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THE CUTTING EDGE / PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY | PC FOCUS /
LAWRENCE J. MAGID

How to Stay in Touch Even When Out of Town

June 02, 1997|LAWRENCE J. MAGID

I'm traveling with my family throughout England, France and Spain, but just because we're far from home doesn't mean we're out of touch. E-mail follows us almost wherever we go. And we're getting it without having to part with too many pounds, francs or pesetas.

Of course, dealing with mail from the workaday world of home doesn't exactly make for a relaxing vacation; but my trip, to a large extent, is a working one. My editors need my articles, and I need to be in touch with colleagues at home and abroad.

I'm packing a notebook PC, but even if you're not, there are ways to stay in touch using public facilities available in most cities and some small towns around the world. Here are some tips that work for me regardless of whether I'm in Bakersfield or Barcelona.

To begin with, be sure you have the right equipment and accessories and test them before you leave home. Aside from your portable PC and modem, you'll need a phone cord and, if you're traveling overseas, you may need plug adapters for the local telephone and electrical systems.

Today's notebook PCs come with universal power supplies that work in any country, but American electrical plugs don't work in Europe and some other continents. You can buy adapters at travel and electronics stores for as little as $2. The same goes for the phone connector. I've used my American modem throughout Europe, Asia and Latin America, but modular phone jacks vary by country.

Even if you're staying in the United States, it's a good idea to take along an electrical extension cord with multiple outlets. I'm amazed at the number of hotels--including business hotels--that don't have extra electrical outlets. Also, take along a "Y" adapter that lets you plug in your modem without having to disconnect the hotel phone.

Most hotel phone systems in the United States and abroad will work with standard modems, but some don't support touch-tone. Your communications software should allow you to switch to "pulse" dialing, which works almost anywhere.

Next comes the issue of connectivity. Unless you don't mind paying long-distance bills, you'll want some way to connect via a local call. That's rarely a problem in the United States if you use a major national online service or Internet provider. America Online, CompuServe, Prodigy Internet, Netcom, AT&T, Microsoft Network and others offer "points of presence" in all major cities and many smaller towns.

AOL, CompuServe and Microsoft Network also offer service internationally. I've had no trouble getting on AOL with local calls in London, Paris and Barcelona. AOL users can use the keyword "access" to look up local numbers in the United States and abroad.

There is no extra cost when traveling in the United States, but there are surcharges when using AOL from abroad. Also, many overseas phone companies (and hotels) charge by the minute for local calls, as I so painfully found out when I checked out of my hotel in Paris. And don't worry about busy signals. Whatever problems they may have at home, AOL's overseas network works great.

If you get your e-mail from an organization or Internet service provider that doesn't offer national or international access, you may still be in luck. Many ISPs offer "pop mail," which makes it possible to get your mail even if you're logged on to another service. I use a small ISP in Palo Alto, but I never have to make long-distance calls to get my mail. As long as I'm connected to any Internet provider that supports standard mail protocols, I can get my e-mail automatically.

Most service providers, including MSN and the Windows 95 versions of CompuServe, AOL and Prodigy Internet, support incoming pop mail, though it doesn't necessarily work the other way around.

To use pop mail, you need a compatible e-mail program like Eudora or the mail software built into Netscape and Microsoft Internet Connection. You also need to know how to configure your e-mail software with the right "pop3" protocols, so check with your ISP or company network administrator before you leave home and test it before you hit the road.

You can also ask your ISP to temporarily forward your mail to a service that has access in the areas to which you're traveling. Although it's possible to use AOL to access my regular mail, I find it faster to use AOL's built-in e-mail system, so I had my ISP forward mail to my AOL account. If you don't have an account with a national or international provider, it's easy to set one up, even if you only plan to keep it for a month.

Another option is the i-Pass Alliance (http://www.ipass.com), which serves as an international roaming service for the Web. Subscribers get a piece of software that automatically configures their machine to connect to a local ISP, which fetches their mail from their home ISP.

If you don't have a portable PC or just want to travel light, you can also access the Net from public machines. Many major cities now have Internet cafes where you can rent time on the Internet. You can also get free access at many public and university libraries.

If you can connect to the Web, you can get your mail for free by using Hotmail or Rocketmail. Hotmail (http://www.hotmail.com) and Rocketmail (http://www.rocketmail.com) are advertiser-supported services that let you send or receive e-mail simply by going to their site on the Web.

You can configure the services to pick up your regular mail (assuming it supports pop3) or you can have mail sent (or forwarded) to your Hotmail or Rocketmail e-mail address. You can find listings of cybercafes in the United States and other countries at http://www.yahoo.com/Society_and_Culture/Cyberculture/Internet_Cafes/

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Lawrence J. Magid can be reached via e-mail at magid@latimes.com. His World Wide Web page is at http://www.larrysworld.com

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