Keeping in touch with the folks back home

Bill Steltzer of West Grove, Pennsylvania, lamented that on a May ’07 trip to France he had trouble finding public Web-access points.

“Now that computer ownership is universal, the Internet cafés have vanished,” he wrote. “We used to find public libraries good spots for Internet access but not on this past trip. At the mediatheques (small-town libraries) that we visited, computer use required local residency and membership cards. So let’s update this topic. What is the most convenient and, hopefully, the least expensive way to keep in touch with the folks back home?”

Bill worded his question broadly enough to include all forms of communication, and ITN asked readers to write in on the subject.

Where can travelers access the Internet these days? (Be specific as to locations or types of establishments in specific cities or countries. Include costs of access plus when you were there.) Perhaps you rely on a Web-enabled PDA to correspond from overseas. Does your BlackBerry® work everywhere? Text messaging? Do you blog with a laptop? What sort of world phone or phone cards do you recommend? (Again, include costs, pertinent addresses and the month/year of your trip.) Or are you a postcard writer?

Below are responses received. If you would like to weigh in, write to Keeping in Touch with the Folks Back Home, c/o ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818, or e-mail (include the address where you receive ITN). Photos are welcome.

I experienced the lack of Internet availability for the first time in August ’07, but only in Great Britain.

We spent 12 days in Ireland first, and all except one hotel there offered the free use of a computer for its guests. Some offered more than one terminal. The one without free use, Clontarf Castle in Dublin, charged €15 ($21) for an hour, which I thought was outrageous.

We had problems once we crossed the Irish Sea. We found some Internet cafés in Wales but none in England. However, many places were wired for wireless access, such as pubs and our B&B.

Since I’ve never encountered this problem elsewhere in the world, including Provence, France, where I spent a week this May, my solution would be to carry my laptop the next time I visit Great Britain. I have one that weights only 3½ pounds, chosen for its light weight.

Nancy Tan

Fresno, CA

I have been away each of the last few years for from three weeks to 3½ months. I never call home but depend solely on e-mail for my communication back to family and friends.

My family always has my itinerary and can call me if there is an emergency. This has never happened. And, of course, I can call them if I have an emergency. This has never happened.

I never call to say, “I’m now in El Salvador” or “I’m in Iceland.” That, to me, is silly.

I seldom send postcards, as from some countries they never arrived and in Western Europe they can cost $2-$3.

Finding an Internet café is not as easy as it used to be, but it is better than lugging a computer all over and having the worry about guarding it and getting it through airport security checkpoints.

Here is the general rule of thumb: the wealthier the country, the fewer Internet cafés you will find. The poorer the country, the more there are available. However, sometimes you just have to know where to look.

The area around any university is likely to be full of Internet cafés. I found that to be true in Galway, Ireland, in October ’06.

In August ’07 in Hamburg, Germany, in a bookstore in the middle of a mall I found an Internet “café” that charged only €2 an hour. There also were many Internet places in the nontouristy areas where more immigrants now live. The same was true in Berlin.

Some hotels offer free Internet for their guests. Always ask, if you see a business center. I was lucky to have this in Berlin and in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Guatemala City, Guatemala.

In Central and South America and Mexico, Internet places are plentiful and generally run $1-2 an hour (in local currency). The machines are usually new and quite fast. The fastest machine I ever used was in a little hill town in El Salvador — amazing! It is fun for me in those countries to often be the only “gringa” in the place.

I am sure that for business travelers this is a more pressing issue, but most of them carry their own equipment.

For the casual tourist, it is often a question of asking the locals and venturing out of the tourist areas. If you are afraid to do that, then ask at your hotel, take a cab, go with a buddy and always let someone know where you are going and about what time you will be back.

Carolyn Taylor

Memphis, TN

On a cruise to the Baltics with Princess Cruises which started Aug. 30, 2007, all connection speeds were adequate.

The Hilton Copenhagen Airport had free wireless access included in the room price. I used it with a laptop.

The following locations were used to access hotmail:

• in St. Petersburg, Russia, the State Hermitage Museum’s coffee/pastry counter (20 rubles for 20 minutes);

• in Tallinn, Estonia, in the town square, the Internet café next to the liquor/convenience store and across from the large used/new book store (€1.7 for 30 minutes), and

• within Oslo, Norway’s, central train station (€3 minimum for 90 minutes; I gave 60 minutes away).

Hope this helps!

