Thursday, October 09, 2008

Calling All Travelers

Sometimes the "easy part" which will surely "save you money" doesn't turn out that way, on either count. Especially when it comes to technology. Case in point: international travel and staying in touch.

THE PREEMPT: If you're an ongoing globetrotter and enjoy an unlimited expense account (plus your own IT department and wads of patience), the following scenario might not ring your "I get it" bells. However, if you're self-employed or encouraged to "make due" -- especially since NBC just broke in again with today's worst-case scenario regarding the stock market -- you might relate. If you are married or often have to leave a significant other behind, you might even moan with relatability.

And now, on with the frustration!

For years, I've heard people talk about Skype. "You don't Skype?" "We use Skype all the time!" "Skype: best thing going." "I talk to my brother in Australia and it doesn't cost us a penny." "I held a video conference call for 4 hours with people all over the world and the whole thing only cost me $5 using Skype."

Nice. But I don't need to use Skype. I have a cell phone for which I already pay for so many minutes, so why not use them? I have no need to chat with people all over the world. We very happily use Vonage at home, which allows us to talk to anyone in the country (and many places out of it) for as long as we want, all for one monthly price of about thirty bucks, which includes tons of cool options. We have email, stationary and loud voices. We do not need Skype.

Then, my upcoming business trip to Amsterdam changed everything, especially my mind: My Verizon phone won't work in Amsterdam. NEW GAME!

Let us consider some of the options for staying in touch with my Dearly Beloved while I'm gone.

*The GSM Verizon phone to which I considered upgrading (I'm due for money off on an upgrade) will work there, but not here in MN where I come hide to write. (long story)

*For only six cents/minute, George can call me in AMS using our Vonage phone, but since I won't have a personal cell phone number for him to call, that just leaves my hotel rooms. Sure, we can set up times, but the 7-hour difference isn't too convenient. Plus, I don't know what my schedule will be, and I'm staying in 3 different hotels over five nights.

*Renting an international Verizon phone, which Verizon told me was an option, is Really Expensive. Trying to find out just how expensive was next to impossible. I am a long-time Verizon believer, but, Dear Verizon folks, you need to get some customer training in place to handle this query.

*Verizon offers exactly one (count them, one) Global phone that isn't a Blackberry, which I don't want. At least not right now, since I cannot justify the extra monthly fees to get my email while I'm driving, sitting in the bathroom or waiting for the show to start--although as soon as I typed those things, I thought for a moment I might need to do all of them.

*A friend encouraged me to buy a Mobal GSM world phone. According to Mobal's website, you can buy the phone for $49, get a twenty-buck credit and keep the phone "forever." (Do you know any technology that works "forever?"**) This $49 phone will not work in the US. However, you can spent $99 and buy one that does. Apparently the only other cost is for the minutes you use.

Since I'm currently (at this writing moment) stuck with dial-up in a remote location, trying to toodle around Mobal's website was head-banging. (Otherwise, it's fine.) One page automatically loaded an audio. So, everything stalled while it downloaded (or buffered, or whatever they do) audio files, and then I heard two words, then waited another thirty seconds for the next two words--until I finally noticed the link to stop it. When I called the 888 number and asked about rates etc., I learned that an AMS to AMS local call would cost $1.25 per minute. YIKES! (I am spoiled, no doubt about it.) I didn't even ask about AMS to USA, but while I was in a Wi-Fi zone in a coffee shop, I went back to and learned it would be $1.50 per minute. Now, were I to have an emergency, that would be a deal.

But honestly, I don't need another phone, and the regularity (or rather lack thereof) of my international travel hardly seems to make this option worth it--although I'm keeping it in my "maybe" file. But I'll have to trip my trigger soon: the woman on the phone said they ONLY deliver to the US and that I cannot buy it in AMS. (This seems contrary to what my friend told me . . . ) I'd LOVE if some of you out there who've tried Mobal would weigh in. However, since, by the time you read this, I'll be less than a week away from my trip, shipping will likely cost me another forty "overnight" bucks.

*Skype. (Ah, as the worm turns.) "Charlene, why don't you check into Skype!? You can talk to each other for FREE using your computers and Skype-to-Skype calling!"

So, I went to and tried to educate myself about the options. Seemed do-able, although limiting. After all, I don't walk around with my laptop in a holster clip, and how would I get connected to the internet while floating down a canal anyway? But it's FREE, right?

