As I strolled past 2,800-year-old boulders that form the base of the wall enclosing the Tuscan hill town of Cortona, a surprising thing happened: My cell phone rang. It was my wife, calling from the United States. And it didn't cost me a cent of talk time. More on that "free" time later.
Though I often travel without a cell phone, I needed one for this trip. Taking my home cell phone wasn't an option because, like most American cell phones, it doesn't work overseas.
Most of the world - about 200 countries, according to GSMworld.com - uses the GSM mobile phone standard. Most North American cell phone services typically use Code-Division Multiple Access, or CDMA.
Research narrowed my options to two appealing choices:
Sign up with T-Mobile, which offers GSM service, and pay 99 cents or more per minute for sending and receiving calls from my phone, or rent a phone from Cellular Abroad, which has the lowest per-minute rates I could find but which costs more to set up.
Because I planned to use my phone extensively, I opted for Cellular Abroad. That required that I have different phone numbers in Italy and the United Kingdom. But that was a minor sacrifice to make for the low per-minute rates.
T-Mobile (www.t-mobile.com) charges 99 cents to $4.99 per minute for making or receiving international calls. Thirty countries, including Italy and those of the United Kingdom, have the 99-cent rate; among the countries at the $1.49 rate are Mexico and Greece. For calls from Brazil and Israel to the United States, the rate is $2.99 per minute.
If you need your phone mostly in U.S. cities and use it overseas only occasionally, T-Mobile's GSM service can suffice as your only cell phone. But remember that GSM service does not blanket this country, so GSM phones still don't work in some outlying service areas.
Figuring I'd use my phone at least 30 minutes a day while overseas, I chose Cellular Abroad (www.cellularabroad.com) for the low per-minute rates: 25 to 30 cents a minute for calls from Europe to the United States. Domestic calls within Italy and the United Kingdom cost as little as 9 cents a minute.
Cellular Abroad rents GSM phones - $29 a week, $49 for two weeks - that have slots for each country's SIM card. The card is the phone's electronic brain, giving you a local phone number at your destination and tallying the amount of talking time.
If you're going to be traveling longer than two weeks, or if you travel frequently, buy a GSM phone from Cellular Abroad or another provider. Prices start at slightly less than $100.
One tip: If you purchase a GSM phone, make sure you can unlock it and use foreign SIM cards, which save you money by providing local phone numbers.
The SIM card, which can also store up to 100 phone numbers and is about half the size of a postage stamp, is priced differently for different nations. For Italy, Cellular Abroad charges $89 for a card with 20 euros' worth of talk time. (One euro is worth about $1.25). The U.K. card costs $69 and includes 15 pounds of talk time. (The pound is worth about $1.81).
In addition to talk time, you're paying for the card's electronics and for setting up the account. Cellular Abroad's Web site details rates to other countries around the world.
Though I had to pay about $200 for the phone rental and two SIM cards, this plan cost me less than other options because of the low per-minute rates. Had I been visiting only one country, the setup cost would have been about $120.
For comparison, a similar company, TravelCell, charges $1.69 per minute for outgoing calls from Italy and 99 cents for incoming. For my needs, I would have spent well over $200 in Italy alone and another $250 or more in England with TravelCell.
Another option is Telestial (www.telestial.com) which sells SIM cards and phones, and has rates similar to Cellular Abroad in some cases. I picked Cellular Abroad because I was impressed by its knowledgeable staff when researching my options.
Cellular Abroad sent me the phone, charger and appropriate adapters before my departure, with clear instructions for installing the SIM cards. Installing the cards is simple. They pop right in.
To add more talk time in Italy, I bought cards, sold at newsstands, gas stations and tobacco shops, with a 16-digit code I entered into the phone. In the United Kingdom, I called customer service and used my Visa card to add credit to my account.
The Ericsson R520m phone was simple to use, and the quality of the GSM service exceeded my expectations. From Florence, Italy, to Oxford, England, connections were so clear I sometimes forgot I was talking on a mobile phone. The text messaging service worked flawlessly. Only once did I lose a call, and that was while I was traveling on a train.
So how did I manage to talk to my wife without consuming my cell minutes? The United Kingdom, Italy and most other European countries (and many Asian countries) do not charge for incoming calls if you have domestic cell-phone service.
Naturally, there's a catch: Anyone calling your cell phone will usually be charged extra, so it's often cheaper for you to call them. When my wife called me from home, we were charged about 20 cents extra per minute; other travelers have reported surcharges well in excess of $1 per minute.
T-Mobile and Cellular Abroad aren't the only options. Nextel's i2000 phone service gives you one phone number that works in multiple countries, though it's more expensive to call home with Nextel than with the plans mentioned above.
And not everyone needs a phone. For occasional calls, consider phone cards such as Ekno (www.ekno.com) which offers international calling and voice mail via local access numbers in more than 50 countries. You can also rent a GSM phone at your destination or buy one in advance and set up accounts when you arrive.
If you're more intrepid, you can purchase a cell phone - again, make sure it lets you insert your own SIM card - and buy the SIM at your destination; in many cases these are sold at airports. You would probably pay less buying the card overseas than you would in the United States.
Because procedures and standards vary by country, and because it can be time-consuming to establish service at your destination, I don't mind paying an extra $20 or $30 to get set up before I go.
-Michael Shapiro is the author of "Internet Travel Planner" Globe Pequot Press, $17.95. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org