updated 7/10/2008 1:46:18 PM ET 2008-07-10T17:46:18

Leave the laptop behind, dump the PDA and otherwise abandon anything that could be called "always on" — so goes a frequent recommendation to stressed vacationers. The thinking is that if it's too easy to stay in touch via phone and e-mail with work, social obligations and the daily grind, you'll never really get away from it all.

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Sounds like sound advice — except that I'm not sure I agree. I have found that sacrificing a little bit of free time to staying connected while traveling typically makes exit and re-entry — when the most draining work of travel and vacationing takes place — go much more smoothly. In the end, checking in a few times during your vacation is a small price to pay to avoid returning home to a chaotic swarm of neglected responsibilities.

Wired is as wired does
Some folks wouldn't take a walk without all their devices, while others can't wait to jettison everything and get off the communication grid. When my own five-year-old cell phone suffered some water damage last week, I asked a tech-fiend friend about PDA choices on the market. His reply: "Dude, wait two weeks until the new iPhone comes out. The LMNOP and Integrated Jubee Jubee on the new phone are going to be way better."

Do we need to ask if he is going to stay connected on the road? Last I saw he had sent a link to real-time GPS tracking of his hike through the Rockies; not only is he going to stay connected, he is going to make us all stay tuned as well. This article is not for him.

Tools of the trade
Laptop, cell phone, PDA — take 'em along, leave 'em home, take your pick? Let's say most of us have three primary e-mail addresses (work, home, alternate) and matching triple voice mails (work, home, cell). That's a lot of stuff to check while you're trying to unwind; a couple of hours can pass in a blink by the time you have gotten through them all.

My recommendation is to find a middle way. I usually bring my laptop and leave the PDA behind (I don't own one — yet); my reasoning here is that I would rather have full, high-powered and ergonomically convenient access on my laptop for short bursts of time than continuous (I would say unrelenting) but more fluid access on a smaller, more portable device. Others will take just the opposite approach. Let's look at the pros and cons of staying connected, as well as some tips on how to keep things under control if you choose to take your tools with you.


Less to do before and after your trip: As mentioned above, I believe the most compelling reason to stay connected on the road is to reduce the strain of both leaving and returning. As comfortable as home can be, few things can diminish the glow of a good trip quite as quickly as arriving home to find that two weeks of the detritus of modern life has been accumulating in your absence and that it'll take days to clear it out.

I would say that the only thing worse than a pile of junk mail in a plastic USPS box and fading newspapers on your stoop is a "voice mail box is full" message on your answering machine and a couple dozen screens worth of e-mail on your first login when you get home.

And it's not just when you get home. Before you depart, leaving notes for dog walkers, putting your house in order and letting everyone who might want your attention know that you will be away is almost always more trouble than checking e-mail for a few minutes in a hotel room every day. While traveling, if you can dispatch tasks and information with short, concise e-mails written in a few seconds during your trip, there is a lot less accumulated clutter when you return, and less to do before you leave.

Fewer surprises: The only thing worse than returning from a trip to an inbox full of nuisance e-mails is finding out too late that a major problem has come up. Keeping in touch with work and personal e-mail semi-regularly is the best way both to keep on top of big events. It also gives you ...

Increased control: Trying to fix big problems from a hotel phone, or worse yet a pay phone, is not a fun place to find yourself. If you have a speedy laptop stocked with all your likely contacts, you'll be well positioned to deal with anything that goes wrong.

Lowered expectations: An "away" or "vacation" auto response message followed up with an e-mail with a footer that reads "sent from my Blackberry" lets you get away with murder in terms of brevity and specificity — folks are just grateful to get a reply so they can keep working on or stop worrying about whatever it is for which they needed your attention.

Access is improving — dramatically: On a recent trip, I booted up my laptop to type out a few notes during some down time in a county park, and noticed another person with a Dunkin Donuts coffee on a picnic table doing the same. That sure looks like someone on the Internet, I thought, and so I did a scan for wireless signals — and there it was, an unrestricted access point provided for free by the county. These days, many municipalities are working toward providing widespread wireless access.

The upside of all this is that you may not be forced into a crab-like position trying to work at your laptop crouched over a night table in a dark hotel room — head to the park, put a foot in the lake, check your e-mail. It ain't bad.


Work follows you everywhere: And I mean everywhere — a gurgling, vibrating PDA can be tougher to resist rescuing than a crying baby. And I absolutely admit it is the rare traveler who can check a load of e-mails, close the laptop, forget immediately about everything she just read and go back to her summer reading.

