As an instant, global messaging and information service, the Internet is particularly beguiling to travelers.
Send a postcard home from abroad, and the card will probably arrive back in the States a week or two after the sender does. Snap a picture with a digital camera, attach it to an electronic mail message, and send it home as a digital postcard in a matter of seconds. By tapping into the World Wide Web, the traveler can get detailed weather information, airplane and train timetables, news and sports scores from back home, and even language translation services.
The problem is, how does one get access to the Web away from home?
There are many alternatives, depending on one's budget, willingness to carry electronic gear, and tolerance for messing with wires and software. Foreign travel presents challenges to Web users because of the wide variations in telephone services they are likely to encounter.
In general, telecommunication infrastructures outside the United States are not always as easy, cheap and reliable as they are here. Phone systems in Europe and Asian rim countries are generally more reliable than less developed areas.
Some veteran travelers who absolutely must have access to e-mail from abroad often carry an assortment of exotic telephone adapters, Mickey Mouse-eared acoustic coupler modems that fit over a telephone handset, alligator clips, extra cords and wires, and software manuals. They also contact their Internet service providers to obtain technical assistance telephone numbers that can be used in emergencies.
It is important to test connections before leaving home. There are few things more frustrating than spending vacation time trying to troubleshoot balky software or go searching for equipment in a strange place.
Wise travelers start testing their strategies a week or more before departure, tracking down local access or toll-free connection numbers, setting up e-mail accounts, contacting hotels to find out about their Web and phone connections, applying for telephone calling cards, configuring connection software, and dialing foreign access numbers to make sure there are no incompatibilities.
Choosing a provider
People who travel frequently must choose their Internet service provider (ISP) carefully, looking for a service that either has lots of local access numbers (known as points of presence, or POPs) or a toll-free 800-number service for connections without long-distance fees. For those who already have access to the Internet but are shopping for a new ISP, the best place to start is www.thelist.com.
There are several thousand Internet service providers in the United States and Canada, ranging from giant services with hundreds of local dial-in numbers around the world (most of them in the United States, of course), to small, local providers with a single dial-in number.
America Online is the world's biggest ISP. Most of its 16 million subscribers have their systems set up to dial a local access number in their hometowns. But AOL makes it particularly easy to find local access numbers when traveling, thus avoiding long-distance charges, either by typing the keyword Access, or by clicking on Access Numbers on the sign-up screen.
Earthlink (www.earthlink.net) has more than 2,700 local access numbers in North America and a few dozen overseas. Compuserve (www.compuserve.com), now a division of America Online, has the most extensive network of international POPs, but surcharges are usually added.
For those who do not want to bother looking up a local access number in each new town, or whose nearest local number is still a toll call away, several of the major service providers offer 800-number access.
If the traveler is going to spend time away from major cities, it often makes sense to pay an extra $6 an hour to AT&T; Worldnet (10 cents a minute) for 800-number access to the network. Earthlink charges $24.95 a month for five hours of toll-free access from anywhere in the United States, plus $4.95 for additional hours.
AOL offers access to its system via a toll-free number, 800-716-0023, for callers anywhere in the United States, Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands. The surcharge is 10 cents a minute.
The easiest way to keep in e-mail contact while traveling is through Net mail, also called Web mail, which is Internet e-mail that can be sent and received through virtually any computer connected to the Internet and equipped with Web-browsing software (Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator are the two most popular browsing programs). Browser-based Net mail is not as fancy as specialized e-mail software, but it is vastly more convenient, especially for travelers. It is also popular among people who do not own their own computers, because they can gain access to their personal mail from computers at work, from cybercafes or libraries, or from a friend's computer.
Most of the larger service providers allow their customers to send and receive e-mail from any computer in the world that has Web access. An AT&T; Worldnet subscriber who is traveling without a computer, for example, can check his or her AT&T; e-mail from a cybercafe or a friend's Net-connected computer anywhere in the world by logging on to http://netmail.att.net. America Online offers Net mail access. Check with your ISP before leaving home, because some services require you to register for Web mail in advance.
An even more intriguing option is one of the free Web-based e-mail services, like Hotmail, Yahoo or Rocketmail. The largest free Web-based e-mail provider is the Microsoft Corporation's Hotmail (www.hotmail.com), which places advertising banners on the screen. If the user already has a standard Internet mail account, most of the free e-mail services can be configured to receive and send mail through that primary account, but some corporate e-mail systems do not allow it. Be sure to check in advance. Otherwise, one can simply set up a separate e-mail address and notify friends and family of the new temporary address.
The lightest full-featured laptop computers today weigh at least three pounds, and by the time the traveler packs in a power adapter, diskette drive, CD-ROM drive and other accessories, the idea of traveling light and visiting a cybercafe sounds more appealing.
Cybercafes, or Internet cafes, as they are often known, are coffee houses that sell Web access along with cappuccino. There are more than 1,500 of them in dozens of countries, and the most extensive lists of them I've found are on the Web at www.cybercaptive. com and www.netcafes.com. A cybercafe typically has a high-speed connection to the Internet and charges the equivalent of $5 or so per half hour of Net access.
Similar public-access Internet kiosks are beginning to proliferate in airports, hotels and other places frequented by travelers.
Some hotels are making life easier for computer-toting guests, including the installation of high-speed Net hookups in guest rooms. Call or fax ahead to find out what Internet-related options there are.
Wireless radio and cellular modems are increasingly popular for people who want to connect a portable PC to the Internet from a car or other location where hooking up to a phone line is impractical.
Travelers who have a cellular phone can, depending on the model, equip it with a cellular modem that attaches to a PC, enabling access to the Internet wherever a cell phone works. American cell phones are generally not compatible with the GSM cell phone standard used in Europe and the rest of the world, however. As with any cell phone call, connections to the Web via cell phone can be erratic, and the cost of adding a cellular modem and adapters can easily reach several hundred dollars.
Radio-based modems have some advantages over cellular modem connections, but they also typically cost several hundred dollars and require monthly access fees of $30 to $50 or more depending on services. The radio modems are about the size of a paperback book, weigh about a pound and attach to a portable computer much like a traditional external modem.
Connection speeds are usually very slow, but adequate for e-mail and simple Web browsing. Newer wireless modems now being tested offer higher speeds. One of the leading wireless modem companies, Metricom (www.metricom. com) recently began offering service in parts of New York City.
The Palm Computing division of the 3Com Corp. recently introduced the Palm VII wireless hand-held computer, a $600 shirt-pocket device that not only keeps an address book, calendar and helpful traveler's software but also allows the user to send and receive e-mail and receive news headlines and stock quotes from the Web.
Some day, the futurists assure us, the Internet will be ubiquitous and universal, available from public terminals and small, personal communicators that we carry in our pockets.
Until then, staying wired on a vacation requires some planning and determination. Confronted with all the choices and potential technical complexity, some travelers may decide the wisest plan is simply to take a vacation from technology.