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By Ed Perkins
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
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
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
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
© Rick Steves
Travel | Staying Connected Gets Smarter, Faster and Cheaper | Rick Steves' European Travels