If you do a lot of traveling, the most common solution is to carry a notebook or hand-held computer equipped with a modem, which allows you to connect from most telephones. Using a national or regional Internet service provider (ISP) with connection points local to your destinations will eliminate long-distance charges.
Some ISPs offer optional access through an 800 number or through roaming services such as iPass (www.ipass.com), but these solutions will cost you on a per-minute basis.
Some intrepid road warriors use wireless modems with services such as ARDIS (www.ardis.com), a more expensive cutting-edge solution that promises to let you send and retrieve e-mail just about anywhere. But access can be slow and coverage spotty, and unless you really need to who wants to be connected all the time?
Another option is to use a voice e-mail service such as e-Now (www.enow.com) or Mail Call (www.mailcall.net). These services let you retrieve e-mail by picking up a phone and dialing-a digitized voice reads your e-mail to you. But if you receive a lot of e-mail, this can be slow.
If you travel occasionally, there are better choices for collecting e-mail without having to haul equipment along. No matter where you travel, chances are you can connect with someone else's machine.
You could use the Net-enabled computer of a colleague, friend or relative or an Internet kiosk at an airport or convention center. Many public libraries now offer free Net access. Or you could reserve a terminal-equipped hotel room or stop by an Internet café, though these options cost.
You have two main options for collecting e-mail with someone else's computer. The best is to use an ISP that provides Unix shell accounts along with the more common PPP accounts. With a PPP account you use a Windows or Mac e-mail program on your own computer, whereas with a shell account you use a telnet program to connect to your ISP's server and then use a Unix e-mail program such as Pine that resides there. It sounds more complicated than it is. Pine is easy to use, with prompts at the bottom of the screen indicating the commands available.
The problem is, fewer ISPs today offer shell accounts. If yours doesn't, you can use a newer option: free Web-based e-mail, although working through the Web is slower than telnetting to a shell account.
It seems that nearly every week another Web portal site is launching a new e-mail service. The most widely used and well-regarded include Microsoft's Hotmail (www.hotmail.com), Yahoo Mail (mail.yahoo.com), and USA.net's Net@ddress (mail.netaddress.com).
As long as you know how to use a Web browser, using these advertiser-supported services couldn't be easier. Direct Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer to the service's Web site, type in your user name and password and click messages in your in-box to open them.
The better Web-based e-mail services provide sophisticated features. You can filter incoming messages, read file attachments, create your own folders to organize received e-mail, spell check outgoing messages, automatically append a signature to outgoing messages and create an address book of e-mail recipients.
Just about all Web-based e-mail services let you route your regular e-mail to it, with a couple of provisos. Your regular account must use the popular POP3 standard (which excludes America Online), and it must not be behind a security firewall (which excludes some corporate e-mail).
But subscribers to typical ISPs will have no problems. When you go out of town, you direct the Web service to retrieve your regular e-mail, and when you return, direct it to stop.
You also should consider security when e-mailing through the Web. When you read or write a message, the Web browser saves a copy of the screen to its cache. Others using the computer after you may be able to read your messages by clicking on the browser's back button.
To ensure privacy, clear the browser's cache when you're done. In Netscape 4, select "Preferences" under the "Edit" menu, select "Cache" under "Advanced," and clear both memory cache and disk cache. In Internet Explorer 4, select "Internet Options" under the "View" menu, and delete temporary Internet files.
And don't forget to log off your e-mail service.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at email@example.com or http://members.home.net/reidgold.