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.
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) OS X computers and iOS iPhones and iPads, Google ( GOOG) 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) after Microsoft ( MSFT) 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.
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.
Like Facebook's Skype Connection, Google+ Hangouts offers video chatting on computers and mobile devices with a little help through your friendly neighborhood social network. Unlike Skype for Facebook, though, the picture's a lot clearer, it allows for visual effects such as mustaches and pirate hats and lets up to 10 devices at a time link in for free. Also, unlike FaceTime, iPhone, iPad and Android users can all get in on the fun as long as they're willing to register for a Google+ account and take on a video plug-in. Google+ hasn't been the high-traffic equivalent of Facebook since its launch, but the 10-party improvement Google made to Hangouts this year was one of the best tech moves of the year. It may also be the best present Google has given families this holiday season. AirTime
Don't worry, we're not telling grandma to jump on the holiday version of Chatroulette. Airtime may have similar random-video roots and still allows users to go hunting for video chatters with shared interests, but it's also become a fairly easy way to chat since launching in June. Founded by the same guys who brought you Napster, Airtime is accessed through your Facebook account and lets users make video calls, leave video messages for one another or add YouTube videos to their libraries. Does your slack-jawed cousin still crack up whenever he sees the sledding scene from National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation? Go ahead and post it. Zoom.us
Maybe you have a stuffy relative who thinks video conferencing should be kept to the conference room. Maybe you are that relative and are most comfortable when the video screen's big enough to see someone in the back of the other room pick their nose, the table's long enough that it looks like it could extend through the screen and the conferencing hardware is sensitive enough to pick up that snide remark the slacker from accounting just mumbled under his breath. Boy, do we have a stuffy, buttoned-up service for you.