What’s your favorite way to communicate when you’re away? Here’s ours

You can never be close enough to one of these. / Photo by Paul McCord - Flickr
As some of you may have noticed, I’ve been on the road a lot lately. I’m traveling across the country with my family and we’re documenting every moment of the trip on our family travel blog, Away is Home. Staying in touch with the ranch back in Winter Springs, Fla., can be a challenge, it turns out.

I bring this up for two reasons: First, because I think you might learn a thing or two from our experiences (and I’m sure I’ll learn something from you; feel free to email me or leave a comment). And second, in our never-ending search for sponsors, we’ve been talking with one communication provider. We haven’t signed a deal yet, but I thought it would be better to cover this issue now, when I can be absolutely frank about the issue.)

By the way, I’m cross-posting this on Away is Home, and on my Tumblr blog, too — so no, you’re not seeing double.

Wireless. We have three AT&T iPhones. Two of them were grandfathered on AT&T’s “unlimited” data plan, which as we all know is not so unlimited. The other one, which belongs to our oldest son, Aren, is newer, so his data use is capped. The family wireless plan costs more than our utility bill; our last wireless invoice came to about $250. AT&T is fine in large urban areas (here in the Orlando suburbs, we usually get three or four bars) but once you get out into the country, it’s iffy, at best.

Accessories. We keep it simple. We like the Otterbox cases. In fact, I’ve been a fan of Otter for at least two iPhone generations, since meeting the company reps at a CES show in Vegas. They don’t really help you communicate, per se, but if we didn’t have them, we would have stopped communicating a time or two. (When you have three kids, accidents happen.) Otter has protected our phones well, although I’m right in the middle of mediating an Otter case right now as a consumer advocate. I’m hoping for the best.

PC calls. This is a tough one. I have clients that love Google Voice, and wait for my little green light on Gmail to go on every morning. The voice quality is really decent, and the calls are free, even when you’re calling a phone from your computer. But for video, I like Skype better. The video quality is sharper and there’s less latency. I’ve used Skype to communicate with my family overseas (I have a brother in Finland) and when I need to see something, like a new baby in the family or when there’s a mini-reunion at my sister’s house in Phoenix.

Apps. I’m a Skype guy, when it comes to making wireless calls on an iPhone, iPad or iPod. When I tossed out my ISDN line after quitting my last radio show like a diva, the only way to do high-quality voice interviews for radio was by Skype, and it works really, really well. I just checked my log. I have BBC, National Public Radio and CBS on it. Also, I’ve done Skype-based interviews with several TV stations, including the CBS affiliate in San Francisco, and for Intuit’s blog. By the way, kidding about the diva part.

My kids also surreptitiously downloaded Skype and with Mom’s help, got their free accounts. It’s probably a terms of service violation. I recently discovered that they use the Skype app to communicate with their friends while they’re on the road. They have a demo unit of a Sony PlayStation Vita, which they’ve been using to talk to one of their friends at Karate. It’s fascinating to watch these digital “natives” communicate with each other. They don’t have the same hang-ups the adults do, when it comes to chatting by video. For example, they don’t care if the image of them is unflattering — in fact, it helps. I hear them in the other room, giggling about their appearance. (Our oldest son is an aspiring filmmaker, and he’s grabbed the demo Sony Bloggie, an HD camera that works wirelessly, and we are expecting his directoral debut any day now, or perhaps dreading it. Not that it has anything to do with anything.)

Messaging. Apple’s iMessage is our preferred way of communicating with the immediate family. AT&T’s messaging option, we felt, was too expensive and we were getting too much spam. It would be great to have something that works everywhere and is also free, but for both Google and Skype, we would have to fire up the app before we could send and receive short messages. That’s no problem when you’re already on the app, but I can’t remember to open it, even when there’s a little red circle notifying me of activity.

So that’s basically how we stay in touch while we’re gone. How do you do it?

And, all things being equal, how do you prefer to make a voice call when you’re on the road? Oh, I feel a poll coming on!

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • http://twitter.com/Amandablum amandablum

    Skype is absolute for absolutely anywhere in the world for phone calls. In the US, cell phones work for data, outside the US, I only use phone data when I need to, turn it off otherwise, since even the highest tier of Verizon service only nets you 300mb a month. That’s enough to pull a map to navigator (but not enough to keep it live all day), update FB and twitter, check email but not send photos. In most countries, I’ll grab a USB stick from vodaphone or whoever is local for data, and make as much use of free internet wifi as humanly possible. 

    I use google voice to filter phone calls.. anyone in my contacts can come through, but I can choose to shoot them to VM. Everyone not on contacts gets a voicemessage that I’m away, please txt or email me. 

    I use twilio to shoot text messages through a loop so that I’m not charged international rates for them, they come across as emails. 

  • Bill Armstrong

    I suppose I would prefer to use facetime except that at 90% plus of the hotels I stay in, the internet is too slow to use it.

    Cell phone is best when it is affordable.  When it is not, then IP phone such as skype.  Carried vonage for years..found out that although they blamed “the net” it was actually their crappy connection to the phone network.  How did I find that out?  Vonage to Vonage worked fine, Vonage to phones did not.

  • http://upgrd.com/roadmoretraveled MeanMeosh

    My first choice is usually Vonage, since much of my travel is overseas and most international calls are free if you have the “Vonage World” plan.  I used it when I was living overseas for a couple of years, and never really had any trouble with connections, except when the internet crapped out.  Besides the risk of a crappy internet connection, the other downside is you have to carry around that clunky adapter, which is an issue if your hotel requires some kind of login to access WiFi.  Maybe that isn’t an issue now that you can configure Vonage to a cell phone, though.

    If Vonage isn’t practical, Skype is my preferred way to go.  You can find WiFi these days almost anywhere you go, but cell phone service can still be hit or miss, and can be prohibitively expensive if you have to use roaming, especially out of the country.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001823466572 Jen Armstrong

    How about “FaceTime?” We’re in OH and we use it all the time to talk to family in Vegas. We all have iPhones and most of us have iPads, so this is such an easy way to communicate! There are other free apps I can use to call and talk to family who don’t have Apple products, which work well too.

  • Nigel Appleby

    I’ve used Skype from a PC and a laptop for years, not just on the road but for international calls from home as well. I pay to have the number out option and there’s no further charge to any of the countires I make calls to.
    I haven’t my present smart phones long enough to try Skype on it but I will.
    My last phone didn’t have that option, plus I’m not travelling as much now I’ve retired – holidays only. 

  • jim6555

    I couldn’t vote because my choice would have been “all of the above”. On a trip that lasts more than a couple of days, it is not unusual for me to get and make voice calls on my smartphone, use both the phone and my laptop to send email, and occasionally use text messaging. It’s strange, but I don’t think of myself as being overly connected. I don’t use social networking and marvel at people who are constantly updating their page on Face Book, sending tweets, and manage to squeeze in a couple hundred texts per day. 

  • Shruti Desai

    Living in Germany, we use all these methods (preferring Skype for phone calls and video calls) plus we use GroupMe or WhatsApp for text messaging back to the States. It goes over WiFi or data and is great when we are traveling and need to find each other. Our cell plans charge for phone calls and SMS when we are in a non-German country, but our data can roam all over Europe.