What is travelling? Changing your place? By no means! Travelling is changing your opinions and your prejudices.

Nobel laureate Anatole France


Internet Cafés

In the early years of this century, Internet cafés (also known as "cybercafés") were seemingly everywhere, thus the most viable alternative to carrying a heavy laptop (especially for leisure travellers). Even in small, remote villages with insufficient food, clothing, and housing, it was not unusual to find an Internet connection, often available at surprisingly low cost.

Of late, though, the worldwide embrace of "smart" cellphones have made wireless connection points ("Wi-Fi") even more ubiquitous. They can be found at airports, laundromats, big-box stores, coffee shops, fast food outlets, grocery stores, museums, bookstores, on buses/trains/airplanes, and even in public parks). There are still plenty of Internet cafés out there, though (especially in more remote areas), so much of the following discussion still applies to some.

Internet Café SignWeb sites such as Cybercafe Search Engine and Cybercafes.com exist to help you locate local Internet cafés. Some of these tools are better than others, but all offer at least some unique listings. Realize, however, that Internet cafés are mostly bootstrap businesses, and can come and go faster than the various Web sites can track them. So it's often more effective, and simpler, to just look for them on your own.

Internet Café Sign (Costa Rica)How? Keep your eyes open, and/or ask! Tourist offices often know the best places, which may be anything from the back room of a local restaurant or bar (or even less likely establishment), to a fancy, well-lit storefront, chock-a-block with rows of the latest in computer technology (one easyInternetcafé in Amsterdam had 650 computers the last time I visited). They are most commonly found in areas frequented by students and travellers. In some places (Thailand, Cambodia, México), they seem to be everywhere, while in others (London, Paris) they can be more of a challenge to uncover. Check the local telephone directory. Libraries often have the least expensive (sometimes free) Internet terminals; hostels, bookstores, and post offices offer additional possibilities. Indeed, asking any 20-something person on the street will likely yield the name of a good local Internet café (you'll find "Internet" to be a universally-understood term, but if language difficulties ensue, just wiggle your fingers as though typing).

Hotels commonly have Internet connections, but they're usually much more costly to use than those you will find elsewhere (though the occasional hotel offers them free to guests). Cruise ships have them also, but the costs there are typically outrageous. Pricing methods vary: sometimes you buy blocks of time, sometimes it's just by the minute; sometimes you pay up front, sometimes not; sometimes the rate varies depending on how busy the café is at the moment. You should expect to pay anywhere from USD$1 to USD$5/hour on the average, occasionally more (or less). America and Europe are generally the most expensive locations, but it's hard to predict.

Be aware that many Internet cafés require that you present some sort of government-issued picture ID. A passport is the most universally accepted form of same, but sometimes a driving license is acceptable.

Keyboard layouts are not the same around the world (touch-typists be forewarned!). There's a good chance that characters you need (such as the all-important @, should you want to send e-mail) may be missing, and require some special key combination to invoke. Or they may not be what you expect (in Turkey, for example, the letter i often types as ï, and if that character is in an e-mail address that you're entering, the message won't reach its intended destination). You may even have to do something special to get your particular keyboard/terminal to "speak" English. Don't be shy about asking for help; you're unlikely to be the first with any particular problem. Most computer terms are English by nature, so you'll generally be understood. The ten-year-old sitting next to you probably knows what to do.

Upscale Internet CaféShould any problems arise (dropped lines, blocked sites, etc.), don't hesitate to call them to the attention of the attendant(s), who will usually fix the problem and/or credit you with the lost time.

Finally, before you leave on a trip, make sure that your local e-mail account can be accessed via a standard Web browser, and find out the URL (i.e., Web address) necessary to do so. If your service provider doesn't offer this option directly, it can likely be accomplished using a (free) service such as mail2web; alternatively, consider acquiring a free e-mail account from Gmail or Yahoo! (becoming familiar with the use of such services before you depart is a wise step, and don't forget to create the necessary address lists of your correspondents).

