It sounds like a scam - free long-distance calling using your laptop computer. Skype is no scam; rather, it offers travelers an opportunity to save money while on vacation. If you take a laptop with you when you travel and can get high-speed internet access, think about signing up for a Skype account.
Too good to be true? No, Skype is for real. Ask any active duty military member who has deployed overseas about Skype, and you'll probably hear some very positive comments. Many military members set up Skype accounts for themselves and their families so they can phone home for free; Skype-to-Skype calls don't cost you anything to make.
I've owned a GSM cell phone for years, so I didn't think about signing up for Skype until recently. I'm traveling more these days and normally lug my laptop along wherever I go. It would be easy, I decided, to take along a headset with a built-in microphone. I would then be able to call home whenever I felt like it. But – would Skype work?
Getting Started With Skype
I went to Skype's website and read about the service and the two different ways to pay for your calls and text messages. Basically, you can sign up for the pay-as-you-go option (which I prefer, as it more closely matches the European cell phone business model) or you can select a monthly service plan. Before you choose a payment option, you first must download and install Skype's software.
Downloading the Skype software application is a simple process. After determining whether your computer complies with Skype's minimum requirements, you simply find your operating system on the Skype website and click on the "Download Now" button on the applicable page. From there, Skype walks you through the downloading and installation process, which only takes a few minutes.
Once the Skype software is downloaded, you will need to launch the application and create a Skype name (typically structured as firstname.lastname). You'll need to decide on a password, too.
Once your account has been established, you're ready to go. All you need is your laptop, a headset with microphone, your Skype login ID and password, and you're all set. Skype even gives you one free phone call once you've signed up, which you can use to practice using Skype and to check your sound quality.
We're still at Question One, though – does Skype work?
To help answer this question, I telephoned my parents, who are very familiar with my voice and with the sound quality – or lack thereof – from my cheap in-house phone. We live on opposite ends of the U.S., so I figured that calling them would be a good test of Skype's capabilities.
I first spoke with my parents from my house phone, then hung up and "dialed" their number from the Skype website. It felt a little weird to use my mouse to dial their phone number, but I heard a few tones and then the familiar ring tone.
My parents were surprised, and pleasantly so, by the good sound quality. My mother even told me I sounded better on Skype than I did on my own home telephone. On my end, I could hear my parents clearly (they used their speaker phone so they could both talk with me) and had no problems during the call.
I normally use a cordless phone and often move from room to room during a telephone call. With Skype, I had to sit at my computer because my headset was connected to my laptop. If you're used to multi-tasking, being tethered to your computer could be a problem.
Skype allows you to set up a contact list so you don't have to "dial" frequently-called numbers. You can also search for people you know on Skype so you can call them for free.
No Emergency / 911 Calling
Skype's biggest drawback is that it is not a complete substitute for a land line. You cannot call Emergency Services (911) with Skype because Skype is software and cannot detect your physical location.
Pros and Cons of Making Calls With Skype
- Skype is easy to use. I am no computer whiz, but I found Skype's setup process to be very simple and easy to follow. I made my first call without difficulty. Skype's website includes help and support pages and an extensive list of frequently asked questions.
- Skype's rates are very, very competitive. As of this writing, calls to Germany or China are $0.024 per minute (plus a connection fee of $0.045), while Verizon charges $0.10 per minute to call Germany and $0.15 per minute for calls to China from my home phone. If you buy a tri-band cell phone and SIM card, you'll pay varying rates depending on your calling plan. For example, with Telestial's GSM cell phone Economy Plus plan, you'll pay $.0.39 to call Germany (from anywhere) and $1.39 to call China. Of course, you can call any Skype member for free.
- Skype can be used wherever you can set up your laptop, as long as you can connect to the Internet. You can make calls to and from almost anywhere in the world.
- You can't call for emergency help with Skype. If you don't have a land line or cell phone available for emergency calls, you'll have to learn how to use pay phones and telephone calling cards in your destination country in order to get emergency assistance.
- While Skype's rates are very low (or free, for Skype-to-Skype calls), you also need to figure in the cost of internet access. If you're using a mobile broadband service, you may discover that international Internet access will cost you more per minute than using an unlocked GSM cell phone. You will need to carefully compare prices based on your destination country.
- Skype is computer-based, which means you'll need to have access to a computer and high-speed Internet service to make a call. If you prefer to travel light, Skype may not be your best option.
- Sound quality can vary, based on your location and type of Internet access. Friends of mine from Indiana who tried to use Skype to call their daughter in Ireland were not happy with Skype's sound quality, yet another friend, whose husband deploys, swears by the service. Since signing up is free, it's worth your time to try Skype.