After a long day of wandering through the Louvre, Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe, I traded stained-glass windows for the Microsoft variety. I had no choice. You can leave your cell phone, laptop and pager at home when you travel, but e-mail is getting much harder to escape.
In my case, a client absolutely had to be able to reach me while I was traveling, which was a problem because I did not know exactly where I was going to be each day. "How can I get a message to you?" she had asked. With little thought I replied, "Send me e-mail."
Which was how I ended up sitting in a Burger King late one night on the Champs- Elysees, repeatedly uttering the only French curse word I knew as I scoured the Francophile keyboard for commas and quotation marks. The rearrangement of the keys was merely the coda to an hour of frustration as I tried to make the computer access my account in the United States so that I could check my e-mail. By the time I finally hit "send" on my typo-ridden reply, I was out of patience and about $12.
"There has got to be a better way to do this," I thought.
There is. It's called research.
As anyone who regularly uses the Internet knows, e-mail has insinuated itself into our lives. But people are just starting to realize e-mail's potential as a communication tool when traveling. The good news is that there has been an explosion of free e-mail services on the World Wide Web, making the medium all the more universal from just about anywhere you can find a terminal connected to the Internet.
During my own travels over the past 18 months, I have found myself hunting down Internet cafes. I have needed them to correspond with those colleagues for whom "vacation" is a meaningless concept, let my friends and family know I'm alive, and, in occasional bouts of homesickness, to catch up on U.S. headlines and sports scores.
If this seems like cheating a vacation, think again. The legwork you devote to finding a terminal can improve the quality of your travels by getting you into obscure quarters and in touch with people other than tour guides and hotel concierges. My quest for a good Internet cafe has taken me to parts of Paris, Amsterdam and Melbourne that I might never have considered visiting otherwise. This is because finding Internet access away from home still takes finesse, navigation and a little luck. Internet cafes can be a bit like trendy big-city night clubs--here today, gone tomorrow--but their presence in the suburbs of major cities especially is becoming more stable.
First rule: Expect the unexpected. I ended up in that Paris Burger King by accident--one never would expect to find Internet access in a fast-food joint, but it's only one of the mildly strange places I've logged on in. I encountered a coin-operated Internet kiosk near Amsterdam's red-light district. In Melbourne, I discovered an Internet cafe tucked into a flower shop in the funky suburb of St. Kilda. Online time there was sold for about $7 an hour. The strangest "cybercafe" I visited, however, turned out to be a single personal computer in the home of a Whitianga, New Zealand, resident. It also was by far the cheapest, costing only about $2 an hour.
But cybercafes aren't the only place you can find a computer terminal. In Queenstown, New Zealand, I logged on at the visitor information center. While the other tourists were waiting in line for recommendations and bookings for hotels and activities, I was reviewing the options on the Internet. Libraries throughout Australasia, North America and Western Europe--especially those at universities--are making the Internet available to patrons. Some charge a fee, while others allow you to surf for free. (Beware of using interactive functions such as e-mail at free terminals, however; most of these are intended for research only and are marked accordingly.)
Transportation hubs are also a good place to look. At Port Columbus International Airport in Ohio, for example, there are several self-serve business centers that are Internet-capable. And video-game-like Internet terminals are popping up in bars and cafes around the world, although these coin-operated vehicles tend to be unreliable and limited in what functions they can perform. Need to log on in the middle of the night? Try Kinko's or a similar office-services shop--many are open 24 hours, and Internet access is a standard, albeit expensive, feature. (One important tip: Take advantage of time zones if at all possible to avoid being on-line during the peak U.S. usage periods of 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. This cuts down on transoceanic lag, lowering both frustration levels and costs.)
While some guidebooks (most notably the Lonely Planet series) are starting to list them, the best way to find Internet cafes internationally is--you were about to guess--on the Internet. Before you leave, visit one of the several Web sites that keep lists of such establishments and jot down addresses and telephone numbers.
It also is helpful to read any Internet FAQs (answers to frequently asked questions) on your destination. These FAQs often can be found in Usenet newsgroups, which can be accessed either by clicking the icon on your browser that looks like a little newspaper or, if you are the tweaky sort, by using a separate program such as Free Agent. There are more than 20,000 active Usenet newsgroups, so the odds are good that your destination will be covered by at least one of them, usually in the soc.culture listings (for example, a Usenet newsgroup about New Zealand is soc.culture.new-zealand). An occasional look at the Usenet newsgroup alt.cybercafes also is worthwhile for suggestions of and reactions to Internet cafes.
If you don't have time to do research before you depart, inquire at the nearest backpacker hostel when you arrive. These places are littered with fliers for Internet access aimed at homesick, technologically savvy university students and recent grads traveling for months at a time. If the hostel hosts don't know where to find access, the guests likely will. Other sources for clues: university campuses and the advertising sections of alternative newspapers.
Finding a computer is only half the frustration: Equally challenging is making a foreign or unfamiliar computer understand what you want to do.
Hard-core Net geeks use a program called Telnet to access their regular accounts remotely. But the easiest way to keep in touch is to open an account on and forward all of your electronic mail to one of the free Web-based e-mail services such as Hot Mail (which is run by Microsoft at http://www.hotmail.com), YahooMail (run by the search engine Yahoo at http://mail.yahoo.com) and Mailexcite (administered by the search engine Excite at http://www.mailexcite.com), although there are dozens of options from which to choose.
Sign up for Web-based e-mail by visiting the site and picking a name and password and, in some instances, providing demographic data. Open the account before you leave and give the address to family, friends and colleagues, not to mention other travelers you meet. When you get to a foreign terminal, you'll log onto the mail service's Web site, put in your name and password and be able to send and receive e-mail quite easily.
If the e-mail account you ordinarily use has a forwarding feature--an option that lets you divert incoming mail to a different account you indicate--don't forget to redirect all that mail to your new address. And remember to print out your e-mail address book and bring it with you. If you get really stuck for an important address, try the Internet version of directory assistance by pointing your Web browser to http://www.four11.com, where you can enter a name and, if you're lucky, retrieve a current e-mail address.
Finally, be patient. Reverting back to hunt-and-peck on the keyboard at the Paris Burger King was humbling--I cannot fathom what it's like to encounter a computer in a country like Japan or Saudi Arabia. In Napier, New Zealand, a library's Web browser was configured so that I could not show a friend information on the Canadian rock band Barenaked Ladies--a filter thought I was sending pornography. In Auckland a few days later, a power outage pulled the plug on my Internet access.
It left me no choice. I went to the post office. That's okay--I don't think the souvenir wine rack I was sending my roommate for his birthday would have traveled well over telephone lines anyway.
Ryan J. Donmoyer is a writer living in Alexandria.
Details: The Web, World-Wide
Check out these Web sites before you leave on your trip to find out whether your destination has a cybercafe or other public access terminal.
If you're really in a pinch, look for the nearest Kinko's (or, before you leave, check out http://www.kinkos.com). While the price for access is high, this is one of the few "name-brand" providers of by-the-hour Internet access worldwide.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
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