Beware the 'phantom Internet'

AGIOS NIKOLAOS, GREECE - Here on the island of Crete, the cradle of European civilization, Internet access appears to be everywhere. Unfortunately, I've discovered, appearances can be deceiving.

The guidebooks that write about this town boast of Internet café's galore. And a quick jaunt through this idyllic seaside town shows conspicuous "INTERNET CAFE" and "Wi-Fi" signs everywhere. But when I actually tried to connect, all this access proved illusory.

I started with my own hotel, which advertised free Wi-Fi. But the front desk informed me cheerfully that they'd have the access starting next week. No problem, they said. Just go into town and you'll find plenty of places to connect. The first stop was a kind of government post office, which offered for-pay access to a couple of PCs. That doesn't work for me. For a variety of reasons, I need to connect using my own laptop.

The helpful people at the post office told me where I could find a couple of Internet cafes. The first wasn't open yet for the official tourist season. The second was a coffee house with Wi-Fi, which the waitress told me worked "occasionally" - unfortunately, not on this occasion. No luck.

I wandered all over town asking shopkeepers and hotel clerks where to find access. All sent me to one spot or another that should, would, could, might, or eventually will have access, but none ready to go. After a four-hour scavenger hunt, I returned to my hotel and tried to get lucky mooching off a nearby hotel's connection. I could see a hotel pop up on my "View Wireless Networks" list, but it required a password. So I asked the front desk where to find this hotel, went there and bought access cards costing about $6.25 an hour for a slow connection. Now I'm sitting in a lobby paying more for Internet access than I thought I would have to.

One lesson here is that advanced research about the availability of Internet access options doesn't mean you'll actually be able to connect - at least not cheaply. The other lesson is that it can pay off to pack some kind of Wi-Fi finder, because sometimes the only way to find a connection is by walking around and stumbling into a hotspot.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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