Cheap Phone CallsThere are several different ways to stay connected with people back home through phone calls while traveling abroad. We are comparing the different options for you so you can decide which option(s) make the most sense for your needs.

  • VoIP (e. g. Skype, Google Hangouts...)
  • Calling Cards
  • Cell phone with your existing plan
  • Local SIM card for your cell phone
  • International Travel SIM cards
  • Phone in Hotel Room
  • Collect Calls

Long story short one of the most cost effective options nowadays is using VoIP. Skype in particular is probably one of the easiest options that works almost everywhere in the world. In addition to using VoIP I usually bring my cell phone along for emergencies.

Nevertheless this might not always the best option for you or you want to have a back-up in case VoIP or your cell phone isn't working. Below a high level overview of all the options with their pros and cons.

VoIP

Companies like Skype allow you to make phone calls over the internet with costs as low as 1 cent/minute. With Wi-Fi being widely available all around the world nowadays it is fairly convenient to make calls this way. You usually have to purchase some call credit starting at $10.
Lowest cost to make calls if the recipient is using the same program
Works in most countries as long as you have internet
Fairly easy to use without technical background
Requires Wi-Fi connection, a Smartphone or Computer with the VoIP software installed

Calling cards

In some countries you might find local phone cards or dialing cards sold in convenient stores. These cards come with a prepaid balance and have a PIN on the back of the card. There are usually toll free and local dial in numbers listed that you can call from any phone to initiate a call to another number. The prices for calling cards usually start at around $5-$10. Different calling cards can have significantly different rates for the region/country you are trying to call.
Most cards have a low per minute cost
Can be a good option if you don't have access to make VoIP calls
Can be cumbersome to use the dial instructions that aren't always clear or working
Often have higher (and often somewhat hidden) connection fees sometimes even if nobody picks up your phone call at home
Might charge for every 10 minutes rather than charging by the minute

Don't use them for your cell phone if you don't have a local SIM card since your phone carrier will still charge you Roaming fees!

Cell phone with your existing plan

Most phone carries have agreements with carriers around the world allowing you to use your existing phone and wireless plan all around the world. This convenience usually comes at a very high cost (roaming fees of up to $4.99 per minute!).
Convenient since you are reachable under the same number
Some cell phone companies allow you to receive free text messages
No additional costs for people back home calling you on your cell number (instead YOU will be paying the additional roaming fees!)
Good for emergencies
Some carriers are starting to offer Wi-Fi calling which can greatly reduce cost while abroad
You'll have to pay roaming fees for incoming and outgoing calls (up to $4.99 per minute).
Some countries you are visiting might not be supported by your phone (GSM vs. CDMA network) and/or your carrier (no roaming agreements with local carriers)
Might need to call your phone company ahead to time to enable international roaming

To most extent I would recommend to only use your existing plan for emergencies. One exception to this are the new T-Mobile Simple Choice plans that have attractive perks for travelers

Local SIM cards for your cell phone

If you have an unlocked GSM cell phone you can usually buy a prepaid SIM card in the country you are visiting starting at $10. This is usually useful if you are longer in a specific country so you can coordinate your travel locally and are reachable.
Cheap option for you to be reachable
Cheap and convenient to make local calls (call your hotel if you are lost, call a taxi)
Might need a different SIM card for each country (e. g. if you are backpacking through Europe)
People back home will have to pay for making an international call (although VoIP can dramatically reduce the cost for them too)
You have to figure out how to reload money to your account
Usually not cheap to make calls back home
Some countries require you to show your passport to buy a SIM card.
Your phone needs to be unlocked and support the cell phone standard

International Travel SIM cards

These are SIM cards you can put into your unlocked GSM cell phone to make calls instead of using your existing cell phone plan. You can usually pick these cards up before your trip for $20-$30.
moderate pricing (cheaper than your cell phone carrier but still more expensive than VoIP)
Can be cumbersome to use
Might work in multiple countries
people calling you might have to pay more in order to call your international Travel SIM card

For most cases I wouldn't recommend them. You can find more information about the pros and cons of International Travel SIM cards.

Phones in Hotel Room

Most hotel rooms still provide you with a phone that you can use to make calls. Expensive to place international calls. Sometimes the charges to make international calls might be higher than your own cell phone carrier charges you per minute
Usually free to receive incoming calls
Can be cumbersome having to put down some deposit first
You might first let people back home know what your phone number is
Some hotels started to remove phones since people aren't using them anymore

Collect calls

A collect call is usually a reverse charge call where the calling party wants to place a call at the called parties expense. With the increase of cell phone use and VoIP this way of calling is in rapid decline. Because of the high cost for the person receiving this call I would only recommend for emergencies. Can be cumbersome to find out how to initiate collect calls
Usually very expensive for the person you are calling
Good as last resort if you are stranded somewhere

Public phones around the world might have the best chance of coming with instructions for collect calls (though nowadays finding a public phone