Save Money on Phone Calls From the Caribbean

Women using local telephone booths in Cienfuegos, Cuba
Nick Kee Son/Getty Images

Calling home from the Caribbean can often seem like a choice between bad and worse, especially for U.S. travelers.

Using the phone in your hotel room can cost a small fortune because both the hotel and local phone company jack up the per-minute fees for long-distance and overseas calls. Using your cell phone from a U.S.-based carrier like Verizon, AT&T, Sprint or T-Mobile isn't usually a good option, either. Because the U.S. operates on a different cell-phone standard than the rest of the world, your typical cell phone from back home won't work in most Caribbean destinations. The exception are phones that are compatible with the international GSM standard -- also commonly called "tri-band" or "quad-band" phones (the Apple/AT&T iPhone and Verizon/Blackberry Storm are examples) -- but even if you can get service you'll pay high roaming charges ($1-$4 per minute is not at all unusual) unless you sign up in advance for a discounted international calling plan (available from carriers like AT&T and Verizon for a monthly fee; Verizon's Global Travel Program is an example).

Think texting is a cheaper option? Think again: phone companies charge higher rates for international texting, too, and data-transmission costs also can be exorbitant. In fact, many world travelers have horror stories about getting huge phone bills because they kept texting and downloading during their travels, thinking that these activities were free under their domestic calling plan or cost just a few cents each -- wrong!

The good news is that you do have a few decent alternatives for staying in touch with friends, family, and the office while traveling in the islands. These include:

  • Buy an unlocked GSM world phone and use local SIM cards: This is your best option if you travel overseas frequently. For $100 or so (cheaper if you buy one used on Craigslist or eBay), you can get a basic world phone (look for an unlocked phone labeled as "GSM," "tri-band" or "quad-band"). When you get to your destination in the Caribbean, go into nearly any airport shop, convenience store, or cell-phone store (look for signs for local providers like Cable & Wireless and Digicel) and buy an inexpensive local SIM card. Pop it into your phone, top it up with cheap minutes, and you'll be calling home like a local. The only major downside is that you'll have a new local phone number each time you put in a new SIM card.
  • Renting a GSM world phone: Companies like Mobal, Telestial and Cellhire will rent you a GSM phone for as little as $50 per month; you then pay lower rates for calls and data (though not always as low as the rates from local carriers).
  • Use Skype: Any two people with Internet access and computers or handheld devices with the Skype application installed can talk for free online (you'll need a microphone, of course, and a webcam if you want video, too). Skype also functions as a "Voice Over Internet Protocol" (VoIP) phone, meaning that for a reasonably low fee you can make international calls from your computer to a regular telephone number back home. Note: Nearly every decent hotel in the Caribbean offers some form of Internet access, usually high-speed, sometimes wireless, and in some cases free (if not, per-day charges are typically in the $10-15 range).
  • Chat via e-mail or instant messaging: OK, it's not the same as hearing a human voice, but if all else fails at least you can get in touch in more-or-less real time. And it's free other than what you pay for Internet access in your hotel room or a cybercafe, the latter which can be found in most Caribbean cities and towns.
  • Use your hotel's free wifi to browse the Internet or download data: Free wifi in hotel rooms and public spaces is now almost universal at Caribbean hotels and resorts -- a far cry from just a few years ago. So, be smart and wait till you get back to your resort before uploading those photos to Facebook designed to make your friends jealous about your island adventures!
  • Rent a personal hotspot that can get you internet access even when you are out and away from your hotel. A personal wifi connection via Mio is under $100 for a week in Aruba and can be used to support multiple devices, including phones, laptops, and tablets. Other wifi providers may offer similar service elsewhere in the Caribbean.