Traveling with a laptop? Here's how to stay in touch

For many IT executives, traveling with a laptop in tow is as common as packing a toothbrush. But communicating with the home office from your hotel room can be a challenge. Andy Weeks offers tips and tricks to help you make the connection.

Early in my career, I would try to call the office periodically when I was on the road to check my messages. That was the only method available to stay in touch with the office. I often spent some serious time on the hotel room telephone, making long-distance calls to take care of business.

Now communicating is much more involved. Like many business travelers, I carry my laptop with me everywhere. Reading and responding to e-mail is infinitely more important to me than checking voice mail messages.

I have run into a variety of situations when trying to check e-mail from a hotel. When I travel to larger cities, such as Atlanta or Los Angeles, and stay in high-end business hotels, connecting is usually a snap. However, I have also been stuck in older roadside motels and been unable to get anything faster than a 9,600-baud modem connection. You will be waiting for hours if you try to pull a large file attachment across a link that slow.

Being able to access the Internet to make and change travel plans, get driving directions, and do business research is not a convenience but a necessity.

In my experience, being able to accomplish this from hotels on the road can be a hit-or-miss proposition. However, you can increase your effectiveness if you plan ahead.

Telephone systems and modems
Most business travelers today still use modems as their primary method to connect while on the road. Theoretically, finding a telephone jack to connect the modem and making the call should be simple. But that isn’t always the case. You may have problems if you encounter:
  • An old phone system. Believe it or not, there are still places where the phone system is hardwired to the wall, with no jack between the phone and the wall. This makes it difficult to plug in and dial.
    You will often find this in both older hotels in second-tier cities and highway motels. The best bet for dealing with this is to carry a handset adapter, which allows you to plug in your modem to the telephone handset.
    But some hardwired phones may not have a detachable handset, so you may have to use a hardwire connection kit. You will need to remove the plate where the phone cable is attached to the wall and attach alligator clips to create a temporary phone jack for your modem.
    This practice is usually frowned upon by hotel management, so make sure you put everything back together before you check out. In addition, wiring in these hotels is typically very old, so expect a very slow modem connection (less than 24 Kbps).
  • A digital phone. If you plug your modem in to the wall and are unable to get a dial tone, you’ve probably tapped a digital system. In some cases, you will find a special data port molded onto the side of the phone. If not, your only option is the handset adapter.
    Digital phone systems can also cause problems for modems. Timings may be off, for example, so you might have to play with the dial codes or manually dial the number. Some digital phone systems choke down on the signal, so modem connections can only occur at 9.6 or 19.2 Kbps.
  • An analog system. This is your run-of-the-mill, standard telephone system that you will find in most hotels and motels. Usually, you just unplug the phone from the wall and plug in the modem. In most cases, you must dial 9 to get an outside line.
  • Two-line phones. More and more hotels, especially new ones, are providing two-line phones. These are normally analog phones with a second line added to support data activities. They almost always provide a separate data port connected to the second line so that you can use the phone while checking e-mail online.

Using an ISP
My advice for modem users is to use an ISP that provides access numbers in cities nationwide or even internationally. Before you leave on a trip, make sure you have a directory of numbers (some ISPs provide them in an online database) or get the numbers for the cities where you will be traveling.

Almost all ISPs also offer a toll-free number, although they typically assess a surcharge if you use it.

Before you travel, make sure you get all of the access numbers available to you in the area where you are traveling. I have spent many hours trying to figure out why my hotel-room modem wasn’t working, only to find out that the local ISP number had been disconnected, changed, or wasn’t a local call from my hotel. Often, a second or third number on the list for the city works just fine.

If you must call your ISP’s home number or call in to your corporate network, always use calling cards for long-distance calls. Long-distance rates in hotels are usually exorbitantly high. When necessary, it is easier to just call your local ISP number long-distance.

You should also consider getting a “road warrior” kit, which will allow you to use your laptop modem in just about any circumstance. These kits include handset adapters and hardwire connection kits.

Andy Weeks has worked in the Information Technology field for over a decade as an end-user support manager, network architect, and business process consultant. He is vice president for business development at Henderson Electric Co., Inc., in Louisville, KY.

Do you have a “road warrior” kit that you use while traveling to ensure you can connect with your business without fail? Share your tips with us in an e-mail, or post your comments.

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