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TRAVEL TIPS - COMMUNICATIONS GADGETS



Leaving It All Behind

How connected are we to our inboxes, voicemail, offices, email pals, wired friends, and other electronic specters? Answer this question: After someone asks how your vacation was, what's the next question out of their mouths?

For me, it's always this: "How many emails were waiting for you when you came back?"

Not too many, I'm sorry to say; I was checking email the entire trip.

Taking It With Us When We Leave It All Behind
Despite our protestations to the contrary, all too often we're taking it with us when we try to leave it all behind. The average carryon doesn't contain only a sweater and a change of clothes suited to the climate at our destination anymore - it includes a PDA; a laptop with converter/phone line/extra battery; a cellphone, a pager, phone cards, email passwords, etc. etc. etc. And even if we have the courage to step away from that info portal and data stream, we can feel as much adrift as liberated.

And it's not just because we're afraid to stop working. Staying connected doesn't always mean working - the torrent of information, gossip, and email idling can sometimes seem like work and be anything but.

Recently a colleague went on vacation during a very busy period of the year. He had planned the two-week vacation for months, and was attending a wedding overseas, so they certainly weren't going to reschedule because he was in the middle of a negotiation.

He told colleagues, friends, and family that he wouldn't be checking email, phone messages, or with assistants. He did make one concession: he gave out phone and fax numbers of his hotels in Europe.

The result: he received not one phone call, came home to an almost empty email box, and was caught up in a day.

I'm not advocating ditching your responsibilities and work to disappear from the data trail entirely. I couldn't give that advice, because I don't take it myself. I'm simply saying that life will go on if, just for a few days, you cease perpetually clicking the Check Mail icons; you turn off your cellphone; you stop dialing into your voicemail at every unoccupied payphone.

Choose Your Weapon and Stick With It
The torrent of new gadgets once seemed full of promise for me; from the lowly pager to your own hard-drive on the Net. But as these gadgets came and went, showed up in all the tech, biz, and lifestyle departments in an endless parade.

Even the novelty of my cellphone has waned; when once I reached and surpassed my monthly time allowances regularly, now I'm literally hours short.

Phones. PDAs. Pagers and portable computers. Push-button technology to the end of our days.

My advice: Pick One.

For me, the laptop does it. The killer travel app of the laptop, email, is versatile (I can send and receive faxes, check any number of email addresses, even receive voicemail) and asynchronous (I can read and answer on my time). If I've prepared correctly, anything I need to respond is right on my laptop.

If you're not tethered to your computer, a PDA or simply a cellphone with a load of numbers stored in memory might do the trick just fine.

Only Dis-Connect
Most of us are looking for some middle road between accessibility and privacy. There are ways to stay connected without disappearing entirely.

Some essential tactics:
1) Set up a vacation/out-of-office email auto-reply. Most folks, once they see one of these, will leave you alone for a few days.

2) Change your voicemail messages. Let folks know that you're not available, and the day of your return. (One exec I know adds a day to his return date - if he's back on a Monday, he'll say Tuesday to buy some time to catch up, and will return calls on Tuesday.)

3) Give out only hotel and fax phone numbers. If there are potential emergencies, and you are absolutely indispensable at home, give out hotel phone and fax numbers. Colleagues and friends who wouldn't think twice about sending an email or leaving a phone message or calling your cell to chat with you on the beach will never go so far as to leave a message with a real human being.

I recommend this even if you travel with a cellphone.

4) If you tell people you'll be checking messages, they'll expect you not only to check messages, but to consider, return, and act upon all messages. As if you were at work.

5) Pick choice words in all vacation announcements (voicemail or email). "If your problem is URGENT;" "If this is an EMERGENCY…"

6) Cellphone voicemail. Use it. Just because the phone rings doesn't mean you have to pick it up. If you are in a meeting or already speaking to someone, unless you are expecting an important call, to answer another phone is outright rude. If I sound old-fashioned, so be it; I'm simply not sure at what point a ringing phone became a reason to stop in your tracks.

7) Unsub from all wire services, professional mailing lists, new book release notifications, hobby listservs, anything that dumps messages into your email box
without prejudice. You're likely going to delete it all without reading it anyway, and it's likely going to crash your email app, so just get it over with. And if your service starts bouncing mail back to listservs, you're going to be extremely unpopular.

8) Don't give out all your numbers. On days when I'm on the road, I've come home to the following: a message on my home phone that says "I'll call your office." A message on the office phone a few minutes later that says "I'll call your cellphone." A message on the cellphone that says "Where are you? I left a message at your home and office." Then they got online, and left an email.

9) Return calls after office hours (or during business hours if you're calling a residence). Many problems can often be solved by simply leaving a message, but if you call during business hours and actually get someone on the phone, it can be very difficult not to be dragged into whatever is happening.

10) Make all your contacts at the same time. If you absolutely must check in, do it in one fell swoop, and be done with it. Fire up your computer, check your email and voicemail, return calls and email, and make notes in a single sitting. If you spread it out in small episodes throughout the day, you're never really away from it.

Things to Leave Behind
1) The extra battery. Outlets are everywhere.

2) Redundant technology. Checking email with the cellphone, phone messages with email, all of them with PDAs, leads to unparalleled data clutter. My advice, as mentioned above: pick your app, and stick to it.

3) Email addictions and other habitual behaviors. The early morning email check, the late evening email roundup - these tend to cut into the very best times of the day, the time you should be reclaiming, especially if you are on vacation.

4) Overactive vocal cords. Please, no reason to shout into your cellphone so we all know how important you are. We won't like you any less if we don't know all your business, and in truth don't care about your business, really. Trust me.

The Low-Tech Option
On one recent two-day weekend trip, I hauled a full laptop, complete with a tangle of connectors and cables, a cellphone, an address book, a tape recorder, and a printed/emailed/memorized to-do list, all so I could do about 90 minutes work. And that work wasn't even very efficient. As a matter of fact, it was a waste of time, energy, and patience, as well as carryon space.

On my next trip, I'm bringing one essential tool: a notebook.

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