If your summer plans include a trip abroad, avoid phone service sticker shock by tapping into the internet.
The internet or “the cloud” is borderless, and communicating through the cloud is usually free. Making calls through traditional phone systems trigger extra fees when crossing country borders. The internet ushered in new ways to communicate. I’ve experienced this welcome change over the last 30 years when traveling between Cleveland and Japan.
Using the cloud to call stateside entails several key elements: installing messaging apps and practicing with them (see the lists accompanying this story), enabling “Airplane Mode” in the settings menu, and enabling Wi-Fi to connect to the cloud. I’m going to skip other ways to call home from abroad, sticking to app-to-app communication between smartphones.
A Smart Start
Messaging apps from Apple’s App Store (iPhones and iPads) or from Google’s Play Store (Android devices such as from Samsung, LG and Motorola) make your smartphone akin to a multi-tool pocket knife but on steroids. While it’s hard to eat spaghetti with the toothpick tool on your Swiss Army knife, smartphones are infinitely customizable as a phone, camera, TV and more through installable apps.
Making simple changes in your settings also minimizes the chance of getting expensive charges when communicating with friends and family back home. Additional options such as video chat enhance your ability to communicate.
One small compromise: potential lack of spontaneity. Your friends and family back home may not be able to reach you while you are exploring the streets of Tokyo unless you happen to be resting at an establishment that offers free public Wi-Fi (example: world-ubiquitous Starbucks). Communication using public Wi-Fi at the hotel, or in my case private Wi-Fi at my mom’s home, should suffice. After all, you’re on vacation, right?
Do your homework before using your smartphone overseas, then get away worry-free.
Get the Message
Consider installing and practicing with these free messaging apps before traveling abroad. Airplane Mode with only Wi-Fi enabled can be evoked whether you are stateside or abroad. Practice makes perfect.
Apple FaceTime for Apple device users only: This is by far the easiest messaging app as long as you and the party you are trying to reach have Apple devices (iPhone or iPad).
Google Duo for Android and Apple device users: It’s as simple as FaceTime but can be used by both Android and Apple device users.
Facebook Messenger for Android and Apple device users: You don’t need a Facebook account to use Facebook’s Messenger app. Like most other apps in this list, it combines many forms of communication such as voice only, video chat and text messaging.
Microsoft Skype for Android and Apple device users: This is one of the stalwarts when it comes to free communications through the cloud, and it was used by millions even before smartphones and tablets hit the scene. Skype may be a good option for veteran Skype desktop software users. Log in with your Skype account, and the contacts show up in a familiar setting.
Google Hangouts for Android and Apple device users: Hangouts is also a messaging stalwart and often included by default on most newer Android smartphones out-of-box.
Before you go, practice with the people with whom you will need/want to keep in touch because they need to use the same messaging app.
Enable Airplane Mode in your device settings followed by enabling the Wi-Fi radio. This makes sure that your smartphone and the messaging apps use only the available Wi-Fi to connect to the internet and will save on charges. Remember to disable Airplane Mode after you practice so you can use your smartphone.
If you don’t have a smartphone, there are other options such as mobile phone rental services or unlocked mobile phones with service bought locally abroad, among others. Do a Google search to learn more.
Avoid confidential transactions on public Wi-Fi, here or abroad. If private Wi-Fi isn’t available, consider a VPN (Virtual Private Network) service. In fact, I’m editing this article from a neighborhood Starbucks while connected to the cloud through their free public Wi-Fi and using a VPN service.
Tak Sato is founder of the Cleveland-area nonprofit Center for Aging in the Digital World (empowerseniors.org). He lives happily in both the digital and real worlds with his wife and their son.