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The best way to call home when you’re away

I’ve been following the news about the Boston Marathon bombings from Mumbai. It’s been difficult to be so far from home when something so awful has taken place.

I’m in India for work, and the travel is more taxing than usual because I’m staying up late reading the latest updates, plus I don’t have a good outlet for the emotions I feel for the victims or their families. I have a strong yearning to be around loved ones but since I’m abroad, my only comfort is to talk to friends and family as I might if I were back at home.

The last few days, I’ve been able to talk on the phone for hours and feel close to home by using Voice of Internet Protocol technology. I’m not a techie, but I find technology like Skype, Vonage and Magic Jack to be user friendly and inexpensive. These tools have changed the way I communicate when traveling, making it a lot easier to feel connected to home.

These past few days, Skype has become my favorite VoIP tools. The company says users are spending two billion minutes on Skype every day. I don’t need anything special to use Skype since my laptop has a built-in camera and microphone. When I have good Internet connectivity, I can video chat over Skype for hours with crystal-clear audio and visual – so clear sometimes I forget I’m half way around the world.

It is free to communicate with someone who has a Skype account; however, there are small charges for calling a landline or mobile phone. The cost to call an India-based mobile phone or landline from the U.S. is under 10 cents per minute. But most everyone I know has Skype, so the majority of my Skype calls are free; I think its becoming mainstream as I’ve noticed many business colleagues are starting to include their Skype identities in their email signature lines.

Vonage is a good VoIP option because using it feels like using a traditional landline phone. Lots of expatriates in India use it to talk to folks back home but, anecdotally, I’ve heard mixed reviews. Most people I know use Vonage’s home service, which requires an adapter that hooks up to a regular phone and for which Vonage charges a monthly fee. But people with Vonage can call anyone on any phone because the receiver does not need any special technology to answer the call. Since I travel so much, Vonage’s home service doesn’t work for me but I use Vonage’s free app on my iPhone, which requires no adapter. I’ve used it for quick international calls from my cell phone when I’m on the go and have access to WiFi.

Normally, magicJack is my VoIP default. It’s a little device that let’s me use a phone as a phone and my computer as a workstation. Similar to Vonage’s home service, the magicJack can turn a landline phone into a VoIP phone enabling calls to any number or type of phone. Unlike Vonage, magicJack travels very well.

Each device comes with a dedicated phone number for incoming and outgoing calls. There is an annual fee to keep the number active; I pay about $50 a year for my number and get unlimited use. On one end, the Magic Jack device plugs into the USB port of a computer connected to the Internet and on the other end it plugs into a phone jack. Once hooked up, the phone becomes a VoIP device.

As soon as I’ve checked into my hotel, I plug in my magicJack and make a series of calls to let people at home know I reached my destination safely while simultaneously checking the Internet for news updates and emails.

I feel lucky to have so many modern options to call home, but Skype, Vonage and magicJack all require good Internet access – which I don’t always have in India. So occasionally I used some of the old-fashioned ways of communicating with home these past few days, including public phone booths, calling cards and the international plan on my iPhone.

I’m always on the lookout for better ways to stay in touch with loved ones at home, so feel free to share your experiences with communication technology when abroad.