Far from the days of penning letters and sending them home “par avion,” or cutting calls short because of sky-high costs, the Internet has opened up a brave new world of staying in touch – from anywhere. Travel is made far more fun when you can share information about your adventures. Make someone green with jealousy over your infinity pool in Bali, or place a call from a speedboat in New Zealand. TPG contributor Kate Gammon tells us how with this Travel Tuesday Top 10 list of the best apps to stay in touch while traveling abroad.
A research firm calculated that voice-over-internet users topped 250 million by the end of 2012 — from virtually zero in 2007. Today’s travelers are looking for more than just free phone calls; they are hunting for the best mobile services to stay in touch. From photos and video to text and talk, smartphone apps are changing the way you can stay in touch while traveling – and here are some of our favorites.
1. Fring: For people traveling with a smartphone, several apps allow you to make voice over internet (VoIP) calls from a WiFi hotspot. Fring, available for both iPhone and Android, is like a buddy messenger on steroids. It allows you to use other VoIP providers — including Google Talk — on your smartphone. These apps also work on the iPod Touch (if you have an older model, you’ll need to attach an external microphone). Fring allows you to video chat with up to four people at a time. Best for: Video chats in groups
2. Viber: When my husband and I were on our honeymoon last year, we visited a friend in Hanoi. Viber let us share our location in the maze-like old city, and our friend was able to swing by and pick us up in a cab. In addition, Viber is a useful (and free) messaging platform for chatting and sending instant messages. It works over WiFi or 3G/4G. I found the phone part to be good, but less fantastic than the messaging services. And unlike other message platforms, Viber doesn’t drain your battery or use up your device’s memory, so you can always receive your incoming calls and message notifications without burdening your device. The only downside is that you need WiFi or 3G for the app to work. Best for: Text messaging friends overseas, location finder.
3. Skype: Skype is the granddaddy of staying-in-touch apps, and it still works well. When traveling to other countries, friends will often ask for a Skype name to stay in touch instead of a phone number or an email. With a slick interface and good quality over WiFi (no 3G or 4G), the Skype apps work well, but for chatting it has glitches, and the video quality can falter easily. Skype is free to other Skype users, but costs money to call landlines or cell phones. It’s biggest benefit, like WhatsApp, may simply be that so many people are on the system – so it’s easy to find people. Best for: Audio calls to other Skype members.
4. WhatsApp: WhatsApp is a huge part of the texting-overseas world. The Android app alone has been downloaded 1.2 million times from Google Play. Compare that to Skype (650,000 downloads) Viber (300,000 downloads). Feature-wise, it doesn’t do anything spectacularly different from its rivals, with its real value coming from its popularity. The app is free the first year, and costs 99 cents thereafter. With it, you can share your location on Google Maps, attach an image, video, audio clip, or contact to a message, insert a cute emoticon, or change your conversation’s wallpaper. It also informs your conversation partner has received your text. And you can chat with up to ten people at once. Best for: Group chats, seamless interface, location awareness
5. Wi-Fi Finder: Oh wireless Internet, how I love thee. Without you, I would be so lost – both metaphorically and literally lost. But how to find that sweet, sweet Internet? Wi-Fi Finder is a free app that has an online and offline directory of over 500,000 different hotspot locations in 144 different countries. The app relies on users submitting their local hotspot locations to a central Wi-Fi Finder server, it then stores and relays all its Wi-Fi information to all of its app users. Although iPhones and most Androids have a built-in WiFi scanner, this app charts the locations, strengths, and availability of the signals, instead of just listing them. Best for: Finding that spot where you can make calls and texts
6. Whistle: Whistle Phone lets you call through the Internet to any US phone – landline or mobile – for free for 20 minutes. Skype, on the other hand, charges for even the first minute of calls to non-Skype users. After the 20 minutes are up, you can recharge your account in denominations of 99 cents. Whistle also lets you call for free to any other Whistle user. One annoying thing is that the app has to be running in order to receive calls to your Whistle phone abroad. I used this app calling home from a guesthouse in South Africa and was impressed with the quality. Best for: Free VoIP calls to other users, good quality.
7. Tango: Tango is another VoIP app that uses 3G, 4G or WiFi to make calls from anywhere. The calls can be video or audio, and currently people in 190 countries are using the service for calls, of which 80 percent are video. The app is free and is available on the iPhone, Android, Windows phones as well as laptops and desktops. Best for: Good quality video calls, can use on a laptop as well as smartphones.
8. Babelingo: Donde esta la estacion de autobuses? Now you might actually find out, without sounding like a noob. Babelingo is there when you know very little of the local language. For $1.99, the app is an easy way to translate the most vital travel-phrases from your own language into one of the 11 the app offers: English, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French, German, Russian, Czech, Hindi, Japanese, and Chinese. It’s not going to help you to pick up that cutie by the pool, but it might get you to the right train on time, and it works on both iPhones and Android without internet. Best for: Very basic phrase translation with ease. Text only.
9. Speeek!: Speeek! is a similar translation app, but it’s based on speech. You speak into the phone, and the app translates and speaks back. The app contains more than 1,500 useful phrases while traveling overseas; by simply talking into your iPhone in English, Speeek! will find the phrase and say it back in Chinese. Sound dangerous? It probably is, but again for basic phrase translation it works well. Best for: Basic oral speech translation.
10. Fuze: Fuze is built for business, but leisure travelers can also use it to connect with friends, colleagues, and more on instant messaging services including MSN, Google Talk, and AIM. The app is free, and a month of trial is also free – after that, the service costs money. So use its all-in-one services for a month then drop it. With Fuze, you can join a video “meeting” with friends and chat, or share photos and texts, I mean “sales data,” in the middle of conversations. Best for: Business meetings, or group video chats
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