Getting on-line on the road—Cybercafes and Internet access while traveling
Postcards can take up to a week. Tweeting, posting updates, blogging, or simply sending your jealous friends a quick email rundown of what a fantastic vacation you're having is instantaneous.
(Plus, it's a great way to create installments of a trip journal for your own uses.)
There are four major types of places where you can get online:
- Cybercafes — A little room, disused office space, rented storefront, corner table in a pub or café, pretty much anywhere an enterprising entrepreneurs can plug in a bunch of computers and hook them up to his DSL connection. That's a Cybercafe. Access fees can range anywhere from 10¢ per minute to $10 an hour or more.
Internet cafes pop up and disappear with astonishing frequency, so even the resources for tracking them down such as Cybercaptive.com, Cybercafes.com, or www.world66.com/netcafeguide will not be totally up-to-date. You can always find them clustered around train stations, neighborhoods packed with tourist hotels, backpacker hangouts, and often just off major squares.
When in doubt, just ask around (your hotel, the tourist office, fellow travelers).
- Your Hotel — Increasingly, hotels have a PC jacked in and available for guest use. Sometimes its free; sometimes it costs a bit (rarely more than a regular Internet café, though). It's always convenient.
- Public Kiosks — These suck. They're basically like payphones, only with a big screen and a keyboard attached. I have yet to run across one that didn't make 9,600 dial-up speed seem like a dedicated T1 line (once, at a public terminal in a Spanish tourist office where it took 3-5 seconds for each keystroke I made to register on the screen, I swear that, after I was finally finished my short note to an editor and hit "send," a little guy burst out of a door from a back room with a slip of paper in his hand and scurried out of the place headed toward the nearby post office. I still suspect my "e-mail" arrived with a stamp on it.) Sometimes there are just out in public, like pay phones; more often you find them in hubs of public communications, like major post offices, phone offices, airports, and tourist offices. I've even run across them in department stores.
- Libraries — The big traveler's secret that no Internet café wants you to know about. Public libraries the world over offer access, for free, and usually to anyone who wanders in (you don't have to have a local library card). Of course, they put you on a time limit, and remember: no loud typing!
THE SECRET TO TYPING AN "@" ON A FOREIGN KEYBOARD
Foreign keyboards are tricky. The letters are sometimes arranged in a slightly different way, but that's merely annoying (for example, in Europe you'll frequently find yourself inserting an extraneous comma where you meant to type an "m").
What's really frustrating is that, not only is "@" not hovering over the "2" key like you're used to, it sometimes seems impossible to get the keyboard to produce the @ ("at symbol") at all, preventing you from addressing emails or making Twitter shout-outs.
Here's the secret: Foreign keyboards have a whole extra function key (alongside familiar Ctrl, Alt, Cmd, Option, etc.) called "Alt Gr."
If, as in the example above, the @ appears on a key crowded with three or more options, try holding down "Alt Gr" and hitting it.
The elusive @ will magically appear.Then there are all the ways you can jack in with your own equipment, if you happen to be traveling with a laptop or even an advanced handheld. (I have a separate page devoted to finding WiFi hotspots).
Oh, sure, I admit that I practice such things myself—even before Smartphones, I would sometimes find myself driving the back roads of Apulia, using my Palm and a Bluetooth connection to my cell phone to find a movie theater playing the Italian remake of Groundhog Day.
However, I also think it will be a sad day when our bodies go on vacation but our minds and our virtual selves remain chained to our lives back home, beholden to the email and spending all our spare time surfing the Web. Speaking of which:
Don't get caught in the Net
Though I realize none of you is going to take my advice on this one, there is a strong argument for unplugging yourself from the Web whilst on vacation and ignoring the very existence of the Internet while you're on the road.
Let your inbox fill up with spam, and let those anxious emails from co-workers and clients go unanswered. Just set up your email to bounce back an "out of office/on vacation" message and jack yourself out for the duration.
I'll use a budgetary excuse—postcards are much cheaper than 15 minutes on-line—but really I feel this is a philosophical issue. You're spending a big wad of cash to travel the world, so don't waste some of that precious time (probably an hour tracking down, and then sitting in, an Internet cafe) keeping plugged into your life back home.
Your work can wait (you're on vacation, remember). Your friends? You can regale them with the tales when you return. Your family? Call them as frequently as is appropriate for brief conversations.
True, the Internet is a fabulous tool for making the world a smaller place. But the whole point of travel is to discover how big and diverse the world truly is. Rarely does anyone have thrilling foreign adventures whilst sitting in the glow of a PC screen in a rented storefront. Get out there! Enjoy the vacation!