What's the best freebie you've ever gotten for booking a tour: A couple of plastic luggage tags? A thimble-sized sewing kit? A dorky accordion-pleated rain bonnet?
Most travelers have drawers full of these tokens, which never seem to be as useful as intended.But a new perk has started showing up this year that's almost guaranteed to come in handy abroad. It's a prepaid telephone calling card.
Phone cards represent a relatively small expense for large companies, but they can be invaluable to vacationers, eliminating the need for coming up with the right combination of foreign coins or special tokens to make local calls while abroad and for communicating with operators when they want to phone home.
At least two major travel-services companies are now offering prepaid phone cards to their customers, and more are likely to follow suit in coming months.
Currently, vacationers booking Rail Europe's EuroPlus tours, which are geared to independent travelers, receive a Sprint Europhone card good for a three-minute international call from Europe or 10 minutes of local calling in more than 30 countries - a value of about $6.
The Kemwel Group is offering $10 worth of free MCI overseas phone service to travelers who book rental cars in about 30 countries (mainly European) this year. If you opt for a new Peugeot through a lease-type arrangement of two weeks or more, you'll get a card good for $25 worth of calls.
Sprint's distributor, TeleTouch Inc., is currently negotiating with European airlines, hotels and other tour operators about distributing the card as a perk for their customers, too, according to a spokesman.
I tested the 10-unit Sprint Europhone card from my office recently, first dialing a toll-free access number, then the personal number printed on the face of my card. An automated voice prompted me to select from a menu: either make any desired phone call or access an information-services network including world, national and financial news, weather and sports. Within seconds, I'd heard news headlines of the day and the weather forecast for Rome, a city I picked arbitrarily and selected by spelling it on the telephone push buttons.
Rail Europe's EuroPlus travel programs offer "essentials" such as round-trip airfare on major carriers and a choice of 2,000 hotels abroad as well as tours, river cruises and car-leasing programs. An essentials program focusing on Italy, Germany or Switzerland - including round-trip transatlantic airfare between New York and Milan, Frankfurt, Munich or Zurich plus two nights in hotels - starts at $829 in high season (June 1-Sept. 30). Travelers to Italy or Germany can add $280 and also get the lowest category Europass, good for five days of unlimited first-class rail travel during a two-month period in three countries; the Swiss rail add-on is $222.
In addition to the prepaid calling card, EuroPlus customers receive a free traveler's kit that includes a Michelin Green Guide, a shopping discount and a city update on current events.
For EuroPlus information, call (800) 462-2577. For information on Kemwel, call (800) 678-0678.