7.5 Electronic Mail

Email is a critical tool for most travelers. You are able to keep in touch with friends and family, reliably communicate changes in travel plans, and coordinate overseas calls.

Home Account

Make sure you have a reliable email account that you can read using a web browser, as there is convenient access at Internet Cafes and libraries.

Most travellers are using free accounts, such as Yahoo Mail, GMail, or Outlook. They can keep an address book and folders. Two or more people can send messages back and forth in real-time if they are using texting applications.

Free Email Address Directory
Free Email Providers Guide
Free Email Guide
Best Free Email Services

Free email may seem too good to be true, but they are convenient for temporary accounts. You usually have to fill-out an invasive questionnaire. If you don't login within a specified time, they dump everything, and I haven't seen anyone get them to retrieve it yet. I would rather pay for an account from a service that I know well. Those offering free accounts often have an upgrade to a paid account.

If you already have an account with an ISP or at work, and you are storing files on that system, it may still be a good idea to get a free account for security reasons. If the new account cannot pull email from the old ones using popmail, just forward email from your old account to the new one until you return home.

For complete lists of ISPs, visit:
Internet Access Providers Meta-List

If you are resigning from an organization and they have provided you with an email account, you might convince them to leave it open so that you can "answer important questions they might have while you are away"! They may not disable your account, even after a year, if you stay in contact with them -- send them friendly notes, and the occasional postcard. I did this on my last trip and everyone in the office loved it -- they can live their dreams through you. However, this isn't a good long-term solution for something you depend on, nor do most people want their personal information on company servers.

Access On The Road
Access with mobile phones is ubiquitous, and wi-fi seems to be available in all but the smallest of villages these days, and can be found at hostels, telephone centers, business centers, and computer stores. Here are some of my favorite places.

Libraries are one of my favorite institutions, since they are comfortable and quiet places to get out of the weather and rest my feet; let you stay as long as you want, and rarely try to sell you anything. They also have toilets, which can be a hassle to find in some places. Access is even free in most US libraries, and in many overseas, otherwise it is for a small fee. Some even let you print from their machines, and also have copy machines.

Be aware that your friends may have accounts that have a limited number of hours of access per month, and that you may be using up their quota, so offer to pay for what you use, especially if it is relatively expensive for them; but don't be surprised if they refuse.

Internet Cafes
Internet cafes are just about everywhere. They cost anywhere from $0.50 to $12 an hour. Blogs and email are convenient ways to reach out to many people. If you cannot connect back to your system, you can send your messages to a friend who has your login or email distribution list, and they can send it. There are also sites for automating the list process.
Cafe and Wi-Fi Lists
Wi-Fi-FreeSpot Directory
Access is available at many airports, including wireless connectivity for laptops.

In ancient times, univerities were the only places I could find Internet access overseas. I would visit the system administrator at a computer lab and explain what I was doing. They would usually give me a temporary account. Remember to extend an offer for lunch or a beer when you are done. Otherwise, hang out near the college bars, meet some of the students, and they will probably let you email from their account.

Getting Connected

I have seen many people lose their address books one way or another, and were not able to contact any of the people they met during their year of travel. The worst part is when you want to visit people you met on the road, but impossible when you arrive in their area of the world.

Be prepared with a printout of your email addresses and URLs. There are a few of us on the road who like to put all this info into a single file packed full of text, then print it in a small, but still readable font, so that it fits on a single page, which we keep in our moneybelts. You will also want to email a copy to yourself so it is always there. I keep copies on disk and on a memory stick, and another on a server so that I can access it using secure http or ftp. I also keep a copy with family and friends so they can mail or fax it. I don't print my browser's bookmarks or favorites, but do email them to myself, as well as upload them.

Web-based Email or Webmail
The easiest way to access email is to log into your account directly using a web browser instead of email software. Your messages are stored on the server and you surf to your site and read and respond to messages, without having to save messages to the local machine.

Popmail and IMAP
Post Office Protocol 3 (POP3) is a client-side mail protocol designed to facilitate offline operation. Messages are downloaded to the client and manipulated there, online or offline.

You configure the email software to connect to your email server and download all your messages to the local computer you are on, or to other media, such as a memory stick. Some free email accounts can be configured to pull email from all of your other accounts and organize your messages together, so you only have one server to get your email from. I prefer that it doesn't delete the message from my server once it has transferred the messages. If you go past your quota, you will have to set popmail to delete the messages from the server after transferring them to you, so that there is more space for incoming messages. The software should allow you to refuse messages above a certain size. Just make sure you don't set it to remember your password. When you are done, be sure to remove your configuration settings and email from the local computer before leaving. To help protect your account and your privacy, always clear the browser cache, quit the browser, and sign-off from public computers.

You could carry a disk or memory stick with email software, but most ISPs won't let you use their drives, and you run the very real risk of catching viruses from their machines, so learn how to find it on the net, download it to their machine, and run it.

