Something happens when you land in a foreign country. The language may be the same, the road rules may be familiar, and the food may be just like the grub that you're used to. But it suddenly becomes infinitely more difficult (and expensive) to communicate with friends, family members, and business contacts back in one's homeland.
Staying connected and keeping channels of communication open while traveling internationally is tough, but thanks to technological advancements and the increasing ubiquity of the Internet, it's becoming easier to handle. The first thing I'd recommend is to not use your mobile phone while abroad to make voice calls. Even with "global" plans, you can easily find yourself paying well over $1 per minute to make a phone call while roaming on an international network. In some countries, the rates exceed $5 per minute! It doesn't matter if you're with AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, or any of the others – international voice roaming is a racket, and you'd be wise to avoid it at all costs.
For those based in the U.S., I'd strongly encourage you to sign up for a Google Voice account. Even if you aren't an avid user of Gmail or Google's Documents suites, it's worth getting into the Google ecosystem if only for this. This guide explains how Gmail users can make 100 percent free calls to any U.S. or Canadian phone number (mobile or landline). Put simply, you'd open up a Web browser on your computer that's connected to the Internet, open up your Gmail account, and then use the dialer on the right sidebar to make a call. It doesn't matter where you are – if you have a stable and reasonably quick Internet connection, you now have access to a phone that can call back home for nothing. It's also wise to let people know your Google Voice number ahead of time, or perhaps tell them to expect calls from you from a strange number while you're overseas. That way, they don't simply screen your calls due to seeing an unfamiliar phone number. It's also worth noting that Google Voice can be used from mobile devices, but for calls initiated through that while outside of the U.S. or Canada, there are per-minute fees just as there are with Skype. In other words, the only completely free Google Voice solution is the one found within your Gmail account.
For times when calling on a laptop isn't possible, there's Skype. Mind you, dialing a phone number (instead of ringing a Skype contact) still charges you, but the rates are far lower than what you'd pay if using your standard phone number. Calls back to the U.S. are usually under $0.10 per minute, and most other countries have rates that are close to that. Skype's full list of calling rates can be found here.
With Skype, you can load the program onto your computer or your mobile phone, and then use any Internet connection to dial out. You can use your hotel's Wi-Fi signal to give your phone a connection (or a nearby cafe, too), and then place a call like normal once logged into your Skype account. Adding Skype Credits is as easy as plugging your credit card in and selecting an amount, and so long as your Internet connection is stable, you'll hardly notice a difference in call quality. Again, be sure to warn contacts back home that you may be calling from a "Blocked" or "Unknown" number, as Skype calls tend to show both of those messages to recipients.
One word of caution with Skype: since it uses data to complete calls, be sure that you don't enable your smartphone to roam internationally in order to complete a call. If so, you'll be paying Skype to make the call and your home mobile carrier for roaming with data. To those that need a more affordable way to keep data rolling to their smartphone, iPhoneTrip offers SIM cards that will connect you to 3G networks in nearly 200 countries. I'll be expanding on data options in a future article, but for now, be sure to see my prior post on making the most of hotel Wi-Fi in order to complete calls from the comfort of your room.