|Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
|Volume 2 Issue 7
Watch out for these money-wasting pitfalls using your cell phone.
|How can I save money on my cell phone bill?
Traveling outside the US with your cell phone? Expect much higher costs
I recently helped some clients who were planning trips to Europe and Canada and wanted to use their cell phones while traveling. I discovered that many things that are free when you're in the US cost money when you take your cell phone outside the US. The key thing to remember is that calls you make or receive outside the US will all consume "roaming" or "overage" minutes. ("Daytime," "anytime," or "nights-and-weekend" minutes are inside-the-US concepts.) This means that:
- You will pay a per-minute rate on every voice call you make or receive; the rate depends on which country you're in.
- Calls you make to other people who use the same phone company ("mobile-to-mobile" calls) won't be free and will also incur that same per-minute rate.
- You may need to use a different method to access your voicemail, and you'll also pay by the minute for calls you make to retrieve your voicemail.
You should also know that:
How to save during your trip outside the US
- If your phone is on and someone calls you, but you don't answer and the call goes to voicemail, you may also pay that per-minute rate while they leave you a message.
- The costs for "data" services (email and web browsing, per kilobyte of data) and text messaging will probably be higher.
- You may have to dial "1" when calling back into the US, which might mean that calls you make using your phone's built-in phonebook may not go through unless you edit your phonebook entries and add that "1" prefix.
- Calling back into the US to reach your cell phone company's customer service may still be a free call, but since many toll-free numbers (800/888/866) don't work outside the US, you may have to use their regular "toll" number.
Do some planning first:
Foreign travel examples
- Before traveling you should call your cell phone company and make sure your account is able to operate outside the country. The option to do so may be free, but it may not be on by default.
- Make sure that your phone will operate in the country you're planning to visit. For example, my phone won't work in Japan or South Korea. Their cell systems use a different frequency, so I would need a different phone.
- You may find that adding an "international" or country-specific calling plan option will reduce the per-minute rate in the country you're visiting, in exchange for a monthly fee. This should not extend your contract, and you can remove that option when you return from your trip. However, because of delays in billing communication between foreign phone companies and your phone company, you may want to wait until you receive your bill before you remove the option, to make sure that your calls are billed to you at the lower rate.
- To avoid paying by the minute when someone calls you and leaves you voicemail when you're out of the country, turn off your phone--especially if you'll be unavailable for long periods of time.
- If you learn that your cell phone company has no service to the country you're visiting, ask what your other options are. For some parts of the world you can rent a satellite phone, probably from a separate company.
- If you're going on a cruise you may find your cell phone can connect through the ship (at a high cost per minute), but it's also possible that neither your cell nor a satellite phone will work out on the open ocean. You might just have to find something else to do...
- Consider the "old school" approach of limiting how long you chat on the phone. When I was a child we had a 3-minute egg timer by the phone for long-distance calls...
With my cell phone company AT&T Wireless (a.k.a. Cingular) and my current calling plan:
Calling foreign countries on your cell phone from the US
- "Expanded International Roaming" is their free option that enables cell phone use outside the US.
- AT&T Canada plan: For a $3.99/mo fee, this reduces the cost of calls in Canada from 79¢/min to 59¢/min. This means that if you go on a trip to Canada (within a single billing period) and use your cell phone for at least 20 minutes ($3.99/mo divided by 20¢, the difference between 79¢ and 59¢), this option will likely save you money. Talk for 200 minutes while you're there and you'll spend $122 instead of $158, a savings of $36!
- AT&T World Traveler plan: At $5.99/mo, this reduces the cost of calls in many countries. For example, when you're in Italy calls go from $1.29/min down to 99¢/min, making this option worthwhile if you talk for at least 20 minutes. Traveling to Russia? This same plan reduces your per-minute cost from $4.99/min down to $3.99/min, worth getting if you talk for at least 6 minutes.
Perhaps you're not traveling outside the US, but you want to call from the US into foreign countries using your cell phone. You can reduce your per-minute rate if you add the right international calling plan and you talk long enough to make it worthwhile.
For example, for $3.99/mo the "World Connect" plan on AT&T Wireless reduces your cost as follows:
- Canada: Calling either land lines or cell phones goes from 29¢/min down to 19¢/min, worth the monthly charge if you talk for at least 40 minutes each month.
- Italy: Calling land lines goes from $1.49/min down to 9¢/min, and calling cell phones goes from $1.66 down to 26¢, worthwhile if you talk for at least 3 minutes each month.
