Skype is well-known free software for making phone calls from your computer. Most people use it to make calls to other Skype users – always free, anywhere in the world. Calls are made from your computer and travel over the Internet; sound quality is surprisingly good. The software is simple and intuitive. If you have relatives in another country, or do business overseas, you should be using Skype already!

It’s also possible to make phone calls using Skype to conventional landlines and cell phones – you use Skype to dial a number, the phone rings at the other end. You can buy a year of unlimited calls to any landline or cell phone in the US or Canada for $29.95.

It took me a while to figure out international calls. If you purchase “Skype Credit,” you can make calls to any phone number, anywhere in the world. The per minute charge for the call is based on the destination country of the call, regardless of where the call originates. If you haven’t bought the unlimited US plan, then Skype calls to landlines or cell phones in the US cost two cents/minute, regardless of whether the call is placed from California or France or China. Calls to Switzerland (or 30 other countries) are billed at 2.1 cents/minute.

There are many ways to add features to Skype (and make it correspondingly more complex). It can be used with a webcam for video calls; you can obtain a phone number that Skype will answer on your computer when dialed from conventional phones; there are phones that use 802.11 wireless connections to hook into Skype over the home or office Internet connection; there’s voicemail and SMS and more.

Skype can be set up with almost any audio equipment – computer speakers for playback, a microphone built into a laptop or webcam, headsets of all types. It’s easiest to use with a headset that plugs into a USB port, bypassing the computer’s sound card and making setup go more smoothly. Skype sells nice headsets but there’s nothing special about getting something from Skype; I bought a Logitech headset at CompUSA that has been just fine.

I was able to avoid renting a cell phone for my trip to Europe by carrying a notebook computer and using Skype to return calls. Worked like a charm!