Kate Russell’s traveller’s web

Kate Russell’s traveller’s web – absent friends

Some people go travelling to get away their family (or is that just me?). If you prefer to stay in touch with yours there are much cheaper ways than racking up premium minutes on your mobile phone tariff.

The most obvious is to download an app that lets make voice calls over the web using a technology known as voice over internet protocol, or VOIP.

I wrote in my first ‘Traveller’s Web’ column here a few months ago about being wary of the cost of roaming data while abroad; these VOIP services will eat that up so make sure you’re not faced with an equally scary data bill by sticking to wifi networks.


Skype is the best known and most widely used VOIP service.


Skype is the best known and most widely used VOIP service claiming a mind-boggling 2-billion minutes a day of calls made by its users.

This popularity means the people you are contacting will be most likely to have an account – which is one of the prerequisites to a guaranteed free connection from user to user (although there is increasing cross-over between compatible platforms so make sure you check that out too).

As well as the desktop client, Skype has a great range of other apps linking smartphones of every flavour to tablets, homes phones, connected TVs and even games consoles – so your friends don’t even need to drag themselves away from GTA5 to check in with you for a chat.


Like Skype it has apps in every flavour.


Another good choice with 200 million registered users is Viber. Like Skype it has apps in every flavour and both these services now offer a ‘calling out’ add-on that lets you place calls to people not on the network for the price of a local phone call.

Rates will vary from country-to-country and depending whether you call a mobile or landline, but Viber claims its charges are “significantly” lower than the competition, by which it probably means Skype.

It’s currently available on the Android, iOS and desktop apps, with Windows Phone access coming soon.

Instant Messaging Clients

Another useful tool for staying in touch is instant messaging (or IM for brevity’s sake), which allows free text and multi-media messages between users across the data network.

Skype and Viber also incorporate IM functions, and there are Facebook Messenger apps for most platforms too.

Check which service your friends and family hang out on before making a commitment to ensure that you are all compatible.

IM services let you send and receive messages and photos at no cost long as you’re not paying for data traffic, so if you haven’t turned off roaming data make sure the apps are powered down and not operating in the background when you leave a wifi hotspot.


Whatsapp has opted to keep its offering simple and easy to use.


One of the most popular IM apps, Whatsapp, is free for the first year followed by an annual subscription that is currently set at $0.99 or about 50 pence.

It seems like an insignificant amount to pay, but multiply this by the 350 million monthly active users claimed by the company and it allows them to maintain an ad-free service.

This is actually quite important when travelling as any app that is sucking up advertisements to serve to your handset will be using data bandwidth and running down your batteries faster than is necessary.

There is plenty of competition in this area right now and Whatsapp has opted to keep its offering simple and easy to use – so no shiny bells and whistles beyond the core messaging functions, although the latest beta release does offer video messaging for the first time.


This can be a fantastic way to put worried minds at rest.

Blackberry Messenger

Another hugely popular IM service is Blackberry Messenger or BBM to its friends. Until fairly recently this was an exclusive club for Blackberry owners but a few months ago BBM apps were released for iPhone and Android and reportedly downloaded 5 million times in the first 8 hours.

As well as all the completely free features you’d expect, BBM incorporates video and group messaging, so you can set up a comms-loop between sets of family or friends and just send one message to keep them all updated.

This can be a fantastic way to put worried minds at rest if you’re hopping locations on a flexible schedule, and adds an extra layer of safety making sure everyone knows where you’re heading.

There’s a lot more to love in this app too, including live status updates so you can see what your friends are up to even if they forgot to send you a message and nice privacy options so that you don’t have to share your phone number with all the random people you want to connect to temporarily via IM as you travel.


Stay connected whilst miles apart with that special someone.


Sometimes it’s inevitable that you have to leave someone special behind, but that doesn’t mean you can’t share intimate moments on your own personal network, built just for two.

That’s the idea behind Couple, available free on iOS, Android and through the web. This completely private network lets you share text, images, to-do lists and sketches.

You can even share a ‘thumbkiss’, where your thumb prints appear live on each other’s screen and the handset vibrates gently when your thumbs connect. OK, it might be a poor substitute for an actual kiss – but it’s about as romantic as a smartphone app gets.