E-Mail on Vacation

Today is the first day of summer. And that brings us to the inevitable question: Are you going to check e-mail when you're on vacation?

This week I'll make an argument for and against, plus offer some tips for whichever path you choose.

Reasons for Staying Connected

Many people loathe returning from a nice, relaxing vacation only to be inundated with a million e-mails. It's a shock to the system. Slogging through all those messages on your first day back is enough to make you wish you'd kept up on e-mail while away.

Along with all the junk e-mail with subject lines such as "You are man with great future, for sureSoft Viagra," it's also possible that a time-sensitive business opportunity may have been offered to you while you were away. This is a particularly worrisome possibility for small-business owners and reason enough to stay connected.

If you decide to check e-mail on vacation, I suggest the following:

Read e-mail only once a day. Ideally, check your messages in the morning. Get it over with so you can get back to your vacation. Whatever you do, don't check e-mail late at night. Inevitably, someone will pose a question or present a business problem that requires a thoughtful response--and that's not the kind of thing you want to read right before bedtime.

Leave the smart phone behind. CrackBerry addicts and users of e-mail-enabled devices will be especially tempted to check messages during any lull in activity, such as waiting in line for a ride at Disney World. To resist that temptation, leave your gadget in the hotel when you go out. If you need a phone, ask to use your traveling partner's. If you both need your phones--well, are you sure you're really enjoying this vacation?

Check e-mail at an Internet cafe. By checking e-mail in a neighborhood cafe, you can absorb some local color and possibly even get to know some locals. And you're limiting your e-mail habit to the daily coffee-shop visit, preventing you from, say, checking e-mail on the beach. Granted, cafes with computer terminals aren't as plentiful as they once were, given how many people carry laptops now. Still, it's worth a shot. Check our Hotspot Finder for Internet cafes near your vacation destination.

For more tips, visit our Communications Infocenter.

Arguments for Staying Offline

Everyone deserves at least one week off a year from all responsibilities, or at least from as many as possible. But how can you accomplish this if you're continuing to check e-mail? The truth is, you can't. Each message you read, asking your opinion on this or your help on that, requires you to mentally break away from your vacation and focus on something back home. The more messages you read while on vacation, the less you're able to "get away from it all" and the less refreshed and recharged you'll be upon return.

I realize that some of you enjoy those little e-mail breaks from your vacation. Maybe you can't fully relax when you're out of the loop. Fair enough--but your inability or lack of desire to disconnect will likely create conflict with your traveling partners. Your companions, most likely, want you to be with them in spirit as well as in body.

So how can you disconnect for a week without losing out on potential opportunities? One option is to use an automated e-mail vacation reply, informing those who've written you that you're without e-mail access and will reply to messages beginning on a specified date. The potential downside, and it's a big one, is that any automated response to a spammer will validate your e-mail address--which could get you on even more mailing lists.

If you work for a company that uses Microsoft Exchange for e-mail administration, this is less of a concern, says Simon Blackstein, senior network engineer for IT consulting firm MicroMenders. Exchange administrators can disallow auto replies to be sent to anyone outside of your organization. (Some other e-mail systems can do this, too, Blackstein adds.)

Otherwise, there are tools you can use to send automated vacation responses to authorized recipients only. For example, Spam Arrest ($20 for a six-month subscription) has an Auto-Reply feature in which your automated responses are sent to senders whom you have previously authorized or who authorize themselves using Spam Arrest's Challenge/Response system. The potential downside: Some legitimate e-mail senders dislike having to prove their authenticity. (I haven't tested Spam Arrest.)

For tips on dealing with spam, read Senior Editor Denny Arar's "Spam Explodes, but You Can Fight Back."

Here's another option: E-mail everyone you've done business with in the past few months. Tell them of the dates you'll be on vacation and give them your return-to-work date. You might even consider giving them your cell phone number to call in an emergency. Don't send one message to everyone, however--that would be bad form. Instead, take the opportunity to connect with each person one-on-one. You might even get some new business to help you pay for your next trip.

Mobile Computing News, Reviews & Tips

Google on the Go: Both Google and Yahoo offer mobile versions of their Web services that are tailored for use on wireless handsets. Which service rules? They each have their pros and cons, says our "Dialed In" columnist Grace Aquino. Among them: Google's mobile tools run on more mobile operating systems than Yahoo's. And while Google's mobile offerings are piecemeal and less jazzy than Yahoo's, you can download all of them at once.

Blackberry Curve and T-Mobile Dash: Jonesin' for a peek at two hot new smart phones? PC World's Denny Arar shows off the BlackBerry Curve and T-Mobile Dash in a recent online video. Denny's take: Either phone is a good choice for someone who wants a phone that's stylish and yet useful for business.

HTC's Touch Jumps the Gun on Apple's iPhone: Like Apple's upcoming iPhone, the HTC Touch is a new smart phone that depends heavily on the fingertip as an input device. Example: Swiping your finger on the screen upwards conjures up a scrollable list of contacts. Swipe left to access buttons for multimedia applications; swipe left again, and you get a collection of preset application launchers. HTC's Touch is a Windows Mobile GSM phone. As of this writing, the phone should be available in Asia and Europe; it's not expected in the U.S. until later this year. There's no word on pricing yet, though HTC's phones are rarely more than $400.

Suggestion Box

Is there a particularly cool mobile computing product or service I've missed? Got a spare story idea in your back pocket? Tell me about it. However, I regret that I'm unable to respond to tech-support questions, due to the volume of e-mail I receive.

Contributing Editor James A. Martin offers tools, tips, and product recommendations to help you make the most of computing on the go. Martin is also author of the Traveler 2.0 blog. Sign up to have the Mobile Computing Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.
To comment on this article and other PCWorld content, visit our Facebook page or our Twitter feed.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon