Families can communicate with relatives abroad by using the Internettelephone system Skype.
Families can communicate with relatives abroad by using the Internet telephone system Skype. (Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP/ Getty Images )

Can't be home for the holidays? Don't worry, there's an app for that.

Imagine spending the holidays far away, maybe somewhere warm like Hawaii or maybe somewhere romantic, like Paris. But there's one drawback -- you miss your family. What do you do if you're far away from them, don't want to spend the cash for an international or long-distance call, and don't want to miss familar smiling faces during this time of year?

That's where computer- and mobile-based programs like Skype and iPhone's FaceTime come in.

Video chat ability has been around for decades, though it was always something deemed worthy for only those who could afford such a luxury. Not anymore. Thanks to these programs, seeing and hearing friends and family can be done with a few simple clicks in the comfort of your own home. Whether you're thousands of miles away or just down the road, Skype is helping bring families closer together and maintaining long-distance relationships.

For Marta and Jason Dragonetti, of Pittsfield, Skype allows them to communicate face-to-face with Marta's family in Poland quite often. The Dragonettis have two boys, Vincent, 6, and Jonathan, 2. Marta was born and raised in Poznan, Poland, where her father still lives. The family makes a few Skype calls a week to Poland. With Skype, Marta's young children are able to see and hear their grandfather, and even pick up on a few Polish words to supplement what she and Jason teach them.


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"Our primary language is English, but [Skype] gives them an idea that there are people out there that speak other languages," Marta said.

With the different holidays in Poland and the U.S., Marta said it can be difficult to schedule time to video chat, considering the six-hour time difference.

"I Skype with my entire family -- brother, sister, father," Marta said. "If it weren't for Skype, my kids wouldn't recognize their grandfather or cousins."

Marta uses her tablet to Skype, while her family in Poland uses the computer. The biggest benefit of Skype, in Marta's opinion, is being able to see each other. And it's the most cost-effective way to stay in touch.

"I have an international plan on my phone," she said. "Even with the plan, it's expensive to call. With Skype, if you have Internet and the connectivity, you don't have to pay. You pay for Internet access, but you don't pay per call."

Marta and her family seem to be reaping the benefits of Skype.

"I love it for the fact that we can see each other. [And] I don't have a huge phone bill. I can't be more grateful for the fact that Skype exists."

According to blogs.skype.com, Skype has been around for just over a decade and has been a solid basis of communication for more than 300 million people worldwide. It took 104 years for the telephone to reach 300 million users; it took the cell phone 25 years; and it took Skype just 10 years to reach all those people, according to the blog.

For iPhone users, FaceTime offers a similar video chat connection, but only for those using Apple-made devices.

For John Levesque, manager of RAM Electrical Services in Adams, face-to-face technology took on greater importance than just holiday hellos when Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines in the beginning of November. Levesque used Skype to check in on his son, Colin, daughter-in-law, Joy, and their two children, Nickki and Zoey.

"It was critical when the Philippines was recently hit by the storm," Levesque said. "We used Skype and Facebook and emails. They felt the outer parts of the storm."

Luckily, Levesque's family live in Mambajao, a municipality in the province of Camiguin, Philippines, which is situated just south of where the storm caused extreme devastation.

"It's a means of staying in direct communication so you're not sitting there, wondering for days if they're OK," said Levesque, who uses Skype from his home computer to check in with Colin and his family weekly.

Levesque says Skype is a way for him to get updates on how his son and his family are doing, and it's a way for his grandchildren to see and recognize him. But because of the 13-hour time difference, it can be hard to connect some weeks, he said.

The biggest benefit of Skype, Levesque said, is getting to talk directly to his grandchildren and see them directly.

"It's a lot different than phone or email. They're growing up so fast. We'd be missing that," he said.

As for the holidays, Levesque plans to keep an old tradition alive.

"On Christmas, we try to read ‘The Night Before Christmas' story [to them]."

Video chat technology can also be used for more than just casual week-to-week catch ups. Some users find it useful for sharing life experiences.

Ben Daire, chef at Alta Restaurant and Wine Bar in Lenox, along with his wife, Mary, have been using Skype for several years to stay in touch with his family.

"For us, it's a great support and medium," Mary said during a Skype interview.

The couple have a 1-year-old daughter who is getting to know her French family via Skype.

"Every Sunday morning, we see everybody," Ben said.

Besides family, the Daires use Skype to talk to friends, and they use Skype not only on an iPad - which is more convenient with a young daughter around - but also on their mobile phones. Skype has an app you can download on both Android and iPhone and it lets a user do the same exact type of exchange as a computer or tablet does.

"When I do use the phone," Mary said, "it's super handy."

Ben recalled a recent hike he and Mary took when Mary's phone rang and it was a friend. But instead of just chatting, they Skyped and showed their friend where they were and the beautiful landscapes they were seeing.

"The emotional part is most important," Mary said.

The Daires explained how their daughter, Matilde, is learning the faces and voices of her grandparents.

"She recognizes them," Ben said. Matilde also recognizes the ring of Skype for an incoming call, they said, and she gets excited for her next Skype chat.

Skype is now second nature to the Daires, but they admitted it was a bit odd at first.

"You always kind of watch yourself," Mary said. "[But] you kind of just totally get used to it."

And if you're getting married and some family can't make it -- like the Daires did in France -- Skype is a great way to share the happy moment with friends and family.

"We set up Skype at the ceremony," Mary said. Family members were able to watch Ben and Mary exchange vows, all while changing diapers of their children back in the states.