The Brancatelli File



November 14, 2002 -- This is a tale of two cities, two $10 phone calls and why mobile phones are now the single most important cost-control device in a business traveler's arsenal.

Rushing to check out of a Phoenix hotel recently, I realized that I needed to call my voice mail. I absent-mindedly picked up the guest-room phone, dialed New York, grabbed my messages, hung up and ran to the front desk. The last line item on my bill was the three-minute phone call. Cost? $10.17.

Cut to London where I was making a tight connection back home over Heathrow. I raced to the airline club, checked in and realized that I actually had a moment to phone home. I fished my AT&T Calling Card out of my travel wallet, dialed the AT&T Direct Service access number, called home and headed off to my gate. Ten days later, my AT&T bill arrived. The two-minute call from London to New York cost $10.82.

Needless to say, I'll never stay at that Phoenix hotel again. And I've dropped AT&T as my commercial and residential long-distance carrier.

But this tale is more profound than my getting even with rip-off telephone rates by taking my business elsewhere. The lesson is this: Using a public phone--a hotel-room guest phone or a pay phone anywhere on the planet--is the financial equivalent of putting a loaded gun to your head.

Use your mobile phone. Everywhere on the road. All the time. Once you get your calling plan in order, your mobile phone is your first, best option for making calls on the road.

Don't bother fighting with hotels about their guest-room phone rates. They aren't listening anymore. Don't waste another second trying to figure out how to make cost-effective calls from pay phones. Wired phones for business travelers are over.

Want to know how I know this is true? The people who own the wired phones have told me so. In years past, when I'd bitch to a hotel general manager about phone rates, I'd get a long song-and-dance that at least purported to justify the prices. In years past, when I confronted long-distance companies about their calling-card rates, I'd get strategies for "beating" the system.

No more. Consider this response from the marketing chief of a super-deluxe hotel chain when I asked him how he could justify $4 a minute rates for long-distance calls from his guest rooms when he was already charging guests $400 a night for the rooms.

"Anyone who makes a phone call from my phones is a fool," he said bluntly. "Most travelers are smart enough to use their cell phones anyway."

Don't condemn him. This fellow runs superb hotels and he's only telling you the terrible telecommunications truth: If you're dumb enough to use a wired phone on the road, then you deserve the soaking you're going to get.

That's why you need to turn to your wireless phone and make it your exclusive telecommunications partner on the road. And here are some thoughts on how to make the smart choices.

It's no longer a matter of debate: If you're a business traveler, then you need a nationwide wireless calling plan for your mobile phone. And you need a nationwide plan that never charges you long-distance fees, roaming charges or airtime and/or off-network surcharges.

But here's the catch: Many wireless companies lie when they claim their most frequently advertised plans are "national." Verizon's America's Choice plan, for instance, is one such phony national plan. America's Choice charges 65 cents per minute whenever you roam off the Verizon network. Verizon's truly national plan, which is always free of extra fees, is the much less frequently advertised National Single Rate plan. AT&T Wireless is advertising the hell out of its National Network plan, but check the fine print and you'll find off-network roaming fees of 69 cents a minute and long-distance charges of 20 cents a minute. ATT's only truly national plan is the venerable Digital OneRate, the program that pioneered the concept in 1998. Sprint PCS, which has advertised Free and Clear rates for years, doesn't even have a fee-free national plan. Check the fine print: Any Sprint plan you choose carries off-network roaming fees of at least 25 cents a minute.

To their credit, T-Mobile and Cingular, the two major GSM providers (more on GSM in a moment), have simpler propositions. All their branded "national" plans are free of ups and extras. (T-Mobile's newest offer in some markets is especially attractive: 1,000 anytime nationwide minutes for just $39.95 a month.) So are the national plans sold by Nextel, whose mobile phones are equipped with two-way radios.

I won't bore you with technobabble, but a system called GSM is the worldwide mobile standard and is used in more than 100 countries. However, the vast majority of mobile phones sold in the United States are not GSM compatible. If you want to use your mobile phone overseas as well as domestically, then you need to plan carefully and purchase a GSM phone.

I've been using a GSM mobile phone from T-Mobile for almost two years and it works flawlessly overseas. More importantly, it works as well domestically as the non-GSM phones sold by AT&T, Sprint, Cingular and Verizon. Are there places in the United States where my GSM phone doesn't work or offers spotty service? Absolutely. But the same could be said about any cell phone using any of the other U.S. systems. And I believe the future of U.S. wireless belongs to GSM. Cingular and AT&T have adopted GSM for their newest phones. Most Nextel phones are also compatible with GSM. That should shift the balance to the GSM standard in the years ahead.

But nothing is simple, even in the GSM world. GSM phones in the United States work on a different frequency than GSM phones elsewhere. If your goal is owning a worldwide phone, then make sure the GSM phone you purchase from T-Mobile or one of the other companies is at least a dual-mode (900/1900 Mhz) phone. Tri-mode GSM phones, which cover a marginally larger slice of the GSM world, are also available.

You can also rent a GSM phone for use overseas. I've even negotiated a special deal with Worldcell for members. But if you travel overseas more than twice a year, buy yourself a GSM world phone. In my opinion, there is no financial or technical downside if you use a GSM world phone as your primary mobile phone in the United States.

Although frequent-travel programs primarily promote their deals with wired long-distance companies, most also offer miles or points if you purchase mobile service. AT&T Wireless participates in the American AAdvantage, Delta SkyMiles and Marriott Rewards programs. Nextel has deals with United Mileage Plus, Northwest WorldPerks, US Airways Dividend Miles and Southwest Rapid Rewards. T-Mobile works with the Six Continents Priority Club. And Continental OnePass offers mileage for purchases from AT&T Wireless, Cingular or T-Mobile.

The day may come when mobile phones are an integrated part of a truly useful multipurpose device that incorporates Web surfing, a personal-digital assistant and E-mail. But no matter what the technophiles say, that day has yet to arrive. All of the multipurpose phones that I've tested simply don't function well as a mobile phone. Unless you absolutely, positively must have a multipurpose phone--or simply can't live without the newest gadget--stick with a dedicated mobile phone. Your mobile phone is too important to your day-to-day life on the road to compromise its functionality by purchasing an inferior multifunction device.

The bottom line on mobile phones is that no phone works everywhere all the time. Once in a blue moon, you may need to use a wired pay phone or a guest-room phone. So you need some kind of financial protection. The cheapest option I've seen are prepaid AT&T phone cards sold at warehouse outfits such as Costco or Sam's Club. The cards are cumbersome to use, but cheap: Domestic calling rates are as low as 4 cents a minute.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.