International Travel: 5 Ways to Save When Calling Home

Last Updated Oct 18, 2011 1:36 PM EDT

Did you hear about the woman with the $201,000 telephone bill? It wasn't a mistake. It was because her brothers, accustomed to unlimited texting and data, stepped over the U.S. border and into Canada and used their phones like they always had. International roaming charges -- even with an international plan -- can be an economic nightmare.

I know from experience. The first time my daughter went to Italy on her own, I dutifully called our cell provider -- AT&T -- and signed up for their international calling plan. For $5 a month, I was promised heavily discounted per-minute rates. A few phone calls later, I got the bill for her 10-day international trip. It amounted to more than $200 -- about $1.40 a minute.

You can understand why I was nervous when she opted to study in Italy this past semester. Eight months of international phone bills sounded like taking on a new car payment.

But much has changed over the past few years to make keeping in touch with friends and family overseas downright cheap. In fact, my international calling expenses were nil for her eight months away and my daughter and I communicated far more frequently than we did on that first trip.

If you are going abroad or if your child is considering a semester away -- or if you simply have friends in other countries -- it's worth knowing these 5 ways to keep in touch without breaking the bank.

Skype: If you haven't signed up for Skype, now is the time. For those of us who are...let's say "traditional" (that sounds so much better than antiquated), it takes a few minutes to get used to the notion of talking into your laptop computer. But once you do, you'll find Skype to be delightful. You have the option of doing voice or video calls. All you need to do is sign up at and invite any friends that you want to communicate with to join too.

You'll add their Skype contact information to your account. The service alerts you when these friends are online. But if you want to chat at a particular hour -- advisable when there's a significant time difference -- you can also send an email to schedule your cyber rendezvous. Then all you have to do is click on the appropriate name in your address book, decide whether to initiate a video or a voice call, and click. You'll hear the phone ring (which may be a way of providing comfort to those of us who are a little old school), they click to answer and you're off and running. Computer-to-computer calls are free.

Skype also offers a computer-to-phone service, which costs a few dollars a month. In the old world -- like last year -- that was worth considering when you had friends who didn't have high-speed Internet connections or simply couldn't manage to answer their computer. Now, there's Google Voice.

Google Voice: Over the past year, most of my daughter's international phone calls have been free because of Google Voice. The service charges nothing for domestic computer-to-phone calls and, until recently, didn't differentiate between calling from a computer that started in the U.S. but had moved overseas. They've fixed that glitch, but it's nothing to worry about. International calls to the U.S. cost one penny a minute. At that rate, you can talk all night and it'll cost you less than the latte that got you wired enough to stay up for the phone call.

To use the service, you need a Google email account (which you'll also like). Once you've signed up for Gmail, scroll down the page to the little phone icon on the left-hand side of the page. Click, and a keypad appears. Punch in the number you want to call and voila.

Google chat: Okay, it's not a phone call. But for those of us who have learned that teenage boys do not talk, but they do text message, it may be the best way to keep in touch. Naturally, you need an Internet connection and both you and the person you want to chat with need a Gmail account. (Seriously, you'll love Gmail. It's soooo much cooler than Outlook.) Once you have that, it's just a matter of scrolling down to see if the person you want to chat with is online. If they are, it's just like sending a text message.

Facebook: if you're one of the two remaining Americans who have not yet signed up for a Facebook account, you might want to reconsider before you or your friends go abroad. Not only can you send messages when they're in bed fast asleep, you can chat -- just like you do over Google chat -- when you're both online. And, yes, there's a Facebook application for your phone. As long as you've set your phone to just pick up Wifi, rather than phone connections, you don't get hit with those miserable International calling charges when you use it, either.

International sim cards: If you want to use a cell phone overseas, pick up an unlocked international phone or sim card. You'll likely pay about $50 for the phone and minutes, which will charge you at a rate that's about one-quarter of the discounted rate you'd be able to negotiate from your phone company at home. More importantly, you'll know exactly what you're paying because your phone will tell you when you're running low of minutes. If you want more, you buy the minutes as you go instead of getting that shocking phone bill when you return home.

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