The Wired Snowbird: Travels with my Laptop

Spring 2005 CSANews Issue 54  |  Posted date : May 17, 2007.Back to list

You're thousands of miles from your snow-bound home, basking in the midday rays, when a nagging doubt arises: wasn't there a gas bill due about now back home? No problem: you sent the gas company a stack of post-dated cheques before you left. But what if this month's cheque isn't enough? Should you have told Aunt Millie to open your mail and left her some cash to cover those bills? Should you call your gas company long distance right now and sort it out? These are not the kind of annoyances you need on your tropical winter break. How great it would be to be able to review that bill immediately and pay the exact amount – on the exact due date.

Well, now you can! From the comfort of your holiday home. Anywhere in the world. And, thanks to modern technology, it isn't hard. It all starts with a computer and an Internet connection at your winter home. I recommend using a portable notebook (AKA laptop) computer. You can install all the software and data you need before you leave Canada, and it travels easily with you.

Reviewing your bills online can be a breeze using the notification services now offered by many Canadian service providers and utilities. Each month, they send you an e-mail note instead of a paper bill. You then log onto their website and review your bill in detail. You don't need Aunt Millie back home opening your mail. In many cases, you can also pay using the biller's secure website, or you can use your Canadian bank's online banking service.

And That's Not All
I decided to test this approach during a recent three-month stay in Australia. And I learned that there are other ways in which a laptop can make your life easier:

Managing Your Banking
You probably already use online banking at home. So why not extend your reach and have the same tools available while you're away?

Really Chatting with Friends
To avoid those troublesome long-distance phone bills, you can actually talk to your friends over the Internet, bypassing the traditional phone system. Using a technology called "Voice over Internet Protocol" (VoIP), your laptop's microphone and speakers take the place of the phone and the Internet takes the place of the phone network. The big plus is that you can talk for free with your brother Frank from anywhere in the world, for as long as you like. The small catch is that Frank needs to be at his computer using the same software as you use.

Saving those Memories
According to a recent survey, 45 per cent of Canadian adults now own or have access to a digital camera1. If you're one of these, your digital camera is the perfect partner for your laptop. You can move photos from your camera onto your hard drive, freeing up your camera's memory. Once they're on your laptop, you can easily sort and edit your pictures, choosing a few sunny shots to e-mail to your grandchildren. If you still want paper prints to show off, you can selectively print only the ones you want.

Staying in Touch with Friends and Family
Most of us are familiar with e-mail, which is good for longish messages with longish periods of time between responses. An alternative method is to use a chat service, which is immediate and interactive: you type a short message to your friend; she reads it immediately and types her reply, which you see instantly. It's like a conversation based on typing rather than talking.

Moving and Grooving
Some of us really miss our home music libraries when we're away. Fortunately, you can still settle back on those tropical nights and listen to your favourite recordings without hauling a suitcase full of CDs with you. By copying your CDs onto your hard drive before you leave, your laptop replaces an expensive audio system, storing and playing hundreds of songs. For my Australia trip, I brought more than 50 of my CDs along, all stored in my laptop.

What You Need
So what do you need in order to reap all these benefits? I'm assuming here that you have some basic computer skills; you can create and organize files, use e-mail, surf the Internet, download and install software.

First of all, you'll need a computer. Laptops come in all sizes and weights, so shop carefully and choose one that works for your lifestyle. There are some helpful reviews at reviews.cnet.com and www.notebookreview.com.

You'll need a way to connect your laptop to the Internet, with either a high-speed or a cheaper dial-up connection. The two most popular high-speed technologies are Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), available from your phone company, and cable Internet, available from your cable provider.

All of the necessary cables and software you'll need for photo transfer and management come packaged with your digital camera. If you want to print your digital photos, you'll need a colour printer. In Australia, I picked up a jazzy little ink-jet model that prints 4" x 6" borderless photos that are indistinguishable from the ones you get from the photo kiosk.

To listen to music stored on your hard drive, you'll need computer speakers or headphones.

Making it Happen
As with all major achievements, a bit of preparation is essential before you leave home. First of all, make sure that your laptop's e-mail directory contains the contact details of the people with whom you'll want to correspond. Include postal addresses and phone numbers, as well as e-mail addresses.

Next, check out your billers, including telephone, electricity, power, water, credit cards, cable, insurance and taxes, to see if they offer an online bill notification service. I found that all of my billers did, with one exception: the city's water department. Fortunately, they had signed up as a "mailer" with epost2, Canada Post's e-mail bill notification system (www.epost.ca). If a biller doesn't offer secure online payment, arrange to pay them using your online banking service. You may even avoid some bills completely: Rogers cable, for example, offers a service called "Traveller's Ticket" that allows you to suspend your service for two to six months, reactivating it on your return for a small fee (www.rogers.com).

Find out about Internet access at your destination. For high-speed services, check out the local phone and cable companies. Most will offer a month-by-month option that does not require a long-term commitment. Since there may be a lead time of several weeks, you might prefer to order the service before you leave Canada.

Ask if your friends or family subscribe to a chat service and sign up for whichever ones you will need. The most popular ones are MSN Messenger (messenger.msn.ca) and Yahoo Messenger (messenger.yahoo.com), each of which provides some free software you'll need to download.

If you'd like to go the VoIP route, I recommend the free software and service from Skype Software (www.skype.com). Remember, you can only talk with other Skype users, so your friends will need to sign up too. Do a test call before you leave, to verify the sound quality of your laptop's built-in microphone and speaker. My Dell worked like a charm but if it hadn't, a cheap computer headset with microphone would have solved the problem.

Install the software that came with your digital camera and make sure that you can copy photos to your hard drive. Don't forget to pack the transfer cables and your camera's battery charger.

Using your media player – Macintosh users have iTunes and Windows users will probably use Windows Media Player – copy your music selection from your CDs to your hard drive.

Finally, make sure that you have up-to-date virus protection on your system and please, please, please back up all your files and pack your back-up separately from your laptop.

When you arrive at your winter destination, all you need to do is finalize the arrangements for Internet access with your service provider of choice. Unpack your laptop, plug it into the Internet connection, power it up and pour yourself a coffee. Congratulations, you're all connected and ready to go!

What about cost? Laptops are as little as $1,000 from Canadian retailers. A colour ink-jet printer and speaker system will each set you back less than $100. High-speed Internet service in the U.S. starts at about $US40 per month. Keep an eye out for promotions and packages.

This might seem like a lot of time and money to spend for a simple three-month hiatus in the sun, where you'll be spending all of your time outdoors anyway. But once it's set up, the ongoing cost and effort are minimal. My setup in Australia worked like a charm, and I can use it again for forthcoming trips. By avoiding all those financial hassles, staying in touch while you're away, and simplifying some of your holiday entertainment, you've just improved the quality of your life. And, after all, isn't that what your winter migration is all about?