Recently, like many people, I ditched my landline (which I rarely used). Now my cell phone is my only telephone. This is a better deal for me, since generally I don't talk on the phone much

...Except for last month. I was working on a magazine feature story that required many interviews. And also, since I'd gotten known as a source on the role of Twitter in covering the Mumbai terrorist attacks, I was called by several reporters to give interviews on that topic.

Last night I got my cell phone bill. It was about $70 more than I expected -- because I'd exceeded my allotted minutes. Ouch. Then I realized I should have been using Skype more.

I've used the online "phone" service Skype for a couple of years, but mainly for regular phone meetings people who also are comfortable with Skype. But most of the time when I get contacted for interviews, the journalist either doesn't use Skype or prefers to talk by phone. And when I need to interview people, often those sources don't have or aren't comfortable with Skype. Which means all those calls end up on my cell phone bill.

It seems to me that these days every journalist should get a free Skype account and learn how to use it to make and receive voice calls. It costs you nothing to extend this money-saving courtesy to your cell-phone-only, Skype-using sources and contacts. Then, when you arrange an interview, you can ask them whether they prefer to talk by phone or Skype. All Skype-to-Skype calls are free on both ends. Why should they pay for you to call them for information or assistance?

You can use Skype though a computer's built-in microphone, or with a wired or Bluetooth headset connected to your computer. So far it's not really something that will work from a cell phone. (Understandably, cell carriers are averse to supporting Skype calls, since they can't charge for those minutes.)

Quality and reliability: The sound quality of Skype calls is often startlingly clear. In my experience, Skype calls overall have far superior sound quality to cell calls. As for reliability, the frequency of sporadic problems (weird echoes, brief delays or audio gaps, or dropped calls) seems no worse than that of cell phones. I've found if Skype starts getting flaky in the midst of a call, if both speakers pause for a few seconds, the trouble usually clears up.

Here are some other ways you can use Skype to save money:

  • SkypeOut. You can make calls from Skype to landline or cell numbers. This costs 2.1 cents/minute, with no limit on minutes. You can pay as you go by depositing money into a Skype Credit account (which you can set up for automatic recharge if you like). Or you can get a Skype subscription for no per-minute charges, which costs $3/month for US/Canada only ($6/month to include Mexico, $10/month to call landlines and cells around the world).
  • SkypeIn gives your Skype account its own phone number which can be dialed from any landline or cell phone. This way, anyone can call you from any phone and you won't have to worry about paying for cell phone minutes. It costs $18 for three months to get a SkypeIn number, or $60 for a year. UPDATE: It's even cheaper than that. People who purchase Skype’s Unlimited U.S. and Canada subscription currently can save up to 50 percent on buying an online number (now called SkypeIn) for a year. Details.

Yes, you can record Skype calls. Journalists often record interviews, and there are several programs for any computer platform that will let you record Skype calls. Two popular ones are Call Recorder (Mac, $15), and Pamela for the PC (free version that does 15-min recordings comes bundled with Skype; no recording time limit with $15 upgrade). It's important to choose a program that generates an easily exportable file format like Quicktime or MP3. This makes working with a transcriptionist or simply organizing your interviews easy.

The bottom line: Skype is a useful courtesy option for journalists who work in a traditional newsroom. But for journalists who telecommute, travel to locations that offer broadband Internet access, or are self-employed, it can be a major money-saver. Even if you want to keep your landline, with Skype no long distance or international calling fees apply to calls you make. You don't need to use Skype for every call, but since journalists often can't control how many calls they'll need to make or receive, Skype can offer you more control over cell bills.

And if you don't like Skype, there are plenty of other voice-over-Internet (VOIP) services you can join. However, the popularity of free basic Skype accounts makes the appeal of free Skype-to-Skype accounts a compelling lure.