Calling Abroad? Dial Up The Latest Discounts

Do you find yourself making a lot of overseas calls lately? Perhaps you're the owner of a small enterprise that relies on foreign suppliers and customers. Or maybe you want to keep tabs on a college-age child who is spending a semester in Paris. Perhaps you just want to stay close to friends and relatives in the old country.

When it comes to reaching out and touching someone across an ocean, telecom giants such as AT&T, MCI, and Sprint have got a deal for you. Deep discounts also are available from large second-tier companies, such as Cable & Wireless, Frontier, LCI International, and LDDS WorldCom as well as some smaller no-name telephone resellers.

RATE RULES. But sorting out the deals can be a muddle for customers who want to make frequent calls abroad. The Big Three have unveiled supposedly simpler international calling programs in recent months, each costing $3 a month. AT&T says residential customers who join its AT&T True Reach International Savings program can slash about 25% on all calls when they spend $25 a month. Rates vary by country and time of day. The basic rate for Japan is $1.32 per minute during peak hours (2 p.m. to 8 p.m.), 74 cents during the "value" period, and 64 cents during a special 12-month weekend promotion. Under AT&T's True Country program, which has no monthly fee and is aimed at folks who make only a few international calls, people can get 20% off the basic rate for calls made to a chosen country. But you'll generally pay more with AT&T.

Residential customers who sign on for Sprint Sense International also pay different rates in each country, depending upon when the call begins. Calls made to Japan cost 70 cents per minute if placed between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m., $1.25 thereafter. Customers who stick with the program for a year can get a 10% rebate on their annual domestic and international long-distance tab. Callers need not specify the numbers they call ahead of time.

It pays to let MCI Communications know the people you're planning to call under the company's aggressive new pricing plan, dubbed MCI World Savings. Callers who provide the company with a list of the international numbers they phone most often pay a flat, low per-minute rate, 24 hours a day. The lowest MCI rate to Britain, France, and Germany is 49 cents per minute; to Japan, it's 64 cents. But people who haven't preselected the phone numbers (and there is no limit on how many you provide MCI) pay higher rates that adhere to peak or off-peak time restrictions, similar to AT&T and Sprint. So that same call to Japan could cost 74 cents or $1.31 per minute. "Most residential customers call only one or two international numbers, so they would be shooting themselves in the foot if they didn't enroll in a plan like this," says Robert Self, publisher of Dr. Bob's Long Distance for Less Updates series of rate guides in Bethesda, Md.

In dealing with the Big Three, Self recommends that consumers ask about special promotions. Moreover, as with domestic calling plans, AT&T, MCI, and Sprint may be more inclined to throw a bone your way if you can wave a competitive offer at them.

Small-business owners also should inquire about international promotions, and they may even have more clout to bargain with. Depending upon the volume of calls, a company might get a carrier to knock off a monthly fee or extend off-peak hours. Seth Kessler, associate editor of Beacon Research Group's Business Consumer Guide in Watertown, Mass., says prospective customers should pose a series of questions: Is there an installation fee or minimum monthly total? What kind of detailed billing or accounting reports are available? Are you billed in six-second increments, and what is the minimum call length? Does the company offer foreign-language translation (a particular strength of AT&T)?

Kessler says if your company spends more than $750 per month on long-distance calls, it should qualify for discounts, even if you opt for an international carrier that's different from the one providing your domestic service. If you spend more than $1,500 a month, you can probably negotiate volume savings of up to 40%, depending on the country. In general, the longer term you commit to, the larger the discount you will get, although it's not wise to lock into a deal of more than one year. The way the phone business operates, a new cut-rate calling plan is always in the works.

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