The first time my daughter went overseas with her college classmates, I called our cellphone company to inquire about international connection plans. For just $6 a month, they told me, I could get "discounted" calls to wherever my daughter traveled.
Some $200 in "discounted" calling charges later — which added up to less than two hours of phone time — I realized that what I bought was an expensive lesson on international dialing. I've since learned that keeping in touch with friends and relatives overseas can be cheap — sometimes even free — but you may need to learn how to talk into your computer screen.
"Making calls without an overseas number is frightfully expensive," said Mark Lowenstein, managing director of Mobile Ecosystems, a Boston telecommunications consulting firm. "The best way to call is on a laptop."
If you're under 25, you probably know about something called VoIP. If so, stop reading and hand this column to someone older and less technologically savvy. This is a beginner's guide to making phone calls on your computer using Voice over Internet Protocol.
Voice over Internet converts the sound of your voice into a digital signal that travels over the Internet and is received just like an ordinary phone call. In some cases, you can make these calls using a pre-programmed phone that looks and feels just like the phone you're used to. But, more often, you'll be making calls directly from your computer or laptop.
Why would you want to learn about anything that sounds as intimidating as that? If you want to keep in touch with friends or relatives in foreign lands, it can save you a fortune.
That's because calling internationally from an ordinary land line or cellphone can cost upward of $2 a minute, even after buying the discounted calling plan. Buy AT&T's World Traveler plan for $5.99 a month and your international cell roaming rates when calling your child in Australia, for example, would drop from $1.69 a minute to $1.29 a minute. That means you'll still pay $77.40 an hour.
Got a teen who likes to text-message? Each "whazup?" could cost you $1.
Besides, despite the incomprehensible name, VoIP is actually simple, as long as you have the proper equipment.
You'll need a late-model computer or laptop — ideally with a built-in Web cam — and a high-speed Internet connection to make it work. If either your computer or your Internet connection is slow, your phone calls can freeze up and make communication difficult, if not impossible.
Let's look at how you'd set up on Skype, the largest of the half-dozen companies offering phone service through Internet connections.
Assuming you're signing up to keep in touch with a particular person (or people) as cheaply as possible, you should encourage those individuals to also sign up and give you their Skype contact information. Skype-to-Skype calls are free, no matter the distance.
To sign up, go to Skype.com and click on "get Skype." The company's software will automatically detect whether you're calling from a Windows-based computer or a Mac and will suggest the proper software. You're going to click on "download now" and click again to accept Skype's "terms of service." (The terms of service are largely boilerplate, but they specify that Skype can't be used to replace your land line because it doesn't offer emergency phone services, such as 911.)
Your next step is to add contacts. If you've set up the service with a friend who has already told you his or her contact name in the Skype directory, simply type in the name. Skype will then send your contact request to that person for approval — much like a "friend request" on Facebook.
Once he or she has accepted, that person's contact information appears in your contact directory. Calling that individual then becomes as simple as clicking that person's name and then the "call" or "video call" button on the screen.
If you don't know whether someone you'd like to call has Skype, you can look up that person in the Skype directory by typing in the name. The system will then list all the like-named individuals and where they are to help you determine whether the person you're looking for is on the list.
If the friend you want to call happens to be online, your Skype call will pop up on that person's screen. All your friend has to do is click on "answer" and the built-in microphones on your computer or laptop will allow you to hear each other. If you've chosen "video call," your Web cam will allow you to see each other too.
Need to call someone who isn't online? You can click the "call phones" button with Skype and plug in the phone number. But that call will cost you. The company's "unlimited" calling plans start at $2.99 a month, said Simon Longbottom, Skype's director of product marketing. Calling without a plan costs about 2 cents a minute.
To complete a call to a land line, you'll need to "buy Skype credit" or sign up for a monthly service plan. Either feature works much like making any other online purchase. You enter your credit card or PayPal information and the vendor charges your account.
The one funky thing: Even with a high-speed connection and a fast computer, those video calls are a little like old "Godzilla" movies. You can often hear the conversation before you see your friend's lips moving.
Longbottom says Skype continues to work on call quality, but acknowledges that slow Internet networks — or even straying too far from the source of the wireless signal — can affect performance.
"That's a real focus of attention for us," he said.
Still, my $200 European phone bill could have been cut to $2 using a VoIP service like Skype. I'm willing to put up with a little bit of funkiness to save $198.