Ask Maggie: Best ways to stay connected while abroad

Summertime means traveling to far off destinations. In this week's Ask Maggie I offer some advice to help travelers stay in touch with loved ones while they're away.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
9 min read

It's summertime and it seems like everyone is headed to Europe.

Well, maybe not everyone. But this week I heard from two readers who are planning European trips this summer. Their big question: How do we stay in touch with loved ones at home while sightseeing and studying across the pond?

In this week's Ask Maggie, I suggest that a college student who will be studying in Italy for a month chat with her parents using Skype. It's free and probably the easiest option available.

I also explain to a son how his senior citizen parents can get a free loaner phone from Verizon Wireless, which they can take on their trip. Whether they use it for emergencies or to tell him how beautiful the view is from atop the Austrian Alps is up to them.

And finally I break some bad news to another reader who wants to know if he can get his old unlimited AT&T data plan back now that he has finally returned from his study abroad program.

Ask Maggie is a weekly advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you've got a question, please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header.

For more tips on traveling with your cell phone abroad, check out these previously published CNET articles:

Going abroad? Don't be afraid to pack the cell phone
FAQ: Swapping SIMs to save big on calls abroad
CNET Quick Guide: World roaming on your cell phone

Reach out and touch someone with Skype

Dear Maggie,
I'm leaving next Tuesday to go to Italy for a month as part of a study abroad program. What would you say is the best option for me to stay in touch with my parents here in the U.S. while I'm away? A friend of my mom's suggested this thing called MagicJack, but I'm not even sure how it works. Should we just use Skype? What do you think?


Dear Megan,
Skype is probably the best option for you. The Skype client is free and it's easy to download. So you can download the Skype client for your parents onto their home computer before you leave, and you can also download a client onto your laptop. Since this is a study abroad program, I'm assuming you will have your laptop with you. I'm also assuming that you will have access to an Internet connection in your dorm or with your host family. At the very least, I expect you'll have broadband Internet access at the university where you'll be studying.

So long as you and your parents have Skype on your computers, you'll be able to talk to each other for free. All you'll need is a headset with a microphone. And if you have a Web cam for each computer, you'll also be able to video chat, which means you can show your parents a little of Italy while you're chatting. Video chats are also free when you're both using the Skype service.

If you want to chat with your parents and they're not online, you can add some money to a SkypeOut account, and for a fraction of what it would cost you to call your parents from your cell phone or from your host family's landline phone, you can call their home phone or cell phones in the U.S.

It works the same way for your parents. So if you aren't online and they want to call you, they can also use the SkypeOut service to call your host family's home phone. It will cost them much less to use the SkypeOut service than it would if they called Italy from their regular home phone or their cell phones.

You mentioned that you were also considering Magic Jack. I don't really recommend this as an option for you. This service also allows you to make phone calls over the Internet, but you must buy a special device that plugs into your computer, which allows you to use a regular phone connected to your computer to make and receive phone calls. To use MagicJack you need to buy the USB device for about $40, and that comes with a year's worth of free calling in the U.S. After that you pay $20 a year to continue the service. You'd also still need a broadband Internet connection. For your purposes, I don't really see the point.

I've also heard many complaints about the customer service from MagicJack. So I'd say just go with Skype. It's easy and it's free when calling Skype to Skype. And even when you are calling actual phones, it's still pretty cheap.

You didn't ask this, but I'll throw it in anyway. If you want to stay in touch locally with friends while in Italy, I wouldn't use your American cell phone. I'd get an unlocked GSM phone before you leave or buy a cheap GSM phone when you get to Italy. Then I'd suggest buying a pay-as-you go SIM card. This will give you a cell phone to use while you are there, and you won't have to pay the outrageous international roaming rates you'd pay with your current cell phone.

Buona fortuna e buon divertimento! Ciao!

Verizon does European vacation

Dear Maggie,
My parents, who are in their seventies, are traveling to Europe this summer for vacation. They're going to be in multiple countries: Germany, Austria, and England. They want to be able to stay in touch while they're globe-trotting. They're Verizon Wireless subscribers, so they have CDMA phones. And they have only the most basic phones. I know the most economical solution for them would be to get an unlocked GSM phone and have them purchase a SIM card once they're over there. But I think that would be way too complicated for them. Plus they only need the phone to call home in case of emergency. What would you recommend?


Dear Rob,
Your parents are in an entirely different situation than Megan, who just asked me about staying in touch with her parents while she's studying abroad. Since your parents won't be staying in one place during their vacation, it's unlikely they'll have access to a computer with broadband Internet service. So Skype isn't a good option for them. And I agree with you that getting them an unlocked GSM cell phone and asking them to get a SIM card for it would make for a hassle. Also, it probably wouldn't be cheaper for them, since they'll be traveling to several different countries, and they'll likely be making calls back to the U.S. instead of within Europe, where they're traveling.

