Using Internet Cafés Abroad
Practical Tips for Safely Staying Connected in Public Places
Until little over a decade ago travelers wrote letters and postcards and made the occasional phone call back home, but today’s travelers depend almost exclusively on the Internet to communicate with friends and family. Travelers also use the Internet to upload and share their digital photos and videos, publish their travel stories, journals and blogs, visit their favorite chat rooms, and do their banking online while away from home. Although the Internet has made it easier to stay in touch and pay bills while traveling, there are also several drawbacks that travelers should be aware off. In some remote locations Internet cafes are not easy to find, and security and access speed are often far behind of what you might be used to.
As the importance of the Internet has grown worldwide, so have the number of Internet cafés. They are today a familiar sight at almost every travel destination. In many countries people cannot easily afford a computer, and Internet cafés also serve the local population, which explains why even small towns may have several Internet cafés that are always crowded.
In Europe many Internet cafés are actual cafés that sell drinks and snacks, or even alcoholic beverages, but in most other parts of the world Internet cafés are mostly an extension of an existing business, such as a photo store, print shop, or convenience store, with a few computers set up in a back room. The spaces may be dark, small, and they are often crowded.
What to Bring With You
Most people use their address book built into their email homepage, but it might be a good idea to bring an address book or printout as a backup with the most important email addresses. Also, if you regularly access your bank or credit card accounts online, you should bring a list with the user names and passwords. Make sure you encrypt the information in a way only known to you, so nobody else can access your accounts. You can also bring a small external USB flash drive containing important information and files you would like to take with you on your trip. Make sure that the drive or the files are password protected, so nobody else can use your personal information.
In addition to portable external drives you can also store files on secure online data storage services. You can access your files from any computer by signing in, which is a secure way of having access to important files, documents, and addresses, without carrying an external drive or disk.
You can also leave your important files at home and retrieve them through remote access by connecting to your home computer via its IP address. All you need to do is configure your home computer to allow remote access and set up a user name and password to access it from anywhere in the world. Check your computer’s manual and help function to find out the details about how to connect to your computer remotely.
Finding An Internet Café
Most travel guidebooks today list Internet cafés, but I usually just walk around town and take a mental note of the ones I pass. I usually peek inside to see if the computers are new, and if there are booths that provide sufficient privacy. Prices usually go up with the quality of the equipment, but it is best to compare rates at several cafés before making a choice.
Find out what the Internet café is primarily used for; that way you know if you can get the desired silence and privacy. In Brazil I have found Internet cafés equipped with microphones and headsets, and people were using the computers mostly for phone calls via the Internet. Other Internet cafés may cater to a teenage crowd playing online video games—not the best environment if you need to concentrate. Other Internet cafés may be near a university and may be crowded in the afternoon after classes. A growing number of hostels and budget hotels are also providing Internet access, usually by offering one or two computers set up in a common area. While they are conveniently located, the computers are often outdated, and security is very poor. A growing number of higher end hotels also provide computers with Internet access for their guests, especially hotels that cater to business travelers.
There are a few options for free Internet access as well. Public libraries often have computers with Internet access, and regional or city governments in some countries fund free Internet centers to promote the use of the Internet among the local population. To provide equal access to all users are usually not allowed more than one hour of free Internet use.
Quality of Services
The services offered at Internet cafés also vary drastically. Some Internet cafés with older equipment are not set up with USB ports, CD burners or even disk drives. Pay attention, inspect the computer, or tell the employee which features you need on the computer. With viruses easily spreading from one external drive/disk to another, some Internet cafés have disabled their USB ports and floppy disk drives. In France, a few years back, it took me a long time to convince the owner of an Internet cafés to let me use his own computer with a disk drive, since none of the public computers had them. He quoted security concerns with viruses as the main reason why he did not let people connect external devices to the computers. But for the most part, it is now much more common for computers to have USB ports than only a few years ago, probably in keeping with the demand of users, who increasingly want to upload photos, videos and other files.
At some Internet cafés you are allowed to burn CDs yourself, but at others you need to hand your pictures/files to an employee, who then burns the CD for you. I vastly prefer burning my own CDs, because mistakes are easily made. I have had CDs burned that contained empty folders, and in another case, I ended up with two CDs with the same content. Before paying make sure you check the CDs to see if they contain all your files. If you have a lot of pictures to burn, consider getting a DVD instead of a CD. DVD burners are not common at small Internet cafés, but from time to time I have found one and burned a DVD of my pictures instead of half a dozen CDs.
If you have problems with Internet access or your computer is unresponsive, it is best to switch computers. I have found few employees at Internet cafés who are computer experts and can quickly troubleshoot problems. The most common response to problems is to simply turn the computer off and post an "out of order" sign on it.
Connection speeds vary greatly and you should be prepared for very slow access speeds depending upon where you are. Many Internet cafés -- especially in developing countries -- still use dial-up telephone modems to connect to the Internet. Depending on the Internet infrastructure of your travel destinations, the ISP servers might be far away, which further slows down connection speeds. In a small town in northeastern Brazil there was no local Internet Service Provider at the time, and I had to pay long distance telephone charges to connect to the server from the nearest city a few hundred miles away. I have also found that in remote locations in developing countries Internet access is intermittent as servers are often down. These factors make Internet access somewhat difficult and slow and unreliable, so if you are traveling to remote areas you should not count on reliable access. The fasted Internet connection you will find are computers with a DSL connection, which is the case primarily in urban areas.
WiFi access is very hard to find outside airports and major international hotel chains, so if you are bringing your own computer you are better off with bringing a cable modem or using public computers for Internet access altogether.
The Cost Factor
The hourly rate at Internet cafes usually reflects the overall cost of living of the country. In South America and parts of Asia, you can get an hour of Internet access for a dollar or two, but in Europe you will pay five times that much. The cost for burning a CD or DVD is usually low, but I have found that you will be charged for burning a CD even if you bring your own CD and burn it yourself.
Security is a problematic issue at Internet cafés worldwide. Last year, in Argentina, a friend of mine had his Paypal account compromised after he signed on at an Internet café. He found out that someone had been trying to withdraw his funds to an Argentinean account. Fortunately Paypal blocked the unauthorized transaction, and my friend did not lose any money. The best you can do is to make sure that you sign out of every secure website, so that nobody can use the browser’s history menu to access secure websites. I usually try to delete my web browsing history before leaving the computer and I also close the browser. But you never know if a computer might have spyware installed, which might gain access to your passwords and personal information. If you connect external or portable devices devices such as USB flashdrives or floppy disks, you should also be concerned about viruses, worms, and Trojan horses, especially if you copy files to your external device.
The most secure Internet cafés are those where the computer is reset to its default settings whenever someone logs off from an Internet session. That way all records of your browsing history are deleted when you sign off. In some countries I have found chains of Internet cafés that operate with a prepaid card. This is very secure way to have Internet access since the computer is reset to its default settings as soon as you sign off.
For more information about staying connected, check out our Staying Connected While Abroad resources. If you prefer to use your own laptop when traveling, see my artcle on Traveling With Your Laptop Computer Overseas for some practical inside tips.