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5 Alternatives To Being Home For The Holidays

PORTLAND, Ore. ( TheStreet) -- Did your holiday travel plans and work schedule not pan out? Do you want to bash in the radio or infect your playlist with a virus each time Home For The Holidays or I'll Be Home For Christmas comes on? Just take a few breaths, sit back and remember that not getting home for the holidays doesn't mean not seeing your family.

This is 2012. The homesick have far better, cheaper tools at their disposal than a late-night long-distance phone call when the rates get lower or holiday cards with an entire year's events packed into one mailing.

If you've already gone online, shipped out gifts by hitting a site with free shipping or a small spending threshold for that perk or are waiting on online promotions such as Free Shipping Day before knocking out your holiday gift lists, you can see your family this holiday season without taking a step. Back in the '90s, stuffed suits in company conference rooms called it teleconferencing; today it's just another feature on your smartphone, tablet or laptop.

Here are just a handful of the best video chatting options out there. While you may not be able to taste dinner on Christmas Eve or smell the tree in the living room on Christmas morning, at least you can see the bug-eyed excitement or thinly veiled disappointment on your loved ones' faces as they open presents:

Skype

If you wondered why we were calling it "video chatting" instead of "Skyping," chances are you're one of the nearly 700 million users contributing to the 600 million minutes of video calls made through Skype each day.

Though it launched primarily as a voice service in 2006, a quarter of Skype users were making video calls by 2008. Roughly 50% of calls made on Skype this year use video, with the service transmitting 7,000 hours of video each minute. It works on Apple (AAPL - Get Report) OS X computers and iOS iPhones and iPads, Google (GOOG - Get Report) Android smartphones and tablets, some Nokia (NOK) phones and Sony's (SNE) PlayStation Vita handheld. Most impressively, however, it's been integrated into Microsoft's Windows phones, computers, Outlook app and Facebook (FB - Get Report) after Microsoft (MSFT - Get Report) acquired Skype for $8.5 billion last year.

The good news is that all calls made from one Internet device to another are free. If you want to call a landline phone or bring more than two devices into a chat, though, you'll need the $5-a-month Skype Premium service. That allows up to 25 devices to sit in on a chat and is the best way to bring a large family together for the holidays.

The video can get pixelated and blurry at times and can lag a bit if there isn't a solid Internet connection. Our advice: Skip the Facebook and smartphone connections if possible and gather everyone around the laptop or desktop hearth for some holiday cheer.

Apple FaceTime

You have to know a little bit about your family before you start chatting on FaceTime. First off, are they Apple users?

Anything shy of a consensus "yes" answer on that will make Apple's FaceTime and Messages services pretty much unusable for your family. If your family is really big on iProducts, this is a no-brainer. You can connect multiple Macs and iOS devices and use a Wi-Fi or 3G connection to chat with your far-flung family. It comes free on most new Apple devices and requires you only to find your contact's info and hit the FaceTime button.

A strong Wi-Fi connection is your best hope for solid video quality, but FaceTime is a fairly stable option regardless. Other than your family's love or hate of Apple products, its sheer numbers can be an issue for FaceTime. If you're good with a one-on-one conversation between your family's laptop and your device, that's fine. If you're looking to bring more folks into the party, you're out of luck.
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