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Phoning home on the cheap

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Airline crews are probably the most frugal bunch of professionals out there — all the more so since the last round of pay cuts. We are gone an average of three to four days a week and many of us have families, so long-distance communication is a necessity. But when we call home from overseas, it costs us anywhere from 75 cents to $5 a minute. I remember a flight attendant who once called her fiance direct from South America, lost track of the time, and ended up owing more than $300 for the call. She cried uncontrollably when she saw her bill. Oh sure, you can get a calling card and dial a bunch of access codes from a cold phone booth for a little less, but it's still a hassle. Or you can bring your laptop and Instant Message each other, but "how r u?" doesn't really cut it, either.

When I became a new daddy last year, I realized it was time for me to embrace some more modern telecommunications technology. Recently, while I was in Kuwait for a week, I decided to give the Internet program Skype a try. I'd heard about it from other crewmembers, who touted it as a free computer-to-computer phone program capable of quality video. But I was skeptical. I'd seen earlier attempts at video phones and had been unimpressed. The video and audio quality was often poor, the setup was usually complicated, and I felt like a demented version of Max Headroom whenever I tried it.

Still, I was motivated to give video phones another try, so I bought a set of cameras for my PC and laptop, set them up and signed up at . The video and audio quality from Kuwait was excellent. My trip was much more enjoyable because I was able to see and speak with my family every day. My little boy even kissed the screen when I said good night to him at his bedtime. I was blown away.

The kicker to all of this is that the service is free. No strings attached. (The free service is from computer to computer; if you want to call to a phone, get the SkypeOut package, which charges a small fee, like 2 cents a minute worldwide.) All you need is an Internet connection, a laptop and a small camera with a microphone. If you don't want to bring your laptop on your trip, you can go to any Internet cafe, plug a small phone into the USB port, and talk away. Some Internet cafes make these special phones available but in my opinion, it's not as great as talking from the comfort of your hotel room and seeing your kid face to face.

Here are a couple of observations and tips for video conferencing from this new fan.

1. The slower the connection, the worse the quality. A dial-up connection doesn't work well and isn't really worth it.

2. Don't be afraid of the technical details. I find the instructions are pretty self-explanatory, and if I can do it, you can do it.

3. Turn off any background noises, such as the television or radio. They will play havoc with your audio transmission.

4. The lighting in front of you is more important than the lighting behind you.

5. Don't get frustrated. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

6. If you have a choice of a cable or WiFi, go with cable. It's generally faster.

7. Arrange your meeting time in advance, and have a backup time in case of unexpected events.

8. Remember, you are in front of a camera and the other person can see you. Once, when I was speaking to a female friend, I stood up to get something and then realized I had no pants on. Oops!

So, no more worrying about your family or shelling out a lot of money for pricey phone calls. Skype's got your number. And no, I'm not being paid by Skype. I'm just hooked, and I'll never travel without it again.

James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit or .