When Trudy and Roxana Bell mounted their tandem bicycle for a 650-mile trip, they wanted to stay in touch with relatives and friends. Along their route, the mother-and-daughter team used the free Internet access at public libraries to send emails about their adventures. They even went online to track down the location of a campground.
The Bells are part of a growing trend. More and more travelers are logging on to the Internet and staying in touch with those at home electronically while they're on the road. Postcards are pretty, but travelers who plug in can send detailed missives and scads of pictures, and, in return, they can hear news from home. They can also go online to check out Web sites like aaa.com for driving directions and www.zagat.com for restaurant reviews, so they don't have to lug guidebooks around.
The technology for staying in touch is now almost as easy to use as a city map. Many mobile phones can transmit both text messages and pictures: When June Kinoshita and her two young daughters headed to Florida's Disney World in November, they used Kinoshita's T-Mobile camera phone to send relatives at home shots of giraffes nibbling leaves outside their hotel window.
Travelers with computers can do even more than that. Those packing laptops equipped with wireless modems can transmit and receive messages in public "hot spots," places offering wireless Internet connectivity. In 2001, there were a mere 1,020 hot spots around North America, according to Gartner, an international research group. By the end of this year, that number could grow to 50,800 in North America and 132,000 worldwide. By the end of next year, hot spots will be as accessible as ATMs, says Gartner's Ian Keene.
For now, when music teacher Tina Erickson travels, she connects to the Internet the old-fashioned way: plugging a phone cord into a telephone jack. Erickson subscribes to America Online because AOL has local access numbers even in out-of-the-way towns. Since Erickson's dogs often travel with her, she frequently scans a Web site that lists canine-cordial hotels, www.dogfriendly.com, to find the next night's stop.
Another popular way that travelers can jump online is at Internet cafés, which serve up Web-connected computers along with lattes. But beware: If you plan to use an Internet café, think twice before paying for your online time by typing a credit card number into one of those widely used machines. Hackers have been known to insert programs that copy credit card numbers. To get around that problem, choose a café that clocks your time at an Internet terminal and then bills you at the counter. Also, ask the café proprietor to help you clear out files containing sensitive information.
Internet cafés, public libraries, hot spots, your cell phone—these are only a few of the options for logging on when you're away from home. Today, you can stay connected via email and access the Internet from almost anywhere.
An Internet access guide for people on the move
AT THE AIRPORT Your best option for an airport connection is at an airline club lounge. Not a member? Pay a one-time access fee of about $50 to utilize one of these quiet retreats, which are typically equipped with dependable computers, wireless hookups, and comfortable chairs. Also, you can find access at a branch of Laptop Lane (www.wayport.net/laptoplane) or PowerOasis www.poweroasis.com.
AT THE HOTEL In-room Internet access is becoming a standard amenity at mid-range to high-end hotels. You can specifically search for wired hotels at the Web sites of many chains, including Hilton (www.hilton.com), Joie de Vivre (www.jdvhospitality.com), Marriott (www.marriott.com), and Wyndham (www.wyndham.com). AAA TourBooks indicate whether hotel rooms have modem hookups or high-speed access.
ON THE TOWN Hot spots are becoming as common as Starbucks—in fact, most of the coffee chain's locations now offer wireless hookups for laptop users. For a list of these hot spots and thousands of others in the country and abroad, visit www.jiwire.com. Some spots are free but most require you to sign up for an account with a service such as T-Mobile. You can pay by the minute, the day, or the month, with rates up to $10 a day. If you're without a laptop, log on from a rentable machine at a Kinko's photocopying shop (www.kinkos.com) or at an Internet café. The Web site www.cybercafes.com lists 4,200 Internet cafés in 140 countries around the world.
ON THE PLANE The ubiquitous presence of the Internet has most recently extended to the skies. If you book with Continental, United, or US Airways, you can pay about $16 to send and receive email in flight (albeit through a slow connection) from your laptop. Several international airlines have installed a more advanced system that allows you to go online with a real-time high-speed connection. For a list of these airlines, visit www.connexionbyboeing.com.
Illustration by William Duke
This article was first published in May 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.