Staying in contact with colleagues, friends and family at home while you're traveling overseas has always been a confusing and expensive challenge. In the days before we all carried cell phones we were at the mercy of hotels, most of which charged extortionate rates for local calls and incredibly high rates for international calls. Today, though, it's never been so easy to stay in touch with those back home. Everyone we know can be reached from almost anywhere in the world in an instant, and usually at a much cheaper rate than calls from a hotel room.

However, while many cell phones will work in any country it's not always as cheap as you may think to call home. If you're traveling to Europe from the US your carrier can still charge a ridiculous sum for an international call, and there are countless stories of vacationers returning home to bills amounting to thousands of dollars.

So, if you don't want to get caught out by extortionate international roaming charges it's important to think about the best method of communication before you dial that number. Here's how...

[Subheading] Choose an International Plan

Most carriers offer an international roaming plan that can be added on top of your regular contract. These plans may cost a little to set up, but they'll give you reduced rates on international calls while you're overseas (and incoming calls may be free of charge). This option is great if you're taking a short trip and don't plan to make many calls, but it could work out costly if you need to use your phone regularly.

[Subheading] Get an Unlocked Phone

Many (if not most) cell phones are locked to a carrier when you buy them. Unless you've spent hundreds of dollars for an unlocked carrier-free phone you can expect to be unable to switch out the SIM card without a little forward planning.

Many carriers will allow you to unlock your phone for use on other networks when you travel overseas, but you need to ask in advance of your trip. You'll be given a numeric code by your carrier that will free your phone from its network and allow you to replace the SIM with a pay-as-you-go card purchased overseas.

Alternatively, you could buy a cheap disposable phone while on vacation. If you don't care about such modern gadgets as wifi and GPS you can pick up a 5 year old Nokia 3210 or similar for just a few dollars (or you could ask if one of your friends have an old phone they no longer use). Older phones are usually unlocked, so they can often be used with any network.

[Subheading] Buy an International SIM Card

Once your phone is unlocked you can simply buy a pay-as-you-go SIM from any country you visit. In many European countries you can buy disposable European SIM cards over the counter without ID (though in Italy, the UK and certain other countries you may need to show your passport).

If you don't want to deal with the hassle of hunting down a SIM card while on vacation you can invest in an international SIM. These can be found in stores and online, and they'll offer reduced international call charges for many countries. International SIM cards are usually region-specific, so if you're traveling to Spain, for instance, you'll want to buy a European SIM that will offer reduced charges within Europe and perhaps home to the US.