A cell phone can be a great asset when traveling abroad. You can make travel arrangements, check in with local friends or fellow travelers, and you can keep in touch with family back home. And as more U.S. residents continue to pack their phones for international trips, they face a variety of options for doing so. Customers of GSM carriers like T-Mobile or AT&T have the option of taking their own phones on their journeys, but CDMA users (think Sprint Nextel and Verizon Wireless) must rent a GSM phone for calling much of the world.
So what's a confused traveler to do? Well, oddly enough, the National Geographic Society has an answer. The organization that made a yellow rectangle a national icon has partnered with Cellular Abroad to offer the National Geographic Talk Abroad Travel Phone (now there's a mouthful). Though roaming rates are reasonable for most countries, and the phone comes with everything you should need in one package, the overall cost of the service is rather pricey. Also, the phone itself is nothing more than a very basic Motorola V180. While that was a decent phone when it was introduced almost four years ago, it's not what we were excepting from an organization that publishes some of the best photos ever.
Since travel is a temporary experience, Cellular Abroad's phone is available only on a rental basis. The company is promising additional options to buy one of its phones or rent a SIM card only, but those options were not available as of press time. You can rent the phone in five time blocks--from
When compared with other rental options, however, Cellular Abroad's prices are quite costly. For example, while it charges $49 for one to seven days, $69 for eight to 14 days, and $129 for 43 to 56 days, Sprint charges just $45, $55 and $65 for comparable periods with a slightly higher-end Nokia 3120 camera phone. Also, while Cellular Abroad's rental period maxes out at less than two months, Sprint lets you keep its phone for up to three months. Sure, you have to be a Sprint customer to use Sprint's service, but Cellular Abroad also charges a refundable $210 security deposit and an additional $29 charge for your first block of airtime. That's a big bite of your wallet at one time.
On the upside, once you have the phone, Cellular Abroad's roaming rates are quite reasonable. Outgoing rates start at just 90 cents per minute and range as high as $3.35 a minute. Comparatively, Sprint's charges begin at $1.29 per minute and go as high as $4.99 per minute. Fortunately, Cellular Abroad's 90-cents-per-minute rate applies to Europe, Australia, and other countries most likely to receive U.S. travelers. Also, you can receive free incoming calls in 60 nations. Text messages are 60 cents per outgoing message in all countries, but incoming messages, thankfully, are free.
It's important to note, however, that roaming rates vary according to not only the country you're calling from, but also the country to which you're calling. The result is a wide variation on rates so you should definitely check the company's online calculator to determine your potential costs. Another quirk we noticed is that calls from Canada and Mexico are wildly expensive. Calls from within Canada and to the United States will cost you $2.70 per minute, while calls within Mexico run a very pricey $3.25 per minute. Apparently, distance form the United States has no bearing on the cost. Also, we were disappointed that Cellular Abroad sticks you with a 25-cents-per-minute surcharge for calls made to another cell phone.
Cellular Abroad's coverage is extensive, with service to more than 160 nations. Europe, South America, the Caribbean, and Oceania are widely covered, and you even get service in some African nations. Coverage in Asia is a little spottier, but it should be extensive enough for most users. Big gaps do exist, however. The V180 is incompatible with the cellular technology used in Japan and South Korea, so you'll be out of luck in Tokyo or Seoul. India and South America also aren't covered but Cellular Abroad promises that its service will work in some countries not on its official list.
As we mentioned earlier, the actual phone is far from noteworthy. Not only is it an antique in the cell phone world, but its feature set is centered squarely on making calls and sending messages. You do get a few games and a personal organizer, but the V180 is all about communication. Though we realize that is the whole point of a cell phone, and we admit that the V180 is a reliable and user-friendly handset, we were hoping for more from than a simple National Geographic sticker on the side. Travel guides and GPS apps would have been nice, or at the very least a VGA and a camera. There is a Web browser but it's not usable while traveling.