These various minor challenges (to which you can occasionally add slow connections and smoky rooms) aside, the global e-mail access made possible by Internet cafés has been a huge boon to travellers worldwide. Learn to reap its benefits.

On-Line Security Concerns

Whenever going on-line in an unfamiliar environment, it's important to be aware of computer virus concerns in general, and keylogger attacks in particular.

Virus Attacks: Computer viruses are malicious programs that gain entry to your computer in unexpected, surreptitious ways … as unwanted attachments to e-mail, for example, or something downloaded from a Web site. It's a pretty safe bet that any computers in wide public use (such as those in Internet cafés) are infected with a considerable variety of viruses; one can't even discount the possibility that the operator of the café is an intentional source of the infection(s). So be especially careful when connecting your own device(s) — laptops, flash drives, etc. — to public wireless or other access points, to avoid their being infected.

Most important, make sure that your own anti-virus software is of the highest quality, and fully up to date with the latest virus definitions. Consider also the use of a non-Windows operating system (such as Linux or Mac), as the majority of virus attacks are aimed at the Microsoft world. Don't let something like Linux intimidate you: when leisure travelling, you're unlikely to use anything more than a decent browser, and a modern one, like Firefox, Google Chrome, or Opera, looks and functions the same irrespective of the operating system with which it coexists. You'll also find that a Linux-based netbook with a solid-state drive (in place of a disk) can be an ideal travelling companion: tiny, lightweight, rugged, easy to use, and inexpensive.

two commercial keyloggersKeylogger Attacks: A keylogger is a piece of software or hardware that monitors the pressing of keys as you type on the keyboard (many also track other information, such as the contents of the clipboard, so copy/paste operations will not fool them). As such, it can look for and collect important information like passwords and other identifying data, and save it for (or send it to) someone who can subsequently make your life extremely unpleasant. Consequently, keyloggers are the chief danger when using a public computer directly. The best way to avoid being compromised by such attacks, of course, is not to use untrusted computers when logging into any site that contains banking or other sensitive information. If this absolutely can't be avoided, however, there are a couple of approaches that will do a pretty good job of foiling the operation of keylogging devices and programs. No such solution can be 100% effective, but that's not the goal: rather, it is to make it much more difficult to hack your information than the many others who are using the computer! (Bad guys are much more likely to gather the low-hanging fruit.)

The first is to use some sort of anti-keylogging software. Most such offerings leave a lot to be desired, but Version 3 (or better) of Neo's SafeKeys covers the bases better than anything else of which I'm aware. Download a (free) copy, and take it with you on a flash drive. If you're stuck somewhere without it, or you can't use your flash drive, then a (somewhat painstaking, but reasonably effective) option is to make use of the following password entry procedure.

Password Entry Technique to Foil Keyloggers:  First and foremost, always use effective passwords, not ones comprised of English-language words that can be compromised with simple dictionary attacks. Your passwords should be at least 8–10 characters long, and contain numeric and special characters as well as upper- and lower-case letters. That accomplished, enter a password in the following manner:

  1. Click in the password entry box/field and type three random characters; use a mixture of upper- and lower-case letters, numbers, and special characters.
  2. Using the mouse or other pointer device (but not the Shift/arrow keys), highlight those random characters and type three more random characters right over them. Repeat this step a few times (the more often you do so, the more difficult it is to extract your password from a keystroke log).
  3. Highlight the last set of random characters you typed, and then type a segment of your actual password.
  4. Place the cursor to the left or right of the correct portion of your password and repeat steps 1–3.
  5. Repeat this process, adding an additional segment of your password on each cycle, eventually "building up" the entire password until it is correctly displayed in the password field. Then click the "Submit" or "Login" button to sign in to the site.

It's important to ensure that your password is correctly displayed before submitting it, because if you have to re-enter it, you are unlikely to be able to repeat the same random character stream (unless you wrote eveything down), and someone could compare the two keystroke log results and possible deduce the actual password characters. For the same reason, don't use the same untrusted environment to login to an account a second time.