You don't have to miss out on the usefulness of the Net while you're on holidays. Just as you use it to communicate, research and do business online day-to-day, you can turn to the Web when you're on the road. In this story, we'll look at the main uses for the Web and how you can complete these tasks online away from home.
Of course, if you're planning a complete break from the world on an idyllic beach somewhere remote, we recommend that you keep these tips for travelling on business.
For most people, staying in e-mail touch away from home means a Web-based e-mail account. Hotmail is the best-known, but there are many other options, with loads of sites offering Web-based e-mail to keep you coming back to their homepages.
If e-mail will be your main method of communications, it makes sense to stick to one you think will be around for the duration of your holiday (not a given any more) and one that has a good record for staying online and weathering the ups and downs of the Net's performance.
Hotmail (security snafus aside), Yahoo and Excite are the big players in this area. All have fairly straightforward registration procedures, but vary when it comes to storage limits. Hotmail's is 2MB, for instance, Excite's is 3MB, and Yahoo gives you 6MB. If 6MB isn't enough, you can upgrade your box at Yahoo to 25MB for $US20 a year.
One option that looks tailor-made for travellers is i-mail. In addition to e-mail, you can send faxes and SMS messages from your (free) i-mail account. Like Hotmail, you can configure i-mail to check your POP e-mail so you can read it on the road. i-mail also has a pop-up box so that you can be alerted to any new e-mail even after you've surfed off to a new page.
Also, ask your ISP if it offers Web-based access to your POP account. Many do, and this will save you managing two in-boxes and will help you catch e-mail from people who don't know you're away.
For more on e-mail, turn to page 62 of this issue for tricks and tips.
Guide book publisher Lonely Planet offers a communication service for travellers, called eKno. Besides discounts for international calls, eKno offers e-mail, faxing, an encrypted storage facility and voicemail. eKno is a prepaid service, so you need to establish an account and pay in some funds to cover the services you want to use. Charges vary per service and sometimes per country, especially for calls. While not free, eKno does have some useful features that could save you money. You can, for instance, ring to check if you have any e-mail. If you don't, no need to pay for Net time at a Web cafe.
Tip: e-mail details of travel documents like travellers cheques and plane tickets to your Web-based e-mail account - if the originals go astray, you can access the numbers for replacements. Other important numbers, however, like the one on your passport, should be memorised; you don't want anyone to have this information but you, as identity theft is a big business worldwide.
If you think you'll need to access large files while on the road and believe taking a notebook is your only answer - think again! Some sites on the Web will let you store files.
Save yourself the trouble of carrying around heavy guidebooks by saving the required information from Web sites to such services. If you've booked anything for your holiday online, save it here as well, so you'll have details on the road if needed.
You can usually configure your online storage facility to let others (specified by you) access files, which means it may be a good place to store contact numbers and itinerary details you think other people may need to look up while you're away.
Even if you plan to take a notebook, online storage is still worth a look. Those away on business may value the peace of mind that comes from having a readily-accessible backup copy of important presentations or PowerPoint slides in the event of theft or hardware malfunction.
Like a lot of free services on the Net, no-charge online storage options are rapidly disappearing. One, idrive, announced in June that it would no longer offer its free service - warning users to remove their files within two weeks or risk losing that information. This can be a problem if you plan to rely on a site, only to find it out of business just at the moment you need it.
Xdrive is another site that charges for its storage service. This can actually be a blessing in disguise, helping the site you rely on to stay in business. Plus, there are ways around the fees. Xdrive, for example, lets you trial the service free for 15 days, which may be fine for shorter trips.
Tip: take the time before you travel to think about how you plan to use online storage on the road. If you're paying for expensive Web time in an Internet cafe, you don't want to be wasting time changing the configurations.
If you use short messaging service already, you'll know how useful it is for sending short notes. Even if you don't take your mobile phone with you (although you can use your phone in many countries - ask your telco), you can still send an SMS message using the Web.
Free services usually limit the length of the message and the number of messages you can send, but there's typically enough scope to send brief missives like "arrived safely, will call later" or "send more money!" (parents of backpackers be warned). SMS messages can also be used to arrange a time for an actual phone call when you're trying to work between vastly different timezones.
Be sure to follow the instructions carefully - some services require you to enter the country code before the mobile number, while others are designed to allow you to send messages just to Australian numbers.
Tip: get around character limits by prearranging for friends to forward the SMS messages you send. Also, do a couple of trial runs - you don't want to find out when you return that an important message wasn't received.
Web cafe directories
All this discussion of what you can do on the road using the Web is well and good, but you still need to get access. That's where Web cafes come in. For a fee, you'll get some time at a terminal in a Web cafe just about anywhere in the world. Heading to Azerbaijan, Botswana or Venezuela? You'll find a cybercafe in even the remotest regions nowadays.
There are many directories of Web cafes on the Net to help you find one at your destination, but, like any guide, they live or die by how often they're updated. In a volatile business like Web cafes - where outfits run the gamut of established, slick operations to fly-by-nighters - this can be a real problem. In most cities, however, the sheer number of cafes will ensure there's one for you. In remote regions, or if you're worried about gaining access, it might pay to get details from the cafe before you leave.
Tip: cybercafes are notorious hacker targets (as are computers set up at conferences for attendees to use). Public terminals can carry a Trojan horse that sends your user name and password to a hacker. If you plan to use a public terminal and are worried about such dangers, have Symantec's free security check perform a thorough virus sweep of the system first. Be sure to sign off completely from any free e-mail services you use.