How to affordably stay in touch with everyone back home while on a family vacation is probably one of the biggest questions we get from our clients.
Admittedly, I've procrastinated writing this post because I'm not the most tech-savvy person. My own kids often complain that I'm not smart enough for my own phone.So on my past couple of adventures, I've tried myself to make Free phone calls and send free text messages while overseas...so if I can do it, anybody can!
The first thing parents and kids really need to appreciate is how expensive international roaming charges can be while you're away from home on a family vacation. The very last thing parents want is to have to face a call phone bill for hundreds or even thousands of dollars more than expected. Depending on your plan, international roaming charges can jump to $1.99 per minute for calls and .50 per text. That kind of "lol" message isn't funny. Making free WiFI calls means you will still be using some of your data plan so be alert to this fact and know your plan.
To help avoid cell usage while away from home (especially with the kids) MAKE SURE everyone's phone stay switched to "Airplane Mode". This will prevent you, the kids or your phone to automatically use cell service while you're away from home. With my Iphone, I need to go into my "settings" to flip this on and off (sorry if you're an android user, you'll need to figure this out as I am not as familiar). You'll need to know how to do this as you'll be asked to do this before take off on any flight. Airplane Mode switches off your phones cell and texting capabilities while still allowing access to WiFi.
There are a slew of apps out there that will let you talk and text for free using any WiFi connection anywhere on the planet. These apps use VoIP technology (voice over IP) and that is as geeky as I will get here. There are all sorts of apps available depending on your type of phone and your preferences. Some of these apps will require both parties to use the same app so you will need to explore your options before leaving home.
Facetime Voice - Facetime is a video chat feature that automatically comes with newer Iphones. To help decrease data usage, you can also make plain voice calls over WiFi using Facetime voice
Skype - Allows you to call or text any phone or landline worldwide via WiFi. There are fees for different plan options.
Google Hangouts - Free video calls via Wifi, photos, text chats and emoji too. Recepients must have a gmail account.
Talkatone - call and text over WiFi or a data connection without using cell minutes. Recipient does not have to be a talkatone user.
Viber- Free messages and calls to other Viber users on any device in any country. Will allow group messaging.
Imessage - iMessage is Apple's built-in instant messaging. It lives inside the Messages app on Iphones and Ipads that will allow you to send text messages for free.
Not only will these apps save you some money but often they are very useful when traveling in areas with very limited cell service. Back home here in PA we have many "black holes" in between the mountains where there is no cell service but often I can pick up a WiFi signal and still make a call using one of these apps. I actually paid for a cell phone call home from high atop Machu Picchu last year simply because I found it SO ironic that I had 4 bars of cell service from high atop the Andes Mountains in Peru but often cannot get enough cell service to order a pizza in my own home tome!
WiFi availability will often depend upon your vacation itinerary. Some hotels require guests to pay for WiFi while others offer free access. Even if your hotel charges guest to use WiFi in their room, often free access will be available from certain areas like the hotel lobby or business center. If not, local cafes (Starbucks, local bars or restaurants) will often entice customers by offering free WiFi.
It's still rather expensive to make calls from a cruise ship even with these Free WiFi phone apps. This is because cruise ships charge for WiFi and date usage. If you must stay connected while on the high seas there is an app called Connected at Sea which offers both cell and VoIP options as well as Walkie Talkie options to stay in touch while on board the ship.
There website offers price comparisons to help you decide if their cell service would be cheaper than WiFI data calls.
Bottom line - Every family needs to decide if it's best to unplug and relax during vacation or to stay connected. These are personal decisions but best discussed prior to leaving home so that everyone is onboard with the rules.
Obviously some parents may have work and family responsibilities making it imperative to stay in touch. If it is important for you to stay connected, remember you get what you pay for. Free VoIP apps may not be as reliable as paid services like Vonage.
Be sure to have a frank discussion about internet security and safety issues with the kids. Sure they can't wait to their swim with the dolphins by posting pics to their millions of friends facebook and instagram. Is it worth the risk of letting everyone in the universe know your home and valuable are sitting empty while you're miles away?