Three Ways to Reduce Your Communications Costs

In San Francisco, where I live, the miserable month of Fogust is nigh. Every August, the fog and wind perpetually blow through town, raising goosebumps on the exposed limbs of unsuspecting (if not astonished) tourists. Elsewhere, most of the U.S.--particularly the East Coast--is trapped in the bell jar of stagnant, humid dog days. In short: Wherever you live, August is the ideal month to get out of Dodge. And if you've got your Internet access strategy figured out, you and your virtual office can stay out of town for an extended absence, while still keeping up with business.

This week I've got three strategies for keeping phone costs as low as possible when you're away, while still making it easy for others to reach you. By the way, these tips are for U.S. residents while within the country. In a future blog, I'll offer tips and strategies for keeping communications costs low while traveling internationally.

1. Don't Call, Skype

Skype should be an essential part of every traveler's communications tool kit.

Voice and video calls to other Skype users are free, and the quality--at least in my experience--is mostly good. (Other Skype users I know have reported frustratingly bad call quality.) You can also call landline and cell phones at low rates, starting around 2.1 cents per minute. Even better, you can buy $10 or more of Skype credit at a time; you're not locked in to a contract. And you don't need to take any special equipment, except for your laptop or netbook and perhaps a microphone headset or Webcam (if your laptop lacks one). You'll need broadband Internet access to use Skype. An Ethernet connection will provide a slightly better Skype experience than a wireless connection.

Another advantage: You can tell Skype to display your mobile phone's caller ID whenever you call a landline or mobile phone. (Skype currently doesn't let you use a landline or other phone number as your caller ID.) Keep in mind that while Skype displays your mobile phone number, it doesn't display your name, unless the person you're calling has your mobile number entered in their phone's address book entry for you.

But wait, there's more! You can also get an online phone number that allows anyone to call you on Skype, though this costs $18 for three months or $60 for a year. You could forward your business or home lines to your Skype number, then set up voicemail, too. (Voicemail is included with a Skype subscription of $3 per month or more; separately, it's $6 for three months or $20 for a year.)

By the way, Skype is available for the Apple iPhone and some other smartphones.

2. Try Google Voice

As of this writing, Google's free Google Voice VoIP service wasn't widely available--but it should be, any second now. I've been testing the service for several weeks, and overall, I've found the call quality to be good. I appreciate Google Voice's many conveniences: having one phone number ring on multiple phones simultaneously; free voicemail-to-text transcriptions (which are fairly accurate); free SMS messages; and so on.

Google Voice isn't a replacement for phone service. You still need a mobile phone, landline, or other VoIP phone service in order to place or receive Google Voice calls. But when you're away on an extended absence, Google Voice can make it easier for others to reach you.

For instance, let's say you've rented a beach house for the month of August, and the house has landline phone service. You could forward your work phone and mobile numbers to your Google Voice number. Then, you could configure Google Voice to ring simultaneously on both your personal mobile phone and the beach house's phone line. You could pick up the call on either phone, thereby reducing the chance of missing calls. And by picking up calls on the beach house landline, you don't eat into your cell phone minutes. Once you're back home, just remove the beach house's phone number from those you tell Google Voice to ring.

Read our review to learn more about Google Voice.

3. Bump Up Your Cell Phone Plan

Before you leave town, you could switch to a mobile phone plan with a larger block of anytime minutes, then forward your home or business numbers to your mobile. This will ensure that business colleagues can reach you. And it could save you money in the long run, by preventing you from getting hit with fees for calls made or sent beyond your plan's anytime minutes. Once you're home, you can switch back to a less expensive plan (this shouldn't affect when your contract with the carrier expires).

Before you make a switch, however, check your wireless carrier's coverage map online, to make sure there will be decent service where you'll be. Two other potential downsides: Business associates whom you call from your mobile phone may not recognize the number, and thus, they may let your call go to voicemail. Also, they'll now have your mobile number--and you might not want them calling your mobile once your extended absence is over.

See also "Reduce Your Mobile Phone Bill."

The Wrap Up

During your time away, use Internet telephony services like Skype and Google Voice whenever possible. You'll save a lot of money; you'll make it easy for others to reach you wherever you are; and you most likely won't have to make huge sacrifices in audio quality.

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Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. You can follow him on Twitter. Jim is also the co-author of Getting Organized in the Google Era, to be published by Crown in March 2010. Sign up to have Mobile Computing e-mailed to you each week.

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