The Internet Message Access Protocol 4 (IMAP4) is a server-oriented drop and store mail protocol. It is designed to facilitate online and offline mail management equally. Clients do not have to maintain messages or folder structure. IMAP is fast replacing POP as the preferred email protocol, primarily because of its server-side mail management features. However, it places a heavier demand on the server. Among IMAP's features are selective downloading, server-side folder hierarchies, shared mail, and mailbox synchronization.

IMAP is very similar to popmail, but one important time and money-saving feature is that you can retrieve individual message parts or the structure of a message without downloading it. For example, you can configure it to only send you the header information from each email message in your inbox, leaving the rest on your server; once you have the header information you can select which messages you want sent. The protocol also lets clients utilize the server for message searches, minimizing the data transferred over the network. IMAP allows users to maintain a folder hierarchy on the mail server or in a user account, providing a central location for easy access from multiple locations. Check out the Wiki page for IMAP.

I used to telnet back to a 'shell' account, instead of using popmail, since it gave more control over email. It is slow, but the net is getting pretty fast now. If it is too slow, then I send email from the web browser, but with my settings, and a cc: to my email address.

If you want an account with telnet access, a few providers can be found under Yahoo, Google, or DMOZ directories for UNIX shell accounts.

There are 3 ways to start Telnet:

  1. On Windows systems, you will almost always find telnet.exe in the c:\windows directory, unless it has been removed. There are many other versions of the software for PCs and Macs, such as wintel.exe or trumptel.exe. If it isn't there, you will need to surf out on the web and download it, or load it from a floppy disk if you have it with you. I carried multiple versions of telnet for both platforms. However, Internet Cafes wouldn't always appreciate you downloading software from the net, and rarely allowed your floppies on their system. If you are using a friend's machine, they may not want you to download either, if they do not have anti-virus software, so bring that also, and keep it updated. There is also Java-based Telnet called WebTerm.

  2. Some Internet Cafes restrict access to the file structure, leaving you stuck in the web browser. If you are using a browser, select 'Options' on the menu, then 'General Preferences', and finally 'Applications'. If the 'Telnet Application' area is empty, select the 'Browse' button and go to c:\windows to find telnet.exe . Back in the main browser window, type in 'telnet', telnet://, or telnet: and the address of the machine you want to connect to, like 'telnet://hotmail.com' .

  3. If you are logged into a Unix system already connected to the net, just telnet straight to your machine: 'telnet YourServer.com'.

  4. There's been an upsurge in shell accounts requiring secure shell (SSH) telnet access. Some still allow you to read/write mail, but you may not be able to change your password without this. A really small program is PuTTy from the UK. It's only 148 KB, and doesn't need to be installed on a PC to work. Secure shell is built into most Unix systems, and available through the terminal application on Mac systems running OSX. Access your account by using the command: 'ssh YourServer.com'. See the The Secure Shell (SSH) FAQ for more information.
Talk, CU C-ME, IRC Chat & NetPhone
Most free email and netphone accounts provide real-time communication. If you and a friend want to communicate, most browsers are able to communicate in real-time using text messaging. It is a split-screen chat program between two or more users. This software is available free to anyone on the net.

If you are both on Unix systems, you can use 'talk', which does not send voice messages like Internet Phone. It operates like Instant Messenger with a split screen. Just type 'talk their-email-address', unless you are on the same system, then you only need to type 'talk username'.

Many people use Internet Phone, such as Skype, to talk internationally across the net, but both must have the same software and fast connections.

Portables: Laptops, Mobile Devices, and Sticks

There are many ways to get connected, whether by modem, cable, or WiFi. WiFi is common in hotels. If an Internet cafes doesn't have WiFi, you can connect using an Ethernet cable. I have my own cable, and only need to show them the connector to be understood. They usually sit me down at a computer station and disconnect the cable from that computer and plug directly into mine. Others have you plug directly into the router or switch.

If you are using a modem, you can connect by a standard phone line, or through a mobile phone connected by a cable, or through a wireless Bluetooth connection. If you have a GSM phone, try to sign-up for data service, which is 2-10 times faster than a modem. All Bluetooth phones are able to connect to data services, and also avoid software problems between the laptop and the phone, since it doesn't connect by cable. Mobile phones also let you avoid the connection problems caused by hotel phone systems, and the risk of frying your modem if it is a digital system.

A new form of global access is Internet roaming. You sign up with an ISP that is a member of a global network, so you can use the local dial-up numbers of member ISPs around the world. For more info, visit iPass.

You probably won't need to call your ISP back home, but bring the phone number in case you find yourself in a remote place. Some companies are starting to offer overseas calling cards or callback service for this purpose.

Another alternative is to sign up with an ISP in the country you are traveling in. Some offer top-up cards, so you pay-as-you-go, in lieu of monthly or annual contracts.

