Voice and Internet communications while traveling are fraught with "gotchas" as road warriors try to wade through the minefield of price structures from cell phone carriers and Wi-Fi hotspot providers.
Roaming charges can be ridiculously expensive, especially when traveling overseas, and prices for Wi-Fi access at hotels, airports, and other public locations around the world are often very high. The rates I've ended up paying have ranged from just expensive (after spending over $20 for Wi-Fi access at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris) to the absurd (when Vodaphone charged me hundreds of dollars to use my Blackberry in Ireland to check e-mail and browse the Internet intermittingly for a week).
To make matters worse, the poor customer service that you get when you call a mobile provider for detailed information about roaming charges for voice and data communications is far from clear, whether it's Verizon in the United States or Vodaphone in Europe.
A good practice is to shut off your smartphone when traveling overseas and rely on your PC for all communications, including voice connections. You can do this with Skype (in France at least, you have to use your PC for Skype because mobile phone carriers lock phones against Skype).
After offering affordable voice communications for International calls and free voice, chat, and video connections over the Internet between PCs for years without too many hiccups, Skype has formed an agreement with Wi-Fi providers so you can pay with Skype credits for Internet access while on the road.
The announcement might not mean much if Skype charged gouge rates for Wi-Fi connections at public hotspots, but it looks like Skype is attempting to offer an affordable alternative. Skype says prices will start at 6 cents per minute, which is very reasonable, especially in Asia and Europe. Skype has offered the service in beta form through Boingo since 2009, but now you should also be able to benefit from the more reasonable Wi-Fi connection prices abroad, where connectivity can command some hefty fees (especially taking the deflated dollar into account).
Another promising proposition is that you will be able to pay for Skype's service by the minute. This will serve as a welcome alternative to the often ridiculously high prices that Wi-Fi access commands at places like airports and hotels, where you often have to buy increments of 30 minutes or an hour. Have a wait of 45 minutes at the Paris airport? Then you have to pay for 60 minutes worth of Wi-Fi to stay connected the entire time. If you pay for 30 minutes, the service shuts off with little warning when your time is up. Aggravating is a polite way to describe the experience.
Skype says it will offer its pay-as-you-go service through Wi-Fi providers around the world. The providers include BT Openzone, Fon, M3 Connect, Row 44, Skyrove, Spectrum Interactive, Tomizone, and Vex.
All told, Skype says users can access the Internet by buying Skype credits at 500,000 hotspots around the world, including 500 airports, 30,000 hotels, and "numerous cafes, trains, planes, offices buildings, and convention centers." While Skype did not list the places in which its Wi-Fi service will be available, it mentioned the United Kingdom and Germany in Europe, as well as South Africa and South America--in addition to the United States, where Skype says it will bring its service out of beta testing.
It's unclear how ubiquitous the Skype service will become, but I look forward to using it is as an affordable alternative to smartphone roaming and Wi-Fi access charges when traveling abroad.
Bruce covers tech trends in the United States and Europe and tweets at @brucegain.