Carrie Gillespie

Kew, Richmond, U.K.

My wife, Sharrell, and I travel quite a bit, probably going twice a year to Europe plus making other, closer trips. I carry a T-Mobile Dash mobile phone, a combination worldwide cell phone and e-mail/Internet-access unit very similar to the well-known BlackBerry, though the Dash is much smaller and lighter and runs Windows Mobile 6 software, so it is compatible with the usual applications you run at home.

It features “push” technology for the e-mail, and I will automatically receive the subject plus the first few lines of a message so that, if it’s important, I can download the entire message using cellular or wireless networks.

Since I am still somewhat employed (I go into the L.A. office once a week), I also carry a Sony VGN-T150 ultralight notebook with me. It has all the features, including a 10-inch ultrahigh-resolution screen, a DVD burner and full wireless capabilities plus access to the cellular network if wireless is unavailable — all in a 3-pound package. I can connect to my office computer in Los Angeles from anywhere in the world using

Since my Dash phone already has a data-access plan, for which I pay about $30 a month (on top of my regular cell phone bill), I can use that same data plan with my Sony notebook. T-Mobile HotSpot coverage is included. However, data charges while roaming in Europe, as an example, are charged at $15 per megabyte of data downloaded.

I use Gmail (free Web-based e-mail from Google) as my e-mail client because it has excellent spam and virus protection included and has enormous storage space (close to three gigabytes), plus I can access it either with my Dash or Sony.

The latest convenience to hit Europe this year, versus last, is free high-speed WiFi at almost all of the hotels where we stay. (All the hotels of the Campanile chain in France have free WiFi.) Therefore, I can read the e-mail headers using the Dash and, unless it’s an emergency, wait until I get to the hotel in the evening to download the entire message and read the rest of the messages at my leisure without having to pay the premium roaming data charges.

By the way, I’m writing this from Freiberg, Germany, using free WiFi from Hotel Helene (Staufener Str. 46, 79115 Freiburg, Germany; phone [49] 0761 42929, fax 0761 45210 29,, a wonderful little place for only €58 ($82) a night.

Robert R. Rann

Huntington Beach, CA

I don’t own a BlackBerry, never take my cell phone abroad and do not know how to use the computer, so I write postcards to stay in touch, lots of postcards.

“Do unto others. . . .” I love receiving postcards from others too.

Nancy Webster

Naples, FL

Obviously, almost everywhere you go there are Internet cafés to utilize. I’m fine with that, as long as it doesn’t keep the group waiting while someone “has to check in” back home. Also, with the Internet, time loses meaning and so you can spend way too much time tied to the terminal instead of experiencing your trip.

My favorite is to find postcards and purchase stamps. They’re usually wonderful and colorful, and an area’s postcards highlight what it is known for.

Prior to leaving the U.S., I print out clear mailing labels, which not only saves time spent on writing but, in my case, are also legible!

Then you simply have to write your message. Because the space is limited, you need to be concise and thus not ramble on and on about something your reader couldn’t care less about.

If I think it will be difficult or too time consuming to find postcards, prior to departure I go online and print out a picture of where I’m going. I print several in standard postcard size on heavy stock paper, then I put the labels on them. All I have to do then is capture my memories. This makes it very simple and stress free.

The final reasons I like doing this is to send something from the country I’m in, to use the lost art of handwriting and to spend as much time as possible enjoying my vacation/trip instead of being cooped up in an Internet café.

Peggy Long

Portland, OR

My husband and I travel frequently and, since he is a practicing attorney and I own a business, we need to be constantly connected to home. We have given up on our laptops, since our communication is almost always in the form of e-mail, but our trusty quad-band BlackBerrys never leave our sides.

It is true that opening attachments on the BlackBerry can be a long, tedious and often futile task; however, when we need to do that, we avail ourselves of our hotel’s business center.

We found that our PDAs worked perfectly in such far-flung places as Viet Nam, Laos, Cambodia, Australia, New Zealand, China, Israel and Thailand, but be aware that Japan and Korea have a totally different network system that does not allow reception.

During our last visit to Romania, about three years ago, our BlackBerrys could not yet detect service. However, while traveling in a remote corner of the country my husband’s BlackBerry began to chirp. He was jubilant. Our driver informed us that we were close enough to Ukraine to pick up their signal. My husband was able to get off several messages to his office while standing on a mountaintop near the border.

