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Phone Home Cheaply With "Smart" Technology

AskEd & AnswerEd
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Woman laughing on mobile phone (Photo: iStockPhoto.com/Anna Bryukhanova)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on May 29, 2011. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: AskEd & AnswerEd, Ed Perkins, technology and gadget.

When you ask, "Can I keep in touch with home and family without paying gouge rates when
I'm traveling overseas?" today's answer is "yes." You can make and receive some calls free and most others for a fraction of the outrageous prices traditional phone companies charge for overseas "roaming." The big difference is VOIP – Voice Over Internet Protocol – that employs the Internet rather than conventional phone services to handle messages. But VOIP has its limits, too. Here's a brief overview of what is a very complicated subject.

Smartphone

The one essential for VOIP calls is a "smart" wireless phone such as the several iPhone models plus many newer Blackberry and Android phones. As far as I can tell, these are by far the best selling phones these days, and the wireless outfits are generally pretty generous about "upgrading" from an earlier lower-tech phone.

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Today's smartphones are, among other things, fairly powerful computers – more capable than my first real computer, the Osborne. And they have more than enough horsepower to access and use the Internet. To make VOIP calls, you need only download and install the "app" for the system you choose.

Free Calls – the Best Kind

Essentially free calls from overseas require two additional features:

  • Internet access through a Wi-Fi "hot spot." Fortunately, more and more airports, hotels, cafes, and other tourist-centered businesses offer no-charge Wi-Fi.
  • An app for the same VOIP calling system at both ends of the calls.

In general, for totally free calls to and from, both you and the parties with whom you connect need to be signed up for the same VOIP system. In a few cases, you must both also be online at the time you want to communicate.

Near-Free Calls

Several VOIP services provide for low-cost connection to mobile and landlines here in the U.S. and Canada, even to and from people who do not have VOIP themselves. All you need is Wi-Fi access where you are. Total costs can be as low as a cent or two per minute – a far cry from the $1.25-plus your regular wireless company charges for international roaming.

Low-Cost Calls

Calls will cost more from any location where you don't have access to a Wi-Fi hot spot. Instead of connecting directly to the Internet, you have to connect through the local GSM 3G phone network – which is available almost everywhere. But you still don't have to pay top dollar. VOIP calls generally connect through local access systems and they generally connect at "data" rather than "voice" rates and allowances. Typical costs can run in the range of 25 to 40 cents per minute. And several mobile VOIP systems automatically and "seamlessly" select the access system: Wi-Fi where it's available, 3G where it isn't.

Also, as the older alternative, you can always fall back on the system I've recommended for several years: Unlock your phone and buy a local SIM card for the places you visit. And you can also confine yourself to texting, which typically costs less than making voice calls.

Mobile VOIP Providers

According to my research, a handful of outfits feature mobile VOIP applications for smartphones. Among them: Bababoo, Fring, Jajah, Jaxtr, Skype, TelFree, Tru, Vopium, and Yackie.

Costs and rates vary, as do details of making and receiving calls. Although smartphone app downloads are generally free and require no additional hardware, these services require some form of payment – typically either by the call or per month – either on a preloaded or as-you-go payment plan. And, unfortunately, although the online websites are full of information about making international calls from the U.S. or Canada, they're typically quite opaque about making calls back to North America for overseas locations. Moreover, you have to wade through lots of jargon to glean any sort of understanding – and don't you hate it when outfits like these rave about their "solution" rather than calling it the gadget or program that it really is?

At this point, I'm a long way from having enough VOIP experience to recommend any "best" suppliers and I haven't yet seen anyone else's comprehensive – and comprehensible – analysis of VOIP options for international travelers. Here are a few highlights of providers that particularly attracted my attention.

  • Skype, the 800-pound gorilla in the VOIP business, has an app for several smartphones, including Android and iPhone. Skype-to-Skype voice calls using this app are free. Calls from the Skype app to a landline or mobile phone start at around 2 cents per minute. Skype for iPhone works in both 3G and Wi-Fi. It's an obvious player, if for no other reason than it has such a large customer base.
  • Tru and Yakie work primarily through local GSM systems, but they include SIM cards that provide low-cost local access in most parts of the world.
  • Several of the other systems operate in similar ways. If you are connected to Wi-Fi or 3G anywhere in the world, and your contact also signs up for the same system and is connected to Wi-Fi or 3G, calls are free. Otherwise, if your contact is on a landline or a mobile phone, you pay less than 2 cents a minute to call the U.S. or Canada. But if you aren't in a Wi-Fi hot spot, the system defaults to your GSM line, so you'd better have a local SIM card, too.

Absent any clear-cut winners, my suggestion for now is for you to check out a few of the suppliers and figure out which sounds best for you. And, as far as I can tell, just about any of them will beat international roaming from your regular wireless company. Just remember to turn off all the automatic download features when you leave the country so you won't run up a huge bill without even realizing it.

 
 
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