Communicating over the Internet

Calling over the Internet
Some things that sound too good to be true…actually are true. If you have access to a fast Internet connection, you can talk to people around the world (such as from Europe to the US, or vice versa) over the Internet — for free. This technology, called Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP; sometimes also known as Internet telephony or broadband phone), can save you a lot of money on calls home from Europe.
Skype is the dominant provider of VoIP, but other companies (including Google Talk) work in much the same way. To get started, you visit the website to download the free application and to register. Once you’re signed up, you can talk online via your computer to a buddy with a computer running the same program. If both of you have webcams, you can see each other while you chat. All of this is free.
Skype (which is a shortened form of “sky peer to peer”) also works for making calls from your computer to telephones worldwide. In this case it’s not free, but the rates are very reasonable (generally less than you’d pay with a long-distance telephone plan). I can sit at my computer at home, using Skype to call phone numbers all over Europe to reserve hotels for my whole trip, quickly and affordably. And when I’m in Europe, if I’m traveling with my Skype-enabled laptop, I can get online and make calls to phone numbers in the US — or call ahead to confirm tomorrow’s hotel in Europe — for pennies a minute.
With Skype, you can also buy a phone number in your home country that links to your computer wherever you are traveling. Your grandma makes a “local phone call” in Omaha, and you “pick up” on your laptop in Barcelona. While this all has to be set up online, it’s fairly user-friendly and can save you a bundle on a long trip.
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 laptop or netbook. Many European Internet cafés already have Skype, as well as microphones and webcams, built into their machines — you just need to log on and chat away. But remember that the service works well only if both parties have a high-speed Internet connection.
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 Skype app is available for some smartphones, or you can use a third-party service such as Fring, which works as a kind of Skype-to-mobile-phone gateway. Even the iPod Touch — which isn’t designed as a phone — can be used to make Skype calls to computers or phones, if you have an external microphone and a Wi-Fi connection. Tech-savvy travelers can look into the latest options.
Other companies, such as Vonage, allow you to place calls over the Internet using an actual fixed-line phone, with cheaper rates to Europe than those offered by most old-fashioned long-distance companies. And services such as Rebtel allow for super-cheap international phone calls over the Internet, but work only if you’re always calling the same number (such as a relative who’s living abroad).
Even if you’re not using VoIP, it’s worth knowing about because of its increasing popularity in Europe. It’s only a matter of time before a new European friend who wants to keep in touch asks you, “Do you use Skype?”
These days, many hotels and hostels have a few computers in the lobby for their guests to use (sometimes free, sometimes for a fee). Otherwise, head for an Internet café (also called a cybercafé). While these places don’t always serve food or drinks — sometimes they’re just one big, functional, sweaty room filled with computers — they are an easy and affordable way to get online.
Even if a small town lacks an Internet café, there’s always some way to get online — at libraries, bookstores, post offices, copy shops, video stores, and so on. Ask the TI, your hotelier, any young person, or another traveler for the nearest place to access the Internet.
You’ll want an email account that you can access from anywhere through the Internet. Consider one of the major Web-based email providers that offer free accounts, such as Yahoo! Mail, Hotmail, Google’s Gmail, or AOL.
European computers typically use non-American keyboards. Most letters are the same as back home, but a few are switched around, and many of the command keys are labeled in a foreign language. It takes time to find the right keys. Many European keyboards have an “Alt Gr” key (for “Alternate Graphics”) to the right of the space bar; press this to insert the extra symbol that appears on some keys. If you can’t locate a special character (such as the @ symbol), simply copy it from a Web page and paste into your email message.
On many computers, you can look for a box in the lower-right-hand corner of the screen where you can click and select which type of keyboard you prefer. Or ask the clerk for help. Often a simple keystroke or click of the mouse can make the foreign keyboard work like an American one.
In Italy, because of an anti-terrorism law, you may be asked to show your passport (carry it in your money belt) when using a public Internet terminal. The proprietor will likely make a copy.
Be aware that using a public Internet terminal can come with security risks. Some computers are loaded with damaging “malware,” such as “key logger” programs that keep track of what you’re typing — including passwords. You can ask the Internet café or hotel what sort of security software their machines are running. If you’re not convinced it’s secure, don’t access any sites (such as online banking) that could be sensitive to fraud. Avoid storing personal information (such as passport and credit-card numbers) online. If you need important documents, email or phone home and have them sent by fax.
Getting Online with Your Laptop or Netbook
With the abundance of cheap Internet cafés in Europe, you don’t need to bring your own computer. But as laptops shrink, Internet access becomes widespread, and blogging becomes more popular, many travelers are taking their computers with them to Europe. There are several ways to get online from your laptop or netbook:
Wi-Fi (wireless Internet access, sometimes called “WLAN” in Europe) is increasingly common. If your laptop is Wi-Fi capable, you’ll be able to get online at many hotels and cafés. Sometimes it’s free; other times, you’ll have to buy a drink or pay a fee to get the password. (Strangely, while many budget and midrange hotels offer free Wi-Fi to their guests, the pricier places usually charge a hefty fee.) When I check into a hotel, I ask them for the network name (in case several are in range) and password so I can log on right away. Some towns even have Wi-Fi “hotspots” scattered around highly trafficked areas. Occasionally this is free, but you’ll usually have to pay to get the password (at the TI or an Internet café). Just find whichever idyllic spot you like best — find a bench overlooking a sandy beach, on a floodlit piazza, or along a bustling people-watching boulevard — then log on and surf away. You can look up public hotspots — free or paid — at (look for “Wi-Fi Finder” on the home page); try to track down potential spots before you arrive at your next destination. While accessing Wi-Fi is safer than logging on to a shared or public computer, it can pose a security risk. Make sure that your laptop’s firewall is up-to-date and activated, and access only legitimate hotspots (for example, the one named for your hotel).
Many hotel rooms, and some Internet cafés, have high-speed Internet jacks that you can plug into with an Ethernet cable (with an RJ45 plug; looks like an oversized phone cord) — no special software or password required. I travel with a small length of Ethernet cable just in case, but most hotels will loan you one if you ask. Again, while this is usually free, some hotels charge a fee for access.
For those who want constant access in one country, cellular modems (also known as wireless modems or mobile broadband) may be the way to go. A mobile phone company routes your Internet connection over its 3G network. Usually you buy a “dongle” — it looks like a USB flash drive — that you insert into your laptop’s UBS slot. If you need more consistent Internet access than scattered Wi-Fi hotspots will provide, this could be a good option. In the UK, Vodafone offers a pay-as-you-go package with 90 hours of browsing for about $40. T-Mobile has similar plans in the UK and Germany.
The old-fashioned way of getting online is to access a dial-up Internet service provider from your hotel room. This can be useful if you can’t find a Wi-Fi signal, but it’s impractical for casual travelers since you have to arrange it in advance with a service provider.