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The Amazing Race 2, Episode 10 (8 May 2002)

Inverary Station (New Zealand) - Picton (New Zealand) - Wellington (New Zealand) - Rotorua (New Zealand) - Waitamo (New Zealand) - Auckland (New Zealand)

We’ve got to find a phone!

The ebullient South Beach boys, Danny and Oswald, finished first in the CBS-TV popularity poll but last in “The Amazing Race” this week, eliminating them from the finale of the second season of the around-the-world travel reality-TV show. It’s likely that all three remaining teams will be on the same flight from Auckland to Los Angeles, so it’s almost certain to come down to an SUV race through the desert back to the start/finish line in Nevada next week — not much of a test of real travel skills.

What was interesting in this episode was that, once again, teams agonized over how to find a pay phone, or whether to stop to call ahead for reservations and information. In the final episode of the first season, winners Brennan and Rob paid US$300 to borrow a cell phone to use to make flight reservations while they were driving to Anchorage airport. This week, Danny and Oswald stopped to call ahead for reservations on the ferry from the New Zealand’s South Island to the North Island, while the other teams took a chance on going straight to the ferry terminal. Possibly as a result, Danny and Oswald missed the ferry, and had to wait two hours for the next one.

In the end, it made no difference — the teams all had to wait overnight before they could complete the next of their tasks in the morning. Neither Rob and Brennan’s victory nor Oswald and Danny’s elimination had anything to do with their communication strategys. But picking up a telephone to ask for information could have been critical for the racers — as it was in several episodes this season when they used cabbies’ cell phones to call for directions — and can save ordinary travellers a lot of wasted tramping around with their packs on their backs. What’s more, proper preparation could probably have spared them the need to buy or borrow other people’s cell phones, or to stop and search for phone booths.

Almost everywhere in the world, the proliferation of cell phones (“mobile phones” everywhere except the USA) is making the public pay phone obsolete. Coin-operated phones are an especially endangered species — most pay phones now accept only credit cards or calling-card numbers (in the USA and Canada) or stored-value telephone debit cards (in the rest of the world). If you don’t have a mobile phone, and plan to use public phones, it’s generally a good idea to get a telephone card as soon as possible after you arrive in any country where you’ll be for a while. Depending on the country, they’re sold from vending machines, at post and telecommunications offices, and/or in convenience stores, newsstands, tobacconists, and the like. Prices typically start at US$2 to US$5. Sometimes you throw telephone cards away when you’ve used up the stored value, but more often you can “recharge” a card, at the same places you buy them, for less than the price of a new card.

Even rechargable stored-value “smart cards”, however, are coming to be considered old-fashioned. Travellers in much of the world have grown accustomed to taking their mobile phones with them wherever they go, even internationally.

You may have heard that American cell phones can’t be used abroad, but that’s only half true. Most cell phones in the USA and Canada operate on incompatible, nonstandard systems, and won’t work anywhere else. But service on the global standard GSM system — in operation essentially everywhere in the inhabited world except Korea and Japan, where they are working on it — is available in the USA and Canada, with coverage extending to the majority of the population. The frequency used for GSM service in North America isn’t used in many other places, but GSM phones are available that cover one or both of the other two GSM bands as well as the North American one.

Seamless international mobile phone roaming is great — but expensive. On my current trip, I got off the plane at Belfast City Airport in Northern Island (more on what I’m doing here next week), switched on my Pacific Bell dual-band GSM cell phone, and could call the people who were meeting me to tell them I’d arrived — for US$5 a minute in Pacific Bell roaming fees. They could also call me back at my usual USA cell phone number, and it would ring on my phone in Belfast — for the same prohibitive price.

Once you’ve got a suitable dual- or tri-band GSM phone, though, there’s a better way: One of the advantages of the GSM system is that the phone number and account details are on a removable, interchangeable, thumbnail-sized smart card (“SIM card”, or simply “SIM”), separate from the phone handset. Swap your SIM card for a new one — a matter of less than a minute — and you’ve got a new, local phone number in a new country. Some mobile phone companies “lock” their handsets so they can only be used with their own SIM’s, but GSM operators in the USA generally recognize that international roaming is a selling point for their phones, and will give you the unlocking code for the asking, after you’ve had your phone for a couple of months, as long as you’ve paid your bills on time.

Even at 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, on the day before a bank holiday, in a small provincial city of less than half a million people, it took me less than an hour once I got downtown to find a kiosk selling prepaid SIM’s. For GBP29.99 (about US$45), I got a Vodafone prepaid SIM with a local UK phone number good for the next six months, and GBP10 (US$15) of initial calling credit, rechargeable with vouchers sold at every newsstand, gas station, etc. Outgoing calls to anywhere in the UK are 5p (US$0.07) per minute after the first 75p (US$1.25) per day. Incoming calls are free as long as I’m in the UK. (The system in the USA, where you have to pay to receive calls on your cell phone, is quite unusual internationally). When I get home, all I have to do is swap the SIM back to my original one, and I’m connected again at my USA number, without having to carry two phones.

What does all this mean, and why should travellers care?

Compared to the cost of calling from your hotel, or even from phone booths, prepaid SIM’s for a GSM phone can be cheap enough to pay for the phone in a week or two of travel, tops — less if you’re traveling on business, and using the phone a lot. Regardless of whether you use the phone for outgoing calls or not, you’ve got a fixed local number where people can call you back, at no further cost to you, even if you’re moving from city to city, in airports and train stations, or staying in hostels and budget hotels without phones in the rooms.

If you travel overseas even occasionally, and are signing a new wireless phone contract, do yourself a favor and get GSM service — if there is coverage in your area — and a dual- or tri-band phone. Make sure you can get it unlocked, and do so as soon as possible. Bring it with you when you go abroad, and it will pay for itself on the first trip. If you can, get a dual-voltage charger with the phone: you can find a 220-volt charger and plug adapters for any standard GSM phone in any major international airport, but it’s easier to get a single charger for both 110 and 220 volts, and not have to carry two or worry about which voltage is used in whichever country you are visiting. If you are going traveling for a long time, and giving up your USA cell phone service, you can still bring the phone — sans SIM — with you to use with locally-purchased prepaid SIM’s.

The contestants on “The Amazing Race” wouldn’t be allowed to bring an active cell phone with them, since the charges to their account would violate the rule against spending any money except that given to them in cash at the start of each leg. But so far as I can tell, bringing an unlocked, SIM-free dual- or tri-band GSM mobile phone, and using it with locally purchased prepaid SIM’s, would be within the rules of the race and could give a team a significant edge. I know that many applicants for “The Amazing Race 3” are reading these articles, so look for someone to try it next season.

Until the 2-hour finale of “The Amazing Race 2” next week, I’m off to play tourist in Northern Ireland!

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