Working Vacation

I'm at the Cybergate Cafe in Zurich's main train station checking my e-mail, still not believing that this whole crazy idea just might work.

The cafe sits at the far end of the cavernous American Bar and Bistro restaurant and blends in so well you have to look hard to see that keyboards, not plates, occupy the hands of mostly eighteen-somethings surfing the Web. The manager of the cafe speaks better English than I do, but the babble of German, French and Italian conversations is a lyrical reminder that after years of dreaming about living in Europe for the summer, my time has come.

Here I am.

Perhaps the most compelling notion about the digital age is that it makes place irrelevant. Why stay chained to a desk when a laptop computer and a wireless Internet connection make the office completely portable? That's the proposition I decided to test this summer by taking my family--and my freelance writing business--on a two-month tour of Europe.

So far, just a few days into the challenge, I realize that it's possible, but not easy.

If you think only writers and the other .02% of the work force who own portable businesses can pull off a working vacation in Europe, think again. Granted, a car dealer might find it hard to keep the revenue flowing

while in Europe, but many people who spend the better part of their day on a computer and the phone can probably telecommute from Europe, Asia, Australia or whatever continent is calling them.

It's not as easy as AT&T;, Sprint and others make it look in their ads, but it is definitely doable, as I am finding out here in Zurich.

I had planned to arrive in Europe with my two most important business tools up and running: a worldwide wireless phone and global e-mail access. To make this working vacation work, my clients had to get in touch with me in Zurich, London and Athens as easily as they could at my home office in Sandy, Utah.

My initial plan was to buy a modem card for my Macintosh G3 Powerbook laptop and a mobile phone that would connect to the card so I could log on the Web from a bench beneath the Eiffel Tower or a ferry crossing the Aegean Sea.

For the next nine weeks, we will be staying in pensions, family-run hotels and self-catering cottages, none of which is known for dependable phone service or, in some cases, any phone service at all. I also couldn't count on finding a cyber cafe in every town or that a cafe would be open when I needed it. My clients were five to nine time zones away. If they asked for a project ASAP, I wanted to deliver.

Worldwide Internet access was a relative snap. I signed up with iPass through my Internet service provider in Salt Lake City. IPass has 12,000 points of presence, or POPs, in 150 countries. That means just about anywhere you go in the civilized world, iPass has a local phone number you can dial to go online. And the price is right: as little as $3 to $5 an hour (they bill by the minute so why they quote hourly rates is a mystery) at speeds as fast as 56 kilobits per second in all the countries we'll be visiting. There are no activation fees or software to buy. You're simply billed for the minutes you use.

I wasn't as lucky finding a cell phone/modem card combo. After several weeks of visiting strip-mall phone stores and making dozens of calls to customer-service and support reps at Motorola, Nextel, Psion and other communications companies, this is what I found out: 3Com has a modem card that will work in my laptop, but I would have had to hunt down a cell phone (3Com does provide a partial list) that's compatible with the card.

I also would have to call another vendor to purchase a phone-to-card cable. Not one person I talked to could offer me a bundled solution or steer me to someone who could. So I started calling the cell phone companies on 3Com's list. The first few said their phones would work in the United States with 3Com's card, but not in Europe.

That's when I gave up.

Call me a quitter, but I had made four times more phone calls than usual when hunting down a technology solution and was still at a dead end. I'm not saying the technology isn't out there, I just couldn't find it.

Besides, my gut told me that even if I did jury-rig something, I would end up being a guinea pig for a never-been-tried mobile phone/cable/modem card concoction that was expensive to buy and expensive to use.

Those services I found that might have worked quoted me prices anywhere from 99 cents to $3 or more per minute to make and receive calls depending on the country I was in and the cell phone plan I chose. On top of that, I was told I wouldn't get Internet speeds higher than 19 Kbps to 24 Kbps. If a client sent me a few large files, download charges alone could eat up a lot of the profit.

Time for Plan B: buy a one-number, worldwide cell phone so clients could call me directly and purchase a prepaid calling card so I could return calls from a pay phone for 40% to 80% less than cell phone prices. I will depend on cyber cafes and iPass for online access. The best prepaid phone card deal I found was the Sprint card sold at Costco. Calls from England to the United States are 40 cents a minute and 80 cents from Greece.

I called a friend of mine who owns Q Comm International, a prepaid telecommunications services company, to see whether Sprint really was the best deal in town. It was. When the conversation veered toward cell phones, he explained that he recently traveled to England and upon landing bought a mobile phone from a mom-and-pop shop along with a prepaid plan that charged him 20 cents a minute for calls to the U.S. and no charge, to him, for calls he received from the U.S. That sounded like a plan.

Without trying, I found a half-dozen phone stores within a block of Zurich's train station. After visiting them all, I ended up buying a Motorola Timeport 250 GSM tri-band mobile phone. Because I was purchasing a prepaid and not an annual plan, I had to pay full price for the phone, about $270. That hurt.

A phone that covered only Switzerland cost less than half that, but I had to be global. I did get a good deal on my per-minute rate, though. Orange, one of the largest pan-European prepaid phone companies, will let me call the States for about 50 cents a minute from Switzerland and, according to the Motorola rep, quite a bit less from Paris and London.

That's where I stand after the first day of my working vacation. Now all I have to do is get through the remaining 62 1/2 days without missing a client call, frying my modem on a high-voltage spike, getting my laptop pinched or arriving penniless in Paris only to find the ATM thinks I'm Elvis.

I'll stop there.

Everything will be fine.

Later today, I plan to make a pilgrimage to James Joyce's grave in Zurich's Fluntern Cemetery. In the morning, we're catching a TGV bullet train to Paris. It's a six-hour journey. We'll pass along the shore of Lake Geneva, cross the French Alps, then wind through the vineyards of Burgundy before arriving at Gare de Lyon.

During the ride, as 2,000 years of European history pass by the window, my virtual office will be open for business--as usual.


Kevin Ryan is a freelance writer and author of the upcoming business-writing book, "Write Up the Corporate Ladder."

About this Series

The thought of living untethered from the desk is one of the great allures of the technological age. Writer Kevin Ryan decided to put the concept to the test by taking his family--and his business--on a two-month tour of Europe.

Today: Getting started

In July: How reality compares with the dream

In August: Things that would have been nice to know in the beginning

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