- Russia: Land lines go from $2.29/min down to 20¢/min, and cell phones go from $2.34 down to 25¢, savings start at 2 minutes each month.
- Japan: Land lines go from $3.49/min down to 9¢/min, and cell phones go from $3.64 down to 24¢, savings start at 1 minute each month.
Of course, you should also check the cost of calling foreign countries from your land line, since it may be cheaper than your cell phone.
Getting directory assistance via 411 on your cell phone while in the US
When you call 411 from your cell phone you may end up paying almost $2 each time (AT&T charges $1.79 per call). While convenient, this is a very expensive way to get directory assistance. There are a number of companies that offer this for free (apart from the minutes you may consume when you call), in exchange for your listening to a short ad or two, including:
- (800) 411-SAVE (800 411-7283) offers residential, business, and toll-free listings via a live human operator.
- (800) FREE-411 (800 373-3411) offers business, residential, and government listings using voice recognition.
- (800) GOOG-411 (800 466-4411) from Google offers business listings only using voice recognition.
- (800) CALL-411 (800 225-5411) offers business listings plus weather, movies, travel, and "cheap gas" using voice recognition.
With all of these companies:
- You'll have to listen to a short ad first.
- You'll have to declare which city and state you want a listing for.
- For business listings you can specify a category if you don't have a specific business in mind, e.g., "Belmont, Mass. - pizza."
- If they find the listing you want, you'll hear the information, possibly a second short ad, and then they'll probably connect you to that number immediately, so you'll have to hang up quickly if you'd rather call later.
- These services also work from land lines.
Search for "free 411" online to find out more about these and other services.
The basic approach to save money
Look at your monthly cell phone bill:
Where to go from here
- Are you paying roaming or overage charges? You may need more minutes per month. Switching to a higher-level plan may save you money.
- Do you end up with a large number of unused minutes every month? You may have more minutes than you need. Consider switching to a lower-level plan, or to another company with "rollover" minutes, but make sure you won't pay an early cancellation fee.
- Do you have extra options you never use? Are you paying more to have unlimited text messaging or Nights and Weekends start at 7pm instead of 9pm, but you never take advantage of them? Are you paying $1 or $2 to download ringtones to your phone?
- Are there charges listed you don't understand? Call your company and have them explain your bill.
- My paper AT&T Wireless bill no longer lists each call I make, but I can see (and print) this list from their web site, plus how many minutes I've used so far this month. Check out your company's web site to see what features it offers.
- Talk to your cell phone company before you travel outside (or call outside) the US to find out what you can do to save money on your calls. Also, find out how to retrieve your voicemail and how to reach customer service from outside the US.
- Use an alternative to 411 to save money on directory assistance when you're in the US.
- Don't leave your cell phone in your car! See "Hot Summer Tips: Don't Leave It in Your Car!" (http://kadansky.com/files/newsletters/2007_08_01.html) for more info.
If you know someone else who might find this helpful, please feel free to forward it to them.
If you have any comments about this article, send me a reply!
If you have a topic that you'd like me to write about, I'd love to hear about it!
|Summer tax tips
This past month I learned two tax tips that you might find useful:
Because of rising gas prices, the IRS has increased some of the standard mileage rates as of 7/1/2008:
- Business mileage rate: Increased to 58.5¢ per mile (up from 50.5¢ per mile from 1/1/2008 through 6/30/2008)
- Medical and moving mileage rates: Increased to 27¢ per mile (up from 19¢ per mile from 1/1/2008 through 6/30/2008)
- Charitable mileage rate: Unchanged at 14¢ per mile (set by law by Congress, not the IRS)
for more details, or go to http://www.irs.gov
and search for "standard mileage rate."
The rules for donating a car to charity have changed in recent years. Talk to your accountant to get the best advice for your situation, but here's the short version: In the past the IRS left it up to you to determine the fair market value of a car you donated to charity, regardless of whether the charity put the car directly to use or sold it at auction. Starting in 2005, if the charity keeps your donated car and uses it, you can probably deduct the fair market value. However, if they sell it (which is more likely), you can probably only deduct the actual amount they received for it. The charity is required to notify you within 30 days either way. See http://www.irs.gov/newsroom/article/0%2C%2Cid=131660%2C00.html
for more details, or go to http://www.irs.gov
and search for "donate vehicle to charity."
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