By Rick Steves
Each country's phone system is different, but each one works — logically. The key to figuring out a foreign phone is to approach it without comparing it to yours back home. It works for the residents, and it can work for you.
As in the US, these days many Europeans do most of their phoning on mobile telephones. But for those sticking with landlines, here are the different places from which to make landline calls.
Phones in your hotel room can be great for local calls and for calls using cheap international phone cards. Otherwise, they can be an almost criminal rip-off. I use hotel phones only when I'm feeling flush and lazy, for a quick "Call me in Stockholm at this number" message. Many hotels charge a fee for local and "toll-free" as well as long-distance or international calls — always ask for the rates before you dial.
You'll never be charged for receiving calls, so having someone from the US call you in your room can be a cheap way to stay in touch (provided they have a long-distance plan with good international rates). Give your family a list of your hotels' phone numbers before you leave. While you're on the road, you can set up calling times by email, text messages, or quick pay-phone calls. Then relax in your room and wait for the ring.
While pay phones are on the endangered species list, you'll still see phone booths (in most European languages, these are called cabina, kah-bee-nah) and banks of phones in post offices and train stations. Pay phones generally come with multilingual instructions. If you follow these step-by-step, the phone will work — usually. Operators generally speak some English and are helpful. International codes, instructions, and international assistance numbers are usually on the wall (printed in several languages) or in the front of the phone book. If I have problems, I ask a local person for help.
Most public phones in Europe work with insertable phone cards that you buy locally. While some card phones also accept coins, most don't. Great Britain, an exception to the norm, doesn't sell insertable phone cards. Their pay phones accept coins or major credit cards. A few other European countries also have a smattering of coin-operated phones. If you use one, have enough small change to complete your call. Only entirely unused coins will be returned — so don't plug in large coins until it's clear that you'll be having a long conversation. The digital countdown meter warns you when you're about to be cut off. Many phones allow follow-on calls, so you won't lose your big-coin credit — look for this button and push it (rather than hanging up), then dial the next number.
Cheap call shops that advertise low rates to faraway lands have popped up all over Europe, often in immigrant neighborhoods. While these target immigrants from the developing world who want to call home cheaply, tourists can use them, too. (A few European post offices have old-fashioned metered phones that work similarly.) The clerk assigns you a booth and can help you with your long-distance prefixes. You sit in your private sweatbox, make the call, and pay the bill when you're done. Sometimes (especially at post offices), calls cost the same as from a public phone, but most of the calling shops specialize in long-distance calls and can have cheaper rates. Before using any metered phone service, be completely clear on the rates. For example, the listed price may be per unit, rather than per minute — if there are 10 "units" in a minute, your call costs 10 times what you expected.