Anne Merritt details six low-cost options for staying in touch with family and friends while traveling or living abroad.

On my first backpacking trip eight years ago, calling home was an ordeal. It meant seeking out European internet cafes and squeezing into tiny booths for a crackly chat with Mum and Dad. I’d calculate how many pints of Leffe I could have bought with the money spent on those twenty staticky minutes of “things are sssssssss on this end, we were thinking of ssssssssss this weekend.”

Thankfully, things have changed.

Now, staying in touch when you go overseas is easy, economical, and clear. Here are six affordable ways to call home from abroad.

1. Skype

It’s the online calling system so common, it’s become a verb: “Have you Skyped your girlfriend yet?” Users open accounts, download free Skype software, and can chat with other users. Putting money on your account allows phone calls at very cheap international rates. The new unlimited calling plan lets you make unlimited calls to a selection of countries worldwide for $13.99 monthly. If you’ll primarily be calling the US and Canada, you can sign up for the Unlimited US and Canada plan for $2.99 a month.

Pros:
Talking to fellow Skype-users is free, no matter how long the long distance may be. Video chat is a cool added perk. You can sign into Skype anywhere: internet cafes, airport wifi on your laptop, even mobile phones with strong internet connections.

If you purchase a Skype to Go number, you can have it set up as a number in your home country. When people call you, for them it’s just like dialing a regular phone number. If your Skype account is signed in, you’ll be notified on your computer. Otherwise the calls go straight to voice mail as if it’s a regular phone, and you can check your messages when you sign in.

Cons:
Regular Skype users can only make calls to landlines or mobiles, not receive them. If you’re calling people who aren’t especially tech-comfortable, know that setting up Skype accounts and webcams, while easy-peasy for you, may be complicated for them.

Verdict:
Handy for travelers or people overseas for short-term periods.

Photo: Clemson

2. VOIP

Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) routes phone calls through the internet to a home’s landline. The phone amenities are the same as phone company packages: call waiting, caller ID, voicemail, etc. Most packages include unlimited calls in the US and Canada as well as international rates.

Pros:
Unlike other online calling systems, you don’t have to be at your computer to make calls. Users can receive calls or voicemail as they would a normal phone line. Also, there’s no annual contract, so you’re not locked into a phone plan.

Cons:
You need a landline to use VOIP; it can’t be routed to a cellphone.

Verdict:
Great for students or expats living overseas on a more long-term basis.

3. Google Hangouts

An evolution of Gmail’s uberpopular Gchat, Google Hangouts is a lot like Skype. Online chatting and video chats are free with fellow Gchat users who download a simple plug-in.

Users can also call phones easily. Calls to Canada and the US are free, and Google Chat’s overseas rates are very, very low; even to far-flung countries. Be sure to test your system first, though, as there have been reports of poor or varying sound quality on long-distance calls.

Pros:
Overseas calling rates are often cheaper than with Skype.

Cons:
You may have to pester friends and family to open Gmail accounts in order to stay in touch for free. Also, if you’re using computers at internet cafes or friends’ houses, be prepared to download the Gchat plug-in a million times; the service isn’t yet as widespread as Skype.

Verdict:
If your loved ones are G-chatters, it’s a great, free system. If not, the overseas rates make this a worthwhile calling option, especially if you’re travelling with your own computer.

4. Vonage

This product routes calls to your home through the internet, giving great rates for national and overseas calls. A mix of different phone packages means customizing your account for global or domestic (North American) calls, unlimited or fixed minutes. On the Vonage World plan, calls are free (to landlines) in a whole stack of countries. Vonage UK has a mix of international calling packages too.

Users choose a phone package ($10-$35 per month) and plug a phone adapter into their computers.

Pros:
The overseas calling package is more attractive than with VOIP.

Cons:
Like VOIP, users need a fixed landline; It’s not practical for nomadic types.

Verdict:
This system is worth looking into if you’re living overseas for a longer period of time.

5. Cherry Call

This plan is great for those living or traveling in England or Australia. Cherry Call is a calling system from your mobile that offers very cheap rates; you dial a code into your phone, wait for a dial tone, then call the overseas number as usual. Most rates are about 2-5 cents per minute (1-2p). With Cherry Call Australia, many long distance calls are free, with the call counting toward your regular phone minutes.

Pros:
Very cheap overseas rates, and easy to use. Cherry Call’s mobile phone service is well-suited to travelers or short-term visitors who pick up a local mobile phone but don’t want to commit to a landline.

Cons:
Only available in two countries.

Verdict:
If you’re Australia or UK-bound, try it out. The convenience of long distance access on your mobile is amazing.

6. Calling Cards

Though they may seem like the antique of the list, good ol’ fashioned calling cards can be very handy. If you’re travelling to places without ubiquitous internet, calling cards are the great standby for getting in touch with loved ones back home. When calling people on cellphones in smaller countries (say, your cousin in Jamaica), region-specific phone cards can be much cheaper than rates on Skype or VOIP. They also make good gifts for travelers.

Pros:
They can be bought anywhere and carried around easily.

Cons:
Some parts of the world are phasing out payphones, so finding a landline can be a fool’s errand.

Verdict:
The best option if you’re going to parts of the world with inconsistent internet access.

Community Connection

Do you have any advice on how to make cheap international calls while living or traveling abroad?