Iffy access: Searching for Wi-Fi signals, fiddling with access and cables, and dealing with hotel connection speeds that go up and down as other patrons log on and off can be frustrating work. And if you are traveling far afield, all that equipment might as well be a bag of rocks. On a trip to the Olympic Peninsula a couple years back, folks in the group had laptops, cell phones, PDA's — but they wound up using pay phones along the logging roads just to stay in touch with each other, let alone folks back home.

Expense: Many hotels charge around $10 a day just to connect to their Internet service, which ain't cheap. Worse yet, 24-hour access tends to start at noon and end at noon to synch up with check-in times, so if you're not online every day, but set aside a lunch hour at some point to check all your mail, you can end up paying for two days' access just to get through a couple hours of work.

E-mail is a black hole: Some folks can't help themselves when confronted with a full inbox; they can't just dip in where necessary, they have to do a full gainer off the high board and soak everyone sitting near the pool while they're at it. However, there truly is no rule that you must respond to every inanity that arrives in your inbox, and it's your own fault if you permit folks to believe otherwise.

You'll never keep up anyway: Well, it's true.


Post a vacation or away message: The most effective way to let folks know you're unavailable and whom to contact in an emergency is to set up an auto-response in your e-mail. The most important upside here is that there are no unanswered e-mails. For an important message to go completely unacknowledged is a worst-case scenario; even if you don't read the thing until you return, at least the writer knows you are not blatantly ignoring him.

Let it do its job: After you activate your auto responder, do not reply to every casual or nuisance e-mail that comes in. It defeats the purpose, and folks get used to having your attention without exception — not a good outcome for anyone involved.

Write short replies: Whenever possible, simply let folks know you saw their e-mail, respond to any urgent questions and tell them you'll pick it up when you get back. Long-winded replies don't get read anyway, and most importantly, you are not at work — don't behave like you are.

Search for free access: You can check a Web site listing various free access points such as Wi-Fi Free Spot, or you can simply fire up a search for signal and see what you find. Remember that just because a wireless signal is unencrypted, that doesn't mean that it is public; most public access points will be clearly identified as such, as with the county Wi-Fi example above.

For more info, see also our Tips for Better Wi-Fi.

Set yourself up when you arrive at your hotel room, and forget about it: As I mentioned, laptop is my preferred apparatus; my practice is to spend a part of the first busy hour in a hotel setting up my computer, and then I close it up until I need it again.

Set aside a specific time to deal with your e-mail: Everyone knows how a string of e-mails precipitates a string of replies, and another string of replies, and so on. If you are checking and replying to e-mails all day long, you're never actually on vacation. Set aside a time to deal with your e-mail, deal with it and move on.

One good approach to this is to check in immediately upon your arrival at a destination and deal with any problems. If you've spent the better part of a day and a half traveling, checking in right away puts any issues on track, typically buying you another couple days of time to yourself.

Check in during dead time in your travels: Check e-mail in airports, listen to voice mail while everyone else in the family is showering, etc. There are parts of every vacation day that are all business; might as well do all your business during these same times.

Check in during dead time back home: If you check your office or personal e-mails at a time when your correspondents are offline, you're far less likely to get trapped in a rapidfire call-and-response loop; the same thing goes for voice mail. Check your mail when the folks you are communicating with are least likely to respond immediately, and you can get through an entire queue of work in less time and without interruption.

Check in during pure leisure time: Many travelers prefer to compartmentalize work and play, as phone calls and voice mails have the potential to ruin a perfectly good and lazy moment. However, if you can find an access spot that lets you hang your feet in the water, give it a try; sometimes beautiful, relaxing environs can lift the aura of drudgery from even the most mulish labor.

Check in right before some solo time: Check in right before you get in the shower, or before going running, or before a long drive. When you head out on a run or stand under the hot water, you may find a few quiet minutes to do any mental review required to respond efficiently and definitively.

Change gears immediately after checking in: If the goal is to spend less mental energy on your e-mail, not more, take the opposite approach. Getting involved in an activity immediately after you check your messages will help you avoid being dragged down by mundane problems. If you plan ahead such that you are completely engaged in an activity immediately after checking in, you can avoid dwelling on issues from back home. For example, I like to check in right before going swimming; while on a run, I will tend to linger over problems, but swimming doesn't seem to allow me the same bad habits. Same for mealtime; if I am enjoying myself talking with family or friends in a restaurant, I'm unlikely to dwell on a work issue for long.

Don't feel like you need to respond right away: Your absence allows you one luxury; you don't have to respond to everything in real time. Check in, let some time pass and respond or act on your own time, not anyone else's. Your response will be better, your resentment less, and your time will remain your own.


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