Road Report:
Connecting from a payphone can save you money

Many people curse payphones as noisy and inconvenient places to go online, but tour guide and travel store owner Bryan Smith uses them all the time to send and receive Email and to stay in touch with his Fresno, California-based business during the frequent tours he leads to Europe. Here's more about how he does it:

Why do you use payphones more than hotel phones?

It would certainly be more convenient to connect from my hotel. If the hotel has good phones, and reasonable charges for local calls, I'll connect from the room phone. But that's rarely the case, especially the reasonable charges part. Many hotels charge 4 to 5 times the normal rate for phone calls.

What type of computer do you carry?

I'm currently using a Newton 110, with a 9600 PC card modem (9600 is about all the speed a 1XX class Newton can handle, so a faster modem would do no good). I use BlackLab's Newton Retriever for access to CompuServe mail and forums, and Graffiti for text input.

I love the Newton. Most people who knock it think it's supposed to be a replacement for laptops. It's not, and it's important to remember that. But for my purposes, it's great - lightweight, compact and runs on 4 AA batteries.

Do you find the Newton limiting for outgoing Email?

For Email, no. The biggest drawback to the Newton is the handwriting recognition for text input. With Graffiti, which uses a slightly modified alphabet to recognize handwriting, I get 95 percent recognition as fast as I can write. I couldn't live without it. I understand the newer Newtons are much better at recognizing handwriting with the normal software. I do find the Newton slow for CompuServe Forum access, because there's no Navigator program, but I understand there is such a program available on the newer Newtons.

You use acoustic couplers to connect to the payphones?

Yes, I use a TeleFast coupler that I've been using for about 2 years. It runs on a single 9 volt battery, and is rated to 28.8k.

What speeds do you normally achieve?

My modem limits me to 9600. I can achieve those speeds pretty easily unless there is a lot of static on the line, or a lot of ambient noise (Vespas whizzing by three feet from the phone booth).

Are your connections reliable?

Once the connection is made, it rarely breaks down. A breakdown usually only happens if a loud vehicle pulls up, or I drop the phone.

Does the coupler work with all payphones?

Occasionally I run a across a phone that won't work, but it's rare. Some cities present more difficulties than others. Florence, Italy is consistently a pain, but I've found one pay phone in the train station that always gives me clean, quick connections (west side vestibule, second phone from the right).

What online service do you use for Email?

I use CompuServe and always call the nearest node offered by CompuServe itself. I don't like messing with log-on scripts for other networks, so I just stick to straight CompuServe nodes. CompuServe has dozens of nodes in most countries, so it's usually a local call.

How do you pay for the payphone call?

Most payphones in Europe now use a pre-paid phone card, instead of coins. These can be purchased at the post office or local tobacco store (depending on the country). The cards are much handier than having to fiddle with coins.

What countries do you connect from?

Wherever I am. Usually that means Europe - I've connected from every country in Western Europe, and from Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland.

Do your connections work better in some countries than others?

It is all dependent on the quality of the local phone lines, but that's true whether you're calling from a pay phone, or from the hotel phone. Connections in Italy can be problematic. Czech and Slovakia were not bad. Poland is shaky.


Bryan Smith owns Bon Voyage!, a company that sells travel books, maps and travel goods, as well as phone adapters, acoustic couplers and other laptop gear, through a retail store and via a catalog. He also leads tours to Europe. The tours, with a maximum group size of eight people, focus on people, culture, and history. This fall he's leading a tour to Eastern Europe, a wine tour of France & Germany, and a tour of Italy. (Aug'01)

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