Reading this post, many will probably ask “why?” Why do you need to access the internet when you are on holiday?
Well, put quite simply, you might want to look at your e-mails, or just send one to someone. You might want to know how your bank account is doing, or your share portfolio. Or you might want to find out opening times of a museum in your area or even look up what other people think about a restaurant before you go there.
On the other hand you might, like me, be self-employed and need to make sure that there is no urgent business that cannot wait until you get back home.
So the big question, of course, is how?
On my first visit to Lanzarote I used a Psion Revo connected via Infared to a Nokia 6210 mobile phone which dialled a number in Germany or the UK to gain access to my e-mails. I was charged per minute!
A few years later I had moved on to a Palm T|X connected via Infrared to a Nokia 6230, and used a GPRS connection to access e-mail and some optimised web sites. This was charged per kilobyte.
Accessing your e-mails in this way requires some configuration and testing before you travel. So here are some tips to help you make the decision:
1. What will you use to read your e-mail?
Modern mobile phones have built-in e-mail clients that remove the necessity for a PDA or laptop. I’m particularly fond of the Symbian e-mail client in Series 60 phones, such as the Nokia E51.
You can use a PDA that either connects on its own (see point 2), or uses a mobile phone via Infrared or Bluetooth. I find Bluetooth to be less reliable, as the phone as to provide both Bluetooth and GSM signals at the same time, which can cause the connection to be dropped between the PDA and the phone.
If you have taken your laptop with you, then again, you can either use it directly or connect it to your phone. Some phones even have data cables to connect to USB ports. Every now and then I still come across a hotel (admittedly not on Lanzarote) that has a normal phone socket in the room. This means an analogue line, which is slower than a GPRS connection!
2. How will you access the internet?
If you are really lucky, then you might have a wireless (WLAN, WiFi) connection available. Even if you have to pay a little bit extra for this, as long as it is not per minute or per hour it will probably work out cheaper than using mobile networks.
Alternatively, some mobile plans allow access to wireless networks abroad by way of a roaming agreement, although these do tend to charge per minute.
Using a mobile phone connection requires some research before you leave, and maybe a call to your network provider to make sure that you are on the right call plan and have the right settings.
There are three ways to use mobile phone networks:
- GSM: the old “dial-up” method, best avoided as it is charged per minute and is the slowest
- GPRS: the newer “packet” method, probably the most widely available today on mobile phones and charged by either minute or data block
- UMTS: so-called “3G”, it is much faster offering speeds up to 7MBit, and charged in a similar way to GPRS. Some laptops have it built-in, others use USB sticks for this type of access.
3. What will it cost?
Prices for these services vary wildly depending on who you provider is and which access method you use, even which access point (the “APN”) you define in your phone.
The EU has now put a limit on how much data access via GPRS and UMTS can cost, meaning that at present it should not cost you more than 1EUR per Megabyte (plus your home VAT). At least, that is the theory. Both my mobile phone and data providers are still showing their old rates on their homepages at the moment.
In my case, using my mobile phone on Lanzarote costs me €0,59 per 50KB and my UMTS stick costs me €0,17 per 50KB. “Per 50KB” means that I am charged in 50KB blocks, so if I use 51KB I will be charged for 2 blocks. I confirmed those prices recently by accessing my e-mail using both methods in Madrid in June.
BUT be careful when comparing the two, as in my case the mobile phone downloads a lot less of the e-mail data than the laptop with UMTS, so although one rate looks to be cheaper, it can work out a lot more expensive because having the faster access my cause you to use it more often and thus run up a higher bill.
4. How can I reduce those costs?
Apart from the obvious: not going on-line, there are some things that you can do to reduce your costs.
For e-mail, use an e-mail client. Either in your phone, or your PDA or on your laptop. Do not use webmail services as these require a lot more data due to the graphics and menus. That said, some webmail services do offer mobile-optimised pages which would be OK in an emergency.
Set the e-mail client to restrict the amount of each message that it downloads. I typically set mine to only download the first 5kb or 10kb of each message, and to avoid attachments. That way, I see the start of each message and can decide if I want to download the rest. In most cases, the first few lines are sufficient.
Alternatively you can set some clients to just download the so-called “headers”, ie. the sender and the subject of the message. That way you can avoid download newsletters or anything that is not important.
If you can, set a filter on your mail account before you leave. Maybe even set up a second account. Put an auto-responder on the first account like “I am out of the office” and auto-forward to the second account if the mail is from a particular sender. Then only pick up the e-mails from the second account on holiday.
Some systems allow you to setup folders that you do not see or download from your phone, and then set a filter to move mails from particular authors to those folders. This is useful for newsletters that you have subscribed to.
For really important addresses setup an SMS notifier. No SMS means no mails to read.
Of course, make sure that your spam filter is working properly.
Finally, clear out the mails that you have before you leave for the airport. There is nothing worse than download the last month’s worth of e-mails when you arrive, that you don’t really need!
For accessing websites, some mobile phones have ways of optimising the pages before they are downloaded, reducing data costs. If you are using a laptop, turn off the graphics in the browser unless you really need them.
Some sites have special pages for mobile clients, it’s worth using them on laptops and PDAs too because you can dramatically reduce the amount of data that is transferred.
Try: BBC News Google eBay LEO
Ask your bank if they have such a site before you go. If you do need to view websites in full-size it may be worth going to an internet café.
5. Anything else I should know?
If you are using a “push mail” services, then you might want to turn it off. Otherwise, you will have little control over how your phone is picking up the e-mails when it is notified. Blackberry and iPhone users in particular should be aware of this.
Finally if, like me, you are self-employed and have to check your e-mail regularly, try and work out how much that data you are likely to use per day in advance and set a budget for it. Work out when you will be reading your e-mails and set a plan, eg. one a day but only on week days. There is no point on checking your e-mail if it is a public holiday in your home country and no-one will be writing to you.
Alternatively, you could just ask an IT consultant…