So, here's what I recommend. Verizon Wireless has what's called the Global Traveler Program. For Verizon Wireless customers, who have phones with only a CDMA radio, they will provide them with either a smartphone or a regular phone that has a GSM radio in it and can be used in the country in which they're traveling. The cost of the loaner phone is free, but Verizon does make you pay a $19.99 shipping fee, which will get the phone to you within one to two days. (Verizon does not charge customers to return the phones.)

Once they get the phone and use it overseas, your parents will have to pay international roaming rates when they make phone calls. For most of Europe, that's about $1.29 per minute. You can also sign them up for a $4.99 International phone calling plan, which drops that rate down to $0.99 a minute. The plan is prorated, so you can get the $4.99 service for two weeks, and you won't have to pay the full monthly rate. And then you can cancel the international service once they return.

Text messages while using this phone will be 50 cents to send and five cents to receive. Multimedia picture messages are 50 cents to send and 25 cents to receive. They'll also have to pay a data fee for MMS messages since these message travel over the foreign carrier's data network.

If by chance your parents want a smartphone with Internet service, so they can check their e-mail or look up stuff on the Net while traveling, the price gets a bit more steep. There's a pay-as-you-go plan that costs about $20.48 per megabyte. Then there are a couple of monthly plans: 75MB for $30 a month or 200MB for $100 a month. Again, these plans can also be prorated. And the plan can be turned off after your parents return home.

It sounds to me like your parents may not be advanced enough for a smartphone. So I'd recommend that they get a basic feature phone with voice and texting only. Depending on how often you expect them to check in with you from their travels, you can decide whether the $4.99 international plan is really worth it. If they're only going to be calling home in an emergency, you could forgo the international plan and have them call with regular roaming rates.

I hope this helps. And I hope your parents have a wonderful trip abroad!

Unrequited love: Getting my unlimited AT&T data plan back

Dear Maggie,
In December of 2009, just before I left for a three-semester study abroad program, I had an iPhone 3G with an unlimited plan. Right before leaving I lost my iPhone. And then I cancelled my unlimited plan since I knew I would have no use for it in Europe. However, I did keep my number since it is part of an AT&T family plan.

I will be returning to the U.S. in the next few weeks, and I would like to get my unlimited data plan back. I have heard that AT&T has made some exceptions in certain cases. Do you have any idea how I might be able to get my old unlimited plan back? And do you think the iPhone 5 is worth waiting for?

Thanks for the constant news and info on the wireless market,

Dear Chris,
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it's very unlikely that you'll ever get your unlimited data plan back. There were some rumors floating around in January just before Verizon Wireless began selling the iPhone 4, that people were calling AT&T and threatening to switch to Verizon if they didn't get their unlimited data plans back. But AT&T never officially switched its policy. Of course, some people might have been able to convince a sales rep to change their accounts back to an unlimited data plan.

So you may want to give it a shot. But I think that window of opportunity has likely already closed. For one, AT&T has not taken as big a hit as some had predicted from Verizon's sale of the iPhone. Verizon began selling the iPhone 4 in February. And secondly, Verizon is getting ready to ditch its unlimited data plan this summer. So there's no incentive from a sales perspective for AT&T to revert back to the unlimited plan. What's more, AT&T is still getting killed when it comes to data usage. Ralph de la Vega, the head of AT&T's wireless business, said at a conference this week that the company used to exhaust 10MHz of spectrum with data usage in two years, and it's now doing that in half the time.

So what this means for you is that you are likely stuck with AT&T's tiered data service offering. But remember you still get 2GB of usage for $25 a month. And according to AT&T last year when it launched the tiered offering, 98 percent of its customers use less than 2GB of data per month. So you should still be all right.

As for whether the iPhone 5 will be worth it, that's yet to be determined. There are some very cool Google Android phones coming on the market. Some of them are even 4G LTE capable. I don't expect the new iPhone 5 to operate on a speedier LTE network. For that capability, we'll likely wait another year.

Apple hasn't said when the iPhone 5 will be on the market, but it's not likely to hit store shelves until the fall. So you may want to wait.

Microsoft is also expected to have some new Windows Phone 7 devices toward the end of the year, including some from its partnership with Nokia. Microsoft might not be getting a lot of buzz right now, but the new Mango software update and the promise of new hardware this fall could give consumers more choices than just the iPhone 5 and Android.