Skype was a name that I’d heard a lot prior to our trip but I’d never had any direct experience with it. While exchanging emails with a potential NGO employer a year and a half ago, my contact suggested we Skype each other to conduct our interview, adding that all I had to do was download the free software and we could call from one hemisphere to the other for free. I gave it a try and we had a crystal-clear phone call interview that lasted 45 minutes without any interference or static. I was sold.
As we got further into planning our trip, one of my biggest worries was my Mom. I ‘m her only child and she’s in her mid-70’s and we are the only family that she has. I talked her into upgrading her computer and helped her get a high-speed DSL connection and then signed her up for Skype. A few weeks into our trip, it became clear that Skype was a godsend; we were able to have video calls with her every couple days, she could see and talk to her grandkids and she felt “connected” to us in a way that was not possible without Skype.
Skype also allowed us to occasionally see our dog, which was being cared for my sister- and brother-in-law in Los Angeles. My wife and her sister would start the Skype call, covering the latest news and then at some point my sister would say, “Would you like to see Nacho?” At this point the kids would howl “Ooohhhhhh!” and we’d all crowd around the computer screen and talk to our dog. Nacho would wag his tail and wonder where the strangely familiar sounds were coming from as my wife and kids would say “It’s a puppy!” or “It’s a wee-bitty-bit-of-a-Natch!” in high voices. We also had a few “Wine over Skype” evenings with family friends along the way. We’d schedule a time for a call, pull up some chairs to the computer and open a bottle of wine. These calls started out fun, but a four-way video call on Skype can be difficult. Anytime two of the four people would talk at the same time, no one could understand what was said.
Along the way, we’ve noticed that Skype is not a well kept secret. Many internet cafes, advertise their ability to host Skype calls. While checking my email in such a café in Baños, Ecuador, an Irishman next to me was calling his family on Skype. His voice was loud and I couldn’t help but listen to him as he explained to his father why and how he spent the night in a Panamanian jail: “Well geez Da…I really thought it was the guy who pinched me camera. After I punched him, I said I was real sorry.”
Just when we thought our Skype experience couldn’t get better, we learned that it had a feature buried within its VOIP functionality that we really needed: U.S. toll-free dialing from abroad. Traveling through many overseas countries means that from time to time, we have to make calls to U.S. credit card companies, banks and airlines. These companies have toll-free 800 numbers and they all have their own convoluted process that promise free international access to them, but in our experience they never work and we end up paying for the “free” phone call. In Dahab, Egypt my wife made several trips to the internet café in order to make a bank wire transfer. In Istanbul she had to march across town to call our credit card company to reassure them that it was us going on a shopping spree in Turkey. In Athens, many Euros were lost trying to make a change to our flight itinerary with Orbitz.com. It was in Athens that she discovered that we could just dial the number in Skype for free. No hunting for an internet café, no costs and we could make the calls from the comfort of our hotel room. Even my son got in the act. With the Skype iPhone app loaded onto his iPod Touch, he paced our hotel room a few weeks back and called Apple’s toll-free customer service number to follow up on a problem.
We’ve yet to explore the Skype services that actually cost money, but we’ve been extremely happy with the free ones. In our experience, Skype has been an indispensible travel tool.