It was easy to download Skype into my laptop. They even integrate a testing element that enables you to make sure you can be heard. Which I couldn't. Because I didn't have a microphone. So, I went thrashing through my office closet looking to see if I had one left over from "something." And I did!

It was easy to download Skype into George's desktop. He never keeps his speakers turned on, so we had to retrain for that. ("Hey, if you can't hear the ring, how will you know I'm calling?") Then I went searching for another microphone, which I found in my bag of "technical stuff" from back in the days when I recorded myself (self to self) at speaking engagements in order to produce audio tapes to sell. Which I did. (I'm out of them now, and technology and my speaking topics have moved on, so don't contact me to buy them. At least not yet. After all, I did find that bag of outdated technology**.)

Voila! Even though we put up with a little microphone squealing, George and I eventually got ourselves talking to each other, me from the living room on my laptop and he in his bedroom on his computer. HE COULD EVEN SEE ME; my laptop has a built-in web cam! Of course some of the "talking" was us yelling up or down the stairs to and at each other as I strived to give more specific instruction--like "PUT YOUR MOUTH CLOSER TO THE MICROPHONE!"

Two days later, I tried a "surprise Skype call" to George. George is a good man, a smart man, a kind man. But he had not been trained for the NEW set of icons that popped up (the others had appeared from the task bar), so he had no idea how to answer. "JUST CLICK THE ICON THAT SAYS 'ANSWER!'" Which he did. But his microphone wasn't plugged in. More yelling up the stairs, and me pointing to MY microphone in my web-cam, trying to send the right visual clue.

A week later, I tried another "surprise Skype call" to George, but this time from a Wi-Fi zone here in MN. No answer. I called him using our cell phones and learned he was outside. When he came inside, I tried again. I could see that he finally answered (the call showed CONNECTED), but I could not hear him, so I called him on my cell phone (which won't work when I'm in AMS, remember) and tried to trouble shoot. We could not figure it out. Later, he called me on my cell phone (using his cell phone) to say that he'd forgotten (and so had I) that there was an on/off switch on the microphone, which was off when I called, but now it was on, so why not, he suggested, try another "surprise" test call while he was sitting there ready for it. (sigh)

All this caused me to put ten bucks of Skype Credit into each of our FREE Skype accounts, so that we could apply it to Skype Voicemail. (Say I try to call George. He doesn't answer--or answers and I cannot hear him. So, I can leave a message saying "Life here in AMS is exciting! PLUG IN AND TURN ON YOUR MICROPHONE!" Or, say I want to make a Skype to landline call (when I don't know why I can't hear him and don't have a cell phone to trouble shoot). This isn't free, but it's really cheap. However, you have to have some pay-as-you-go Skype dollars in place, or a subscription, which, if you're searching for an alternative to making your every-day long distance calls, looks totally worth it!

Now it's clear to me that I need to also buy us each a headset. We cannot risk the frustration of being "connected" yet unable to talk. These, we can just plug in ("Leave it plugged in, George") and then we won't have to worry about switches and hearing, squealing speakers and whatever else might crop up. (Notice the two places I used the **? Why would I complain about Mobal's "forever" implication, then think my own outdated equipment would work properly "forever?")

So, twenty bucks for Skype dollars in our accounts, more money for headsets, money to the hotel for a high-speed internet connection, and perhaps the Mobal investment -- just in case all else fails.

Easy. Free. Cheap.




alexmoss said...

I'm a frustrated Verizon user too. I use Skype all the time -- I have no Verizon signal in my living room in Philly, I have a Skype subscription, which let's me do incredibly easy conf calling, even to landlines, for $3/mo. Then I went to London, Skype worked, free. I went to Lucerne, Skype worked, free. It's not hard, it works reasonably well, it's cheap, what's not to like? I drank the cool-aid...yum.

Charlene Ann Baumbich said...

Thanks for this excellent Skype testimony. I'm swiftly becoming a believer. Do you use a headset with a microphone? If so, which kind?

Orlando Frasca, Rogers Insurance Services, Inc. said...

As a frequent biz traveler to Europe, I usually get a local "sim" card for the country I am visiting and then use that mobile phone nubmer as the number my Vonage forwards to. That way, my wife, friends, office, etc, only call the Vonage number and it will find me.
No cost to the caller; dirt cheap for me

Orlando Frasca