Whether it's springtime in Sicily
or Tuesday in Tokyo, there are a few things you can take for granted whenever
you travel overseas. You won't be able to get your hometown paper delivered.
Everything will be measured in metric units. Police sirens will sound downright
alien. And you'll have no easy way to connect to the Internet--unless you
read this article.
I can't do anything to help
alleviate your culture shock when you travel abroad, but I can help you
outfit your notebook so that no matter where you go, you'll be able to
hop online in a matter of minutes to check your e-mail, your stocks, or
your travel reservations for the trip home.
It takes a little bit of
planning (and a little bit of spending), but staying connected overseas
isn't as hard as you might think. I recently took a working vacation in
Karlsruhe, a small city in Germany, with notebook in hand and a determination
to check my e-mail every day. Although my experience was in Germany, the
problems I encountered will crop up in any country off the North American
continent, and the same solutions will apply.
AC Power: If the Plug
If there's any technical
standard that you'd think would be ubiquitous, it's the good old power
socket. Plug something into the wall--a computer, a hair dryer, or a toaster--and
it works, right?
Wrong. Once you leave North
America, you'll face two problems when using any AC-powered device: voltage
and the plug itself.
North American AC power runs
at 120 volts (120V), but elsewhere the current runs at speeds between 100V
and 240V, with most countries standardized at 220V. Plugging a notebook
computer designed for 120V into a 220V outlet could fry its circuitry.
If your notebook is less
than five years old, its AC adapter is probably designed to handle multiple
voltages. Check the tiny print on the adapter itself; you're safe if you
see something like "Input 100-240V." Contact the manufacturer if you're
not sure. If your notebook's AC adapter is stuck at 120V and the manufacturer
doesn't offer a solution, you'll need a voltage converter (also known as
a step-down transformer), which will cost about $40.
The AC adapter for my Dell
Inspiron 5000 notebook handled Germany's 220V power just fine. But I also
wanted to take an external Zip drive with me, and the Zip's AC adapter
could handle only 120V. The solution? Iomega sells an international AC
adapter for about $20.
Adapters from around the
world (clockwise from top): Australian power, German/French power, French
telephone, Italian power, British phone.
Whether your notebook can
handle the voltage without help, you still need to plug it in. Outlets
come in all shapes and sizes: There are about nine AC plug standards worldwide.
The solution is a plug adapter for the country you're visiting. You can
buy a single adapter for $10 to $13, or a kit containing assorted adapters
for particular countries or continents. These kits also contain adapters
for the country's telephone jacks. Which leads us to the next overseas
Modems: Don't Get Hung
Let's start with some good
news: Despite the claims of "international" modem manufacturers, you can
use a standard U.S. modem anywhere in the world. There are some issues
involved, but none are insurmountable. So don't run out and buy another
The most important thing
you need to know before you leave home is whether you'll be able
to physically get at a phone jack in your hotel room. (Hotel phones are
sometimes designed so that they cannot be unplugged.) Call ahead to find
out what your situation will be. If you know you'll have access to a jack,
you still have a problem: There are about 40 standard phone jacks in the
world. Once again, the solution is an inexpensive adapter. The best way
to buy adapters is in a "country pack" containing both AC and phone adapters.
If you know you won't have
access to a jack, then you should consider purchasing an acoustic coupler.
The device (a throwback to early modem technology) attaches to your modem
and a phone, feeding data noise from the handset's speaker to the modem,
and sending the modem's noise to the handset's microphone. Acoustic couplers
run about $100, but they are handy, providing you with the flexibility
to get online with any type of phone (think pay phones and mobile phones).
There are some other gotchas
to keep in mind when you're dialing in a foreign land:
Remove that check mark,
and your modem will stop listening for an American-style dial tone.
So now you know how to get your
modem hooked up. But which number do you call? That's our third problem...
Many hotels use special digital
PBX phone systems. The phone jacks look normal (for the country you're
in), but if you plug a modem into a PBX system you'll get nothing at all--if
you're lucky. If you're unlucky, you'll get a fried modem. How do you know
the hotel's phone line is safe? Use a line tester, a gadget you can buy
for as little as $30. Or you can just use a phone: Take a small, standard
phone with you, and plug it in at the hotel. If it works, so will a modem.