We have nine grandchildren who enjoy receiving postcards. Knowing the idiosyncrasies of overseas mail, immediately upon checking into our hotel we purchase and send cards, thereby insuring that generally half will arrive in the U.S. before our return. Since we provide our adult children with a detailed itinerary before we leave, an “Arrived OK” e-mail to each of them is sufficient.

When we do venture into an Internet cafe, as we did in Romania, we now find we are surrounded by game-playing youths rather than earnestly e-mailing citizens as in the past several years.

While I could not be without my BlackBerry, I do miss those halcyon days when being on vacation meant being basically incommunicado.

Judith Beiner

Boca Raton, FL

My wife, Carol, and I have learned that, when taking international vacations, we really don’t have any need to be contacting our children or grandchildren. We usually are gone between 21 and 30 days and have found that everyone gets along quite nicely for that period of time.

We always leave an itinerary so, in case of an emergency (serious sickness or death — the house burning down doesn’t qualify), the kids can contact us.

We so thoroughly enjoy traveling, meeting new friends and experiencing new cultures that we rather enjoy being “out of touch” with the everyday events of our Stateside life.

By the way, we don’t watch the news on TV very much when traveling either — another pleasant exclusion from regular habits.

Roger Hans

Grand Rapids, MI

In the past eight months, I have made five trips to Europe, including France, Greece and Britain. I was surprised to read that someone had difficulty finding Internet access. I had no problem at all.

While staying in the Marais district of Paris, I noticed Internet cafés in three different locations within only a few blocks of my hotel. In the Dordogne, a more remote location, to be sure, there were two cafés within 10 miles of my house. In Greece, driving all over the Peloponnese and several islands, I found them everywhere.

In addition, while I confess to staying in great hotels, they all had free computer access for guests only, usually in the lobby. So Internet access was not a problem, as long as it was working, the satellites were in synch and some guest was not hogging the computer.

But for when e-mail is too slow, and it may be, I carry a great cell phone — quad-band, unlocked. When arriving at my destination, I stop in the mobile phone store (almost always to be found in any major airport), purchase a prepaid SIM card and insert it in my phone, then I can call anywhere anytime.

If I need to use my phone in another way, I can temporarily remove the SIM card and use the phone — although I pay much higher rates since I am then going through my provider.

Text messaging is simple, if the person you are trying to reach understands texting. It’s best to make that connection before leaving home so he or she will know what to expect.

My cell phone, by the way, is a Motorola SLVR. I understand that this service is available on other phones, but call your provider and make sure it works and that you have the proper passwords to use when accessing the SIM card.

My phone also has Internet and Web-browser services, which I don’t need to use very often.

As an aside, I have used this phone method in at least six European countries and it has never failed me anytime day or night.

I find the most expensive way to keep in touch with the folks back home is sending postcards or letters at exorbitant postal rates. I have learned serious appreciation for the USPS when out of the country.

Patricia Arcaro

Glen Mills, PA

On a 3-week trip to South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zambia in April-May ’07, I sent text messages almost daily to our family members (daughter, son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren). It was easy because I wrote one message and sent it at one time to all six of them. The grandchildren, in particular, loved it and sent messages asking me to keep it up.

I have a Cingular (now AT&T) cell phone equipped for international and domestic use. My cell phone number is the same both at home and overseas and is the one that I have been using ever since I got my cell phone many years ago.

Before I left home, I advised Cingular of my travel plans. They cleared me for the international use of my cell phone and added about $5 to my monthly bill for the time I was out of the USA. The only additional charge was the roaming charge, which varied by country but was not much since the transmission of text messages does not take much time.

Texting was a rapid and relatively inexpensive way to communicate and did not take much time. I typed out the message, picked out the addressees and hit ‘Send.’ I was able to transmit nearly everywhere I went, even in remote areas, except, of course, while flying.

There were only a very few locations that did not have service. In those few cases, the message would go out when we were again in a service area. It did not depend on someone’s being available to answer the phone at the other end. Each person got the message at their convenience when they were able to check their phone.

Of course, it was sometimes hard to type out the text messages while bouncing around in a bus on some pretty rough roads in the Namibian desert!

D. Mason Wells

Gainesville, FL

It’s simple. Before we leave we tell our friends and relatives that we will see them upon our return, experiences and stories in tow.

If we choose, we will send a postcard, especially to our grandchildren.

If it’s an emergency, we will call.

After all, it’s called a vacation.

C.A. Nulk

San Jose, CA