I started writing this column about Internet cafes while I was sitting in one, watching the Mediterranean off Spain's Costa del Sol shimmering just a block away. A fishing boat trolled near the coastline, trailed by a small flock of sea gulls too proud to beg scraps from tourists bronzing on the beach. A waiter stopped by the table and asked whether I would like to order. I declined, thanked him and returned to my task.
OK, I admit it: The Mediterranean was a distraction, and I didn't get much work done. But I did check my e-mail and brokerage account and pay a few bills online. I even checked the weather in Madrid, my next stop, and double-checked flight times. The cost? About $1 for 15 minutes of Internet access.
If you're like me, you find it difficult to be away from the Internet for very long. You can lug your laptop around the world, but with hotel phone costs, access fees that vary greatly by country and foreign phone line and power connections, who needs the hassle? Besides, a computer takes up space in luggage that could be better filled with souvenirs.
Thanks to the growing number of Internet cafes around the globe, you can get your Web fix easily and inexpensively, from Australia to Andalusia. Finding one is as easy as asking the front desk clerk in your hotel for directions or going online to scope out the territory.
The first of a chain of Web way stations called easyInternetcafe opened a 330-computer facility across from London's bustling Victoria Station in June 1999. Now it has locations throughout Europe, including 14 cafes with more than 2,500 computers in London alone. About 2 million people a month log on to the Internet using an easyInternetcafe computer.
Now easyInternetcafe is making a push into the U.S. market. It opened its first cafe outside Europe in New York's Times Square in November 2000. With 648 computers in this location, easyInternetcafe claims it is the world's largest such establishment.
"When we started, America was amazed," says James Rothnie, an easyInternetcafe spokesman. "Internet cafes were sort of here for a short time and died a quick death. We were told, 'You're coming after the funeral.' "
You'll find Internet cafes scattered around the U.S., but easy Internetcafe is the "first to apply a brand and some scale to a cottage industry," Rothnie says. The company plans to open smaller cafes in shared space with existing businesses that will make low-cost Internet access available and affordable.
"We believed the barrier to entry was price," Rothnie says of the demise of the early attempts at U.S. Internet cafes. "There are those who can afford to be online and those who can't. Internet access isn't really that cheap" by the time you buy a computer and pay for an access provider and a phone line.
I've used several easyInternet cafes, including the one near Victoria Station, and you don't have to be a Net wizard to make it work for you. The highly automated operation helps keep costs low.
Using coins or bills (payment by credit or ATM cards is in the works), you prepay in a machine that issues a slip of paper that shows an identification number, a password and the number of minutes you purchased. You then enter those into a log-in screen on an open terminal. An on-screen timer keeps track of your minutes. If time remains on your prepaid slip when you're ready to log off, you can use it on your next visit.
Cost is based on use and demand. Mornings generally are less expensive. Costs average $1.65 an hour in London, Rothnie says.
In Times Square, you can get online for as little as $1, which buys you about 30 minutes at peak times.
Compare that with the Cyber Cafe Times Square just down the street in New York. It charges $12.80 an hour to access the Internet, with a minimum half-hour charge. It's costlier than easyInternetcafes partly because there is staff on duty (easy Internetcafe is self-service) and partly because of its smaller scale (18 computers versus 648).
But, says Evan Galbraith, owner of Cyber Cafe, "Generally people
At independent cafes, payment is usually handled by checking in with a person who times your computer use, then totals your tab (plus any items ordered off the menu).
If you want to see whether your destination has an Internet cafe, check www.cybercafes.com. It lists more than 4,000 such places in 140 countries. But there may be more than those listed. In Nerja, the Spanish town I was visiting, it showed only the Med Web Cafe, but I saw at least three others. You also can use a search engine, entering the term "Internet cafe" and the city you are visiting.
If you're traveling in the United States, you also might try Kinko's. Computer rental with high-speed Internet access generally costs 20 cents a minute or $12 an hour.
Many business hotels also have business centers where you can access the Net, though like any hotel-provided service, they tend to be pricey.
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James Gilden writes the Internet Traveler twice monthly. He can be contacted at www.theinternettraveler.com.