If your hotel has a PBX system,
you can still use a modem if you also have a digital converter.
gadgets, which plug into the phone where the handset goes and then plug
into the modem, cost about $150 to $170. They're easier to use and offer
a faster connection than an acoustic coupler. While I was in Germany, I
used TeleAdapt's Digital Connection digital converter. Once I got over
the rather intimidating documentation (which leads you to believe you need
to know the hotel's type of PBX system--you don't), it worked fine.
You also have to pay attention
to dial tones. They vary from country to country, and your American
modem might not recognize the dial tone somewhere else. (Then again, it
might. My Dell's internal modem had no problem with the German dial tone,
which sounded very different to my ears.) If your modem won't dial because
it can't recognize a dial tone, tell it to stop listening for one: Open
My Computer and double-click Dial-Up Networking. Right-click the icon for
your dial-up connection and select Properties. On the General tab,
click Configure, and then click the Connection tab. Uncheck "Wait for dial
tone before dialing" and click OK twice.
If you have to use an acoustic
coupler or a digital converter, chances are you'll have to dial manually--one
more reason not to worry about your modem recognizing the dial tone. Dialing
manually is no big deal (you've done it all your life), but you need to
tell Windows that that's what you want to do: Open My Computer and double-click
Dial-Up Networking. Right-click your connection icon and select Properties.
On the General tab, click Configure. Then click the Options tab. Check
"Operator assisted for manual dial," and click OK twice. When you go online,
you'll be prompted to dial manually.
Dialing: Who You Gonna
When you're home, getting
online is simple: You call your Internet service provider's local access
number. But which number do you call when you're in Paris, Beijing, or
If you're lucky, your ISP
offers global roaming through a company such as IPass (www.ipass.com/)
or GRIC Communications. (www.gric.com/) These outfits work with ISPs around
the world, giving each of them access to the others' dial-up numbers. It's
easy enough to see if your ISP offers worldwide roaming--simply call up
And what do you do if the
answer is no? If you travel a lot, consider signing up with an ISP that
does offer roaming services. To find a list of American ISPs that have
signed up with IPass, go to its Partners & Resellers page. (www.ipass.com/partners/isp-partners/united-states)
GRIC has a similar list (www.gric.com/zone/isplocator/#co81) you can consult.
When you find a local ISP, be sure to ask what it charges for roaming services;
the charge can vary from a reasonable $4 a month to an outrageous $8 an
Large providers such as America
Online also have an international presence, although not always a spectacular
one. For instance, AOL lists only three numbers for all of Germany. GRIC
has that many numbers in Karlsruhe alone.
Keep in mind that when you're
staying in a hotel, there's no such thing as a free phone call. And in
some countries, the phone company charges for local calls. So even if you
have a local dial-up number, extended surfing could still be hazardous
to your wallet.
Not a Jet-Setter?
If international travel isn't
a regular part of your life, changing ISPs probably isn't worth the hassle.
If you travel only occasionally, bite the bullet and make that long-distance
call to your own ISP. And no, special low overseas phone rates won't help;
those generally apply only if you're calling from--or to--your own phone.
Expect to pay a dollar or
more a minute if you go the long-distance route. Obviously, you're not
going to be surfing the Web at that rate. But if you're just downloading
and uploading e-mail that you read and reply to offline, you'll get by
paying only a few dollars a day.
Where to Buy the Gadgets
Several online retailers
cater to the traveling computer user, international and otherwise. I looked
at products from two such resellers, Road Warrior (www.roadwarrior.com/)
and Teleadapt. (www.teleadaptusa.com/) (Other companies in the business
include IGo (www.igo.com/) and Port.com. (www.port.com/) ) Both offer "nation"
kits that contain a collection of plugs and adapters for any number of
countries. The kits include a convenient case and range in cost from $25
to $50. You can also buy line testers, digital converters, acoustic couplers,
and other devices discussed in this article at either site.
After stocking up on a few
tools of the trade, you should be all set to venture forth into the great
unknown, secure in the knowledge that the Net will be waiting for you when
you get there.