When I was a gawky teenager, my parents took me to Europe, broadened my horizon, and changed my life. After I graduated high school, I was ready to travel to Europe on my own, but my parents were nervous. To earn their blessing, I had to make two promises: I wouldn't go to Turkey (because they were worried I'd be sold into the white slave trade) and I'd write home every other day. My dad figured that if the postcards stopped coming, at least he'd know where to begin looking.
Today, it's a new world. When my kids travel to Europe, I can track them down instantly on their cell phones. What's even more remarkable, if we both use a computer, I can see them while we talk — usually at no cost to either of us.
Over the last few years, there's been a revolution in long-distance communication that makes it easier and cheaper than ever for travelers to stay in touch. Take your laptop or netbook to Europe, hook up to a fast Internet connection, and you can talk to people around the world —for free. This technology, called Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), can save you a lot of money on calls home from Europe.
At first, I was reluctant to try VoIP, but now I'm a believer. In fact, one of my New Year's resolutions is to embrace technology more vigorously in the interest of using my time more smartly ... and VoIP is not only smart, it's free.
The company called Skype (www.skype.com) is the dominant provider of VoIP, but other companies (including Google Talk, www.google.com/talk) work in much the same way. To get started, you visit the Web site to download the free application and to register. Once you're signed up, you can talk online via your computer to a buddy with a computer running the same program. If both of you have Webcams, you can see each other while you chat. All of this is free.
Skype (which is a shortened form of "sky peer to peer") also works for making calls from your computer to telephones worldwide. In this case it's not free, but the rates are very reasonable (generally less than you'd pay with a long-distance telephone plan). I can sit at my computer at home, using Skype to call phone numbers all over Europe to reserve hotels for my whole trip, quickly and affordably. And when I'm in Europe, if I'm traveling with my Skype-enabled laptop, I can get online and make calls home — or call ahead to confirm tomorrow's hotel — for pennies a minute.
With Skype, you can also buy a phone number in your home country that links to your computer wherever you are traveling. Your grandma makes a "local phone call" in Omaha, and you "pick up" on your laptop in Barcelona. While this all has to be set up online, it's fairly user-friendly and can save you a bundle on a long trip.
Again, computer-to-computer calls are always free — no matter where in the world you are — and the sound quality is generally at least as good as a standard phone connection (although the video can be choppy). The program uses your computer's built-in speakers, Webcam, and microphone, if it has them. If your computer lacks a microphone, or if you want to improve the voice and sound quality, you can buy an operator-type headset for around $20. A cheap Webcam also costs about $20.
You can use VoIP even if you're traveling without a computer. Many European Internet cafes already have Skype, as well as microphones and Webcams, built into their machines — you just need to log on and chat away. But remember that the service works well only if both parties have a high-speed Internet connection.
What about those of us who carry a mobile phone to Europe instead of a computer? Increasingly, you can even use VoIP from certain Internet-enabled smartphones (such as the iPhone), bypassing the expensive rates mobile-phone companies charge for international calls. A Skype app is available for some smartphones, or you can use a third-party service such as Fring.com, which works as a kind of Skype-to-mobile-phone gateway. Even the iPod Touch — which isn't designed as a phone — can be used to make Skype calls to computers or phones, if you have an external microphone and a Wi-Fi connection. Tech-savvy travelers should do some homework before their trip to fully understand these ever-evolving options.
Even if you're not using VoIP, it's worth knowing about because of its increasing popularity in Europe. If you travel like a local, it's only a matter of time before a new European friend who wants to keep in touch will ask you, "Do you use Skype?" You'll have broader horizons.
( writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at , or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.)