Going on vacation? If you want to check your e-mail while you're away from your home Internet account, it's easy to do -- it just doesn't look that way at first. Checking your e-mail remotely is one of those little tech tricks that makes those who know how to do it look terribly clever to those who don't. Actually, it's about as tricky as using an ATM card to withdraw cash from a bank account, but with none of the service charges -- it only involves knowing a trivial piece of information or two and clicking on a few buttons.

Here's the simple version of how the e-mail process works: When somebody sends you e-mail, it sits at your Internet provider's mail server until you check your mail and pick it up. You probably do that with a program like Qualcomm's Eudora or Microsoft's Outlook Express on your home computer, but you can pick it up remotely with just about any of the free, Web-based mail services, such as Yahoo! Mail or Hotmail . (If you don't have one of these accounts by now, you're missing one of the great freebies of the digital age.) For your Web mail account to pick up mail from your home account, all you'll need is the name of your Internet provider's server, as well as your logon name and password.

Generally, a mail server address starts with "mail" and ends with the provider's domain name, as in "mail.ispname.com." If you don't know the name of your ISP's mail server, just call it and ask. Armed with that seemingly insignificant piece of information, you're now free to check your e-mail from anywhere.

While you're setting up your Web-based account to pick up your home e-mail (on all the services I've set up to receive mail this way, this is something you can do by clicking the "options" button when you're logged in to your account), enter your user name and password. You may be asked to choose which "port" you want to use, but don't worry -- you don't actually have to know what this means, since the default setting of port 110 is nearly always the right one.

When you're setting up to pick up your e-mail via a free, Web-based account, you're also generally asked whether you want to take your mail off the server or not. If you choose to leave the mail on your ISP's server, your mail messages will still show up as "new" the next time you check your e-mail at home. This is useful if you have any reason for wanting to keep all your e-mail on your home PC, but if you just like to keep your e-mail conversations going and don't care to waste disk space by saving all your messages, choose the option that takes your mail off your ISP's server. After setting up your Web-based mail account to pick up your home mail, go back to your Web mail service's inbox and click on the button that says "POP mail" or "external mail." (POP stands for "Post Office Protocol," a standard way for computers to handle inbound messages.) If you have any mail waiting for you there, you'll now get it just as if you were tethered to your home PC -- you'll just be seeing it in a Web browser window, not in the Eudora or Outlook interface you're used to.

America Online does not use the same system as Internet service providers, but the process is even simpler. Most cybercafes have America Online software on their computers anyway, but thanks to a service for AOL users called "Netmail" AOL subscribers can check their accounts from any Web-connected computer. Log on to this Web site, enter your user name and password, and Netmail will replicate your AOL inbox inside a browser window. Netmail 2.0 is still in the "preview" stage right now, according to AOL, which probably explains why we got a few "We're sorry, this NetMail server cannot support any more users right now" messages when we tried to log in this way -- the Web equivalent of a busy signal.

If any of you Beltway workaholics actually want to check your work e-mail from your getaway vacation spot, it probably won't be quite as simple as checking your home e-mail. Aside from using screwy e-mail programs in the first place, many sizable offices have "firewalls" set up that prevent people outside the office from getting access to e-mail with just a logon name and password -- for systems administrator-types, there are security concerns and risks of headaches that most would rather not have to worry about.

Ask the tech support folk at your office what you need to do to get mail from outside the office. If nothing else, they should at least be able to show you how to forward your mail to a free Web account. If you have to go this route, you won't be able to respond with the same address as you do when you're in the cube, but most folks won't notice as long as the name listed on your Web mail account is the same as the name on your work account. Really, though -- perhaps you should stop worrying about all this and work on your tan for a change.

Question? E-mail musgrovem@washpost.com.