By Maggie LaCoste
If you plan to stay in touch with family and friends when you are biking in France, it’s a good idea to do some advance planning! Even though here in the USA you can always find an internet connection, many small towns and villages in Europe still do not have easy access to the internet. I love medieval towns, but, as my travels this year proved, stone walls and buildings and the internet are not that compatible. And, even if your hotel does have internet, it may not be free or affordable. In addition to sending e-mails, many traveling cyclists want to also speak to friends and family, so what are your best choices to do this affordably?
International chips added to a cell phone are a possibility, but they don’t work with all phones, often involve roaming charges for outgoing calls and they may be a bigger expense and more trouble to get working than they are worth. Phone cards are a better alternative, especially for calling from hotel phones or pay phones, but they literally eat up minutes, and thus end up being a very expensive alternative. I made a call from a pay phone in France this summer with a new 200 minute phone card that cost 15 Euro. My phone call lasted 15 minutes, yet the call ate up 170 “minutes” on my card. Obviously a minute of conversation is more than an actual minute of time on a phone card. While it is easy to purchase these cards at airports, we have found this option to be unreliable and very expensive.
The internet is full of offers for prepaid phone cards, but I have never met anyone who got these to work successfully overseas. I actually have seen people pounding on pay phones because the phone card that they purchased for $50 in the US before leaving home did not work. Because I don’t know of anyone who has been successful with this option, I have never pursued it.
For the last four years, we have often used Skype to call home from Europe, a good option, especially if you are traveling on business and don’t have to pay the bill. Skype is the calling option of choice pretty much everywhere in the world now, but even Skype has its limitations. Skype requires an internet connection, so if you are in an area, like a medieval city that does not have internet service, you can’t use Skype. Unless you have the mobile application of Skype loaded on your cell, you will need a computer to use Skype, and most bicyclists don’t travel with their computer. I have spoken with some friends who have tried using Skype with the newest iPad with some limited success. Unless you travel with headphones (a rather cumbersome luxury for cyclists), talking into the iPad speaker can be a bit awkward. And, while Skype is definitely cheaper than cell phone international roaming charges, there still is a cost.
The easiest and most fail proof method that my husband and I have found for calling home when bicycling in France is the French Telecom card, which is available from the local tobacco/newspaper store. Here is a picture of the “card”, which is really more like a ticket or receipt. They actually are printed out just like a receipt from the cash machine.
If you are going to be traveling to France, it might be a good idea to make a copy of this card to be able to show in the tobacco store. We have never determined the correct way to ask for it, we always just show a copy of an old one. It always seems to work! The French Telecom card is sold in 7.50 Euro increments, so you simply tell the clerk the amount that you want. We normally purchase 15 Euro worth of time and it easily lasts for 7-10 days of daily calls to our kids in the USA. It really is amazing because I can talk seemingly forever, and the card never seems to run out. The best part is that the cards are usable in public phone booths (still used in France) as well as in your hotel room, provided you have a phone in your room.
But before you get too excited, there is one hitch. The system is all in French, but it is very easy to master after one or two times. Here is a quick primer:
From a pay phone, you dial the access code which is 3089#
As soon as you hear the operator respond, you start to dial your 14 number access code which is on your card, for example on the card above, the number is: 29887876185542
Then you will hear another prompt and you enter the phone number that you want to dial. If you are calling the USA, you dial 001, then the number.
If you are calling from your hotel room, you follow the same process, but you have to dial the number to get an outside line. Then you follow the same process as above.
So for the time being, the French Telecom card will be my choice for the least expensive way to speak with my family when I am bicycling in France. No matter how small the town is, there is always a public phone booth. You may have to look around town to find it, but there will be one. So even if I can’t connect to the internet, I can easily call home with my French Telecom card. Unlike some of the other options which require carrying a computer, or headphones, the French Telecom card is virtually weightless, making it the perfect travel solution for bicyclists!