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.