Many airports cater to people on the move by providing wireless connections either free or for a fee. They also have phone connections so you can make a local call to an access provider. Also, some pay phones, especially in Japan and the US, have this connection capability. "See How To Find Phone Outlets in Airports".

The heat and dust won't be a problem in most places if you only use your computer in your room, which is good for security reasons too. You may also want to seal your computer in a bag with desiccant or silicone gel packs, if it is a humid environment. One contingency plan you might take, is to print a list of authorized or reliable repair shops where you will be travelling. Sending it home for repair can be a nightmare, since it may be stolen, besides the customs problems in both directions, and the high cost of shipping.

Choosing the right laptop involves personal choices and budget. Generally, you'll want a comfortable keyboard (with ample room on the keys for large hands), good screen resolution, built-in modem or PCMCIA card versions, external monitor port, wireless capability, and a better-than-average battery life. You should also ensure that the power supplies in your laptops, power adapters, and chargers "auto-switch" between 110 and 220 volts. Other considerations are warranty (domestic or worldwide, spanning 1-3 years coverage), durability, and weight. Buy your laptop (and camera) many months in advance, to get completely familiar with the system you are planning to use.

Mobile Devices: Tablets & Smartphones
Tablets and smartphones have most of the capabilities of a laptop, with the convenience of being accessible all the time. They do not have enough storage space to support a photography habit.

Memory Sticks
For those who want to travel light, another option is a memory stick, also known as a USB stick, thumb drive, or flash drive. You can load them with your favorite programs from PortableApps.com including browsers, anonymizers, and email programs. For more details, have a look at Wired's Carry Your Desktop, and this Editorial. Unfortunately, there is nothing that can stop a device-driver-based keylogger, so some people recommend carrying a Knoppix CD, and booting-up the computer with a Knoppix CD in the drive, which works well with the variety of hardware encountered while traveling. Combining this with the memory stick may provide the proper level of security, and prevent a virus hopping on your stick. Due to increasing paranoia at Internet cafes, and rampant virus problems, you may have to check a few cafes before finding one that will let you plug-in; and in some small cities, where there are only a few cafes, you may not be able to use this system.

Backpackers have a special situation to deal with. Even though you can carry the laptop, or hard drive around with you, while the rest of the luggage remains in the room, you may be increasing the risk of losing what you are carrying if your bag is stolen, stealthily or overtly. I leave valuables in the room unless I don't have much confidence in the safety of the place. Using password protection on startup, and encryption software, or creating hidden partitions to store the data, are good starting points in protecting your valuable data.

Regardless of what you do, be careful what you write down about the people you meet, the people you know, and important details from your life or business. Don't put anything down that could get them, and possibly you, in trouble if the authorities were to read it. If possible, bring only the information you will need, not all the data you have.

There are steel-cable security systems, which are a convenient, strong, and portable way to secure your valuable laptop. Just wrap the six-foot steel cable around any immovable object, then insert the lock and turn the key.

Another alternative is to attach a motion detector that emits a loud sound when someone tries to: move your case, remove your notebook from its case, or disconnect the security cable.

Often discussed but rarely done, backups become even more important when you are on the move, as the risk of data loss increases due to theft, high humidity and heat, as well as hardware failure from bouncing along in your pack, whether you are walking or in a vehicle.

If you have very little data, a memory stick is an excellent choice, since it isn't susceptible to magnetic fields, nor damages easily. They are also easily concealable, in case you leave your laptop in the room, and want to have your backup on you. They, and memory cards in cameras, are also susceptible to viruses.

A simple way to backup a few small files is to email them to yourself.

If you are taking digital photos, your data storage needs will be even greater. There are very small, portable hard drives on the market that are powered directly from the USB, Firewire, or eSATA connection, so you don't have to haul a power adapter. They are the same 2.5" hard drives commonly used in laptops and iPods, and have been installed in enclosures. If you have to leave your laptop in a hotel room, this drive is no burden to carry around. If you aren't carrying a laptop, it is a good solution for quickly backing-up photos at an Internet cafe, but you still have all the same virus risks. Installing an operating system on the portable drive, gives you the ability to boot your laptop, in case the internal drive has problems; if the laptop drive is still readable, data can be copied to the external drive.

Larger hard drives are substantially heavier, and something you might consider if you have a place to leave them. This allows you to have a remote backup that doesn't get bounced around or exposed to weather.

You should also consider burning CDs or DVDs every 3-6 months, and shipping them home, or storing them remotely, like at a friend's home.

Laptop Links
Nomadic Research Labs
Outfitting the Multimedia Guerrilla
Kropla's World Wide Phone, Electric Plugs and Voltages Guide
The Austin House Guide to Electrical Converters & Adapters
Voltage Valet

A special thanks goes to Steve Wee, who contributed extensively to this chapter.

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