We all know there are cheaper ways to keep in touch when travelling these days than using a telephone, particularly your mobile phone that you've brought with you from home. But there are times when an email or Skype just won't do, when you need to make that call and there are no public phones or landlines around.
If we had been using our normal mobile phone, which has a global roaming plan with Telstra, those short but sweet phone calls, lasting 13.17 minutes, would have cost us $55.24. Thankfully, we had invested in a prepaid SIM card for our phone, called TravelSIM, before we left home. So Alex's little misadventure with our keys, if you discount the locksmith's fee, cost us just $14 in phone calls, a saving of almost 75 per cent.
TravelSIM is just one of a raft of new SIM cards specifically aimed at travellers; Lonely Planet has a similar one call ekit (lonelyplanet.ekit.com); RoamingSIM (roamingsim.com.au) is another. While calls are still more expensive than using a traditional phone card, the advantages include the convenience of being able to use your own mobile phone handset (as long as it is unlocked - see box above) and no messing about with access numbers.
It works in 140 different countries and because you buy the card before you leave home, there's no need to get a new local SIM card and phone number every time you visit a new country.
You can also keep the card and use the same phone number every time you travel. This makes it very easy for friends and family, particularly the locked-out-of-the-flat-and-don't-know-what-to-do kind, to get in contact with you.
What's more, you don't have to pay for incoming calls as you normally do when you use global roaming on your Australian mobile phone. You can top up the card by phone or online, set up a voicemail service and use it to send text and SMS messages.
You can expect to save about 75 per cent on calls home to Australia, sometimes much more. For example, if you are calling Australia from Prague on your mobile phone, using Telstra, it would cost around $6.83 a minute (Optus and Vodafone are marginally cheaper); with TravelSIM it costs 85 cents a minute.
To receive a call, from anywhere, will cost you $1.12 with Telstra, nothing with TravelSIM. Unless, of course, your family and friends choose to use the TravelSIM 1800 number, which means they can call you for free (from a landline) and you pay 40 cents a minute.
To make a national call, even if it's just around the corner, would cost $1.84 with Telstra; 85 cents with TravelSim, a great saving for those times when you need to book ahead or call for directions.
By the time we got home, our prepaid $50 TravelSIM card had saved us more than $150 in call costs, a bargain in anyone's language. The only downside is remembering exactly where you stashed your normal SIM card when you get home - with the spare keys, maybe?
* TravelSIM cards cost $49.95 and include a phone credit of $5. You can top up the card in $25, $50, $100 or $200 amounts. The cards are available at Australia Post stores, selected phone retail outlets, online at travelsim.net.au or by phoning 1300 851 676.
* TravelSIM will work on almost all GSM mobile phone handsets, as long as it is not locked to a particular provider or telco. If your phone is locked (that is, if you put the new card in and it won't work), you can ask your provider to unlock it for you.