We had planned to spend Thanksgiving in New Jersey with our two daughters and their families. But, alas, yours truly was hospitalized with pneumonia, and the weather wasn’t going to cooperate, with a Nor’easter on the way.

Instead, we were to do the Ma Bell thing, but it’s cumbersome to get all 10 voices together, especially with limited spans of attention from some. But out of this predicament appeared a real epiphany, suggested by a friend of mine, a method to communicate by voice as well as visually.

I’m referring to Skype, the computer online tool providing interactive voice and visual contact.

Skype is a computer program that can be used to make free voice calls over the Internet to anyone else who is also using Skype. It’s free and considered easy to download and use, and works with most computers. Once you download, register and install the software, you’ll need a webcam and possibly a microphone.

Video telephony — or communicating via video calls — has been around since the 1960s, but it was too cumbersome and expensive for the general public to use until very recently. Improvements in video technology, as well as the wide availability of high-speed Internet, have made video chat and video calls accessible and affordable for just about anybody.

Although it’s not the only service available, Skype is one of the most popular video call services. You don’t need a lot of equipment, and the software is user-friendly, enabling you to make video calls within minutes of downloading it.

If the person you want to talk to also has Skype, it’s free to use the service (minus the cost of your Internet connection, of course). There is a fee if you’re calling a regular landline or cellphone, and there’s also a cost associated with some of the more advanced services.

In addition to video and voice calls, you can also hold teleconferences, send instant messages, share files of all kinds, text and make low-cost international calls using a special cellphone program called Skype to Go.

Skype is different from other VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) providers because it is a peer-to-peer service. This means that the program distributes the running workload across Skype users’ computers via background processing, instead of running off a traditional server. It’s part of why Skype is so inexpensive. (On Sept. 12, 2005, Skype was acquired by eBay.)

With Skype you can make free calls online, chat and speak with family and friends worldwide. You never get charged for long distance or roaming.

On Thanksgiving Day, we saw and talked to the entire family for two hours, getting updates from everyone and even watching our daughter prepare the turkey. The only sensation missing was the kitchen aroma.

We actually Skyped years ago with friends in Portugal and had pretty much forgotten about it. To use Skype, you will need a webcam on your computer unless it already has one integrated.

Later, I found that two iPhones can communicate like Skype using “Facetime,” which will also work on your Mac. As a kid who checked in on Dick Tracy occasionally, I was impressed by his ability to Skype Tess on his wristwatch, never realizing it could develop technically.

When it comes right down to traveling, especially during major holidays, I think I’ll opt for Skype or Facetime to avoid crowded airports and potential delays.

The current cost to go from Raleigh-Durham to Newark, N.J., is almost $1,000 for two of us (as seniors), opposed to Skype for free.

Try it. It’s fun and simple.

(1) comment

Sally Larson

I agree, it's so much more than a phone call! When I travel, I can call home, have coffee together with my Honey and see the dogs anxiously waiting for their walk. It's the next best thing to being there, somehow it feels so much better seeing each other rather than just hearing their voice.

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