Sometimes it really is nice to disconnect while traveling and for the most part we do, but we also like to be able to call home if we need to, have ways to keep in touch with family and ways for them to reach us as well while we're abroad. Here are a few tips that we use every trip in order to stay somewhat connected to home, as it's a lot easier now than it used to be.
On our first few trips abroad, we didn't bother with putting data packages on our phones before we left. We stuck to wifi in our hotels and around cities and kept our phones on airplane mode while out of the country, however, our last few trips we've started just putting data packages on our phones for the ease of it. It's nice to be able to check emails, post to Instagram and text while out and about while traveling and putting a data package on your phone is really pretty simple and not very expensive. For ATT, we pay $30 per iPhone to have the lowest data package on our phones while we travel, which for us ends up really being worth it. It's also nice, as ATT will text you when you reach your limit so you know when to stop using data after your package has run out.
All you need to do to add a data package for international use is to call your provider before you leave and set it up. On that same note, you can buy SIM cards when you get to destination, however we've never done it, so I can't speak much to that option. Just know that you're phone has to be unlocked before the SIM will work and that has to be done prior to leaving.
We're big fans of Google Voice as a means of calling home while traveling. The nice thing about Google Voice calls are that they are free and you can call actual phone numbers, not just computer to computer like on Skype. I like to check in with my Mom and Grandparents while we travel and I use primarily Google voice from our iPads or laptops while abroad.
This is also a great tool for when you're stuck somewhere in an airport abroad. We used it a ton a few years ago when we got stranded in Toronto and wanted to let our families know. Since we had Wifi at the airport, we could just call straight from the computer over the internet without incurring phone charges on our phones.
FaceTime is another fantastic option if you have an iPhone. We use FaceTime all the time and you can do video or voice calls, depending on the strength of your signal on Wifi. We have great luck with service and good connections on FaceTime and since the majority of my family has iPhones, it's easy and free. It's also really cool when I can be on FaceTime with my mom or grandma while traveling and show them the views from our hotels or whatever we're seeing.
While traveling, sometimes things come up and you just really need to make a call from your phone. It's happened to me a few different times, whether I'm calling because my credit cards are not working or extending a car rental late at night for the next day, sometimes you don't have access to Wifi or you need to just quickly make a call. In those situations, I like to at least know how much I'm going to be paying for the minutes abroad through my carrier. Usually, the rates are about $1.50/minute from Europe to the US, so you can try to be quick on your calls if need be, but at least you'll know what you'll be paying ahead of time.
You can also add voice plans to your phone through your carrier before leaving, but for us, it's never worth the investment as we only call in emergency situations.
If you don't want to put a data package on your phone or even if you do, and just want to be careful about usage, a good solution that still allows you to use your phone while traveling is putting it in airplane mode. You can keep your phone in Airplane Mode the whole time you're out of your home country and rely on wifi to get internet connection without incurring any fees. It's a great way to still use your camera and even GPS (in certain circumstances) without having to pay for data while traveling.