Update: A lot has changed since this was first written. Microsoft pretty well killed Skype, although it still gets used. WhatsApp is now my preferred free way for calling home while traveling. Of course, the recipient of your call has to have WhatsApp on a phone.
While traveling through the northern part of Laos, I passed through a tiny village that consisted of only one dirt street and a handful of houses that were barely standing. Only one structure in the village had full-time electricity, and inside was an ancient television and a computer equipped with high-speed internet access! Email has changed the way we keep in touch and has made getting news from home while traveling very easy.
Despite the convenience of plopping down in front of a computer and having news from home within minutes, sometimes there is just no replacement for hearing a loved one’s voice on the other end of a telephone. If not planned properly, calling home can be a major expense (and challenge) on your trip. Payphones in developing countries can be barely reliable at best. Nothing can be more frustrating than working around a major time difference to schedule a call with family only to have it not go through or drop in mid-conversation.
Many internet cafes have Skype installed on their computers. Skype is an application that allows you to make calls over the internet for around 2 – 5 cents a minute, depending on the country you call. The originating country does not make a difference on the price of the call. I travel with my own headset (US $10) so that I can make calls from friend’s laptops or in internet cafes without worrying about broken or dirty headsets.
The downside? That kid sitting in the cafe playing World of Warcraft or someone uploading travel photos can effectively massacre a call home, depending on the bandwidth of the network. For this reason, try to choose internet cafes that do not look busy, or go during off-peak times when you can get a call through easier. When you finish your call, be sure to log off of Skype! By default, Skype remains running in the background, and others could steal your credit by making calls with your account.
You can set up a Skype account for free, and call other Skype users for free. If you want to call land lines or mobile phones, you need to fund an account with at least US $10 to get started. Fortunately, the initial funding lasts for quite a long time! Make sure to check the rate schedule before dialing a new country just to confirm that rates are low.
Calling Home with Collect Calls
Do not use this method to call home unless you are desperate or hate the person you are calling!
Credit Card Calls
This can be a close second or maybe even worse than calling collect. NEVER make a call using your credit card from a hotel or payphone without first confirming the rate. Sometimes there are multiple phone switches that the call must pass through, meaning the hotel may be charging you as well as the local and long distance carriers. Airport credit card phones are notorious for this and can cost more than US $3 a minute in Europe.
In Southeast Asia, calling cards for the local payphones are available in shops and at all 7-Eleven or Kwikee-mart minimarts. Ask or look at the color of the cards (orange or yellow); certain phones require specific cards and will not make calls using competitors’ cards.
Cards that use increments of “credits” usually have hidden fees when dialed from mobile phones and pay phones. They may advertise a low rate per minute, but make the difference up with hidden connection fees by taking a few “points” from your balance here and there.
Tip: Many cards may not have English instructions on them. When you purchase the card, ask the clerk if you need to dial a prefix on pay phones for international calls; this can save time and frustration!
Callback service providers are based on an old hacker trick. The callback service gives you a unique number in their country which you call and let ring one time. You hang up before it connects and there is no charge at this point.
Next, the payphone you called from will ring and when you answer, you will have a dial tone from a phone switch in America or wherever the provider was. You then dial the international number that you want to call. Callback services are actually being banned in some countries because it effectively cuts the ability of the local carriers to make money on your call. You can get more information on Callback services here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Callback_(telecommunications)
If you are not carrying a mobile phone, this is the most convenient and budget way to make international calls from another country. Many cafes supply headsets now which are connected to computers running VOIP (Voice over IP) applications like Skype or Google Voice, which allow you to make PC to Phone calls.
The cost to call landlines in most countries is cheap: as low as 3 cents per minute! The catch is that calling mobile phones usually costs more. Calling another user on Skype is completely free, if you can arrange to have them online at the same time that you call.
On the downside, internet cafes offer very little privacy for your conversation and sometimes the headsets are broken or substandard. The speed of the internet circuit and how many people that are currently in the cafe will affect the quality of your call.
If you plan to make a lot of calls, need the convenience, or need to stay in touch for business, then having a local cell phone may be the way to go. To stay connected in other countries, you will need a phone platform that operates on the GSM network of more than 185 countries. Most cell phones in the US, the Caribbean, and parts of Central/South America use CDMA, a different network type that does not work with GSM providers in Europe, Asia, or elsewhere.
GSM phones are slowly becoming more popular in America, as are phones that support SIM cards which allow you to join the network of the country you are traveling in. Japan and South Korea both have their own CDMA based networks which are special and you will need to get a local phone upon arrival.
If you do not wish to pay international roaming (smart choice), you can opt to buy a prepaid SIM card instead. The SIM card is a small chip that goes inside your actual mobile phone, usually under the battery, and it provides you with a local number in the country you are visiting. The card will come with some minutes, but you can add minutes at kiosks or buy purchasing “top-up” cards from shops.
Calls made locally will be around US .05 – .25 cents and calls made back to the US will be up to US .50 cents a minute. The bad news is that anyone calling you from home now has to pay international long distance because your number is no longer local. You can switch your phone back to your old number simply by removing the SIM card. To get started using a SIM card, you may have to have your mobile phone hardware “unlocked” which means taking it to a local provider or shop and having them enter a code to allow it on their network. Some shops do this for free while others charge for the service.
The secret to long-term vagabonding travel and staying on the road longer is to save a little money on lots of little things over time — including phone calls. Now days we are blessed with lots of options for calling home while traveling; use them to keep the loved ones from worrying too much!