During a Mexican cruise, I kept up e-mail connections through a series of Internet cafes with their own hardware, where service was both...

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During a Mexican cruise, I kept up e-mail connections through a series of Internet cafes with their own hardware, where service was both expensive (on board) and cheap (on shore).

My most recent vacation was quite different. During the voyage to New York and Washington, D.C., my connections relied on a wireless laptop, and I managed to visit only one location that featured its own hardware. And unlike the “Internet Aqui” signs that clog every Mexican street, I had to actually ask directions from three people before finding that place.

So just when I got used to the idea of decreasing dependence on the laptop, and switched entirely over to a Web mail system, things change. Am I complaining? Well, no. If things stayed the same for more than six months in this brave new world I’d start to worry. But this is a little disconcerting.

A prevalence of bring-your-own wireless laptop stations instead of free-standing Internet cafés turns access into an elitist tool, with a price of admission.

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You probably can’t stop this tide. Wireless connectivity has matured to a point where certain truths apply. You open your computer and select a network, but this precedes the moment of truth — how much it costs. Careless travelers will sign up once at each location. Some of us are so desperate for contact that we sign up for three different services in the course of every trip, so we are never disconnected.

My moment of truth — and liberation — came in the Salt Lake City Airport, where I had the option to spend $9 for a few minutes of log-on time, just two hours from home. I chose not, and nothing collapsed (that I know about).

I pretty much winged it this time, and spent some money unnecessarily. Next time, I’ll research the individual airports in advance, to see which locations offer what. I’ll subscribe to a single service that is active where I’m going. This time I first logged into a Barnes and Noble and paid a monthly fee, allowing me to stop at several bookstores along the East Coast.

Next time I will get a T-Mobile account, and consider many of the gazillion Starbucks across the country as an office away from home.

You can’t always plan, as the chain store of your choice may use a different service, which means you need to sign up again. This can cause trouble. Many of us barely read the fine print, and will check any box in order to get online now. My own tale: Upon arriving home, it became clear that I had inadvertently signed a one-year contract with a $100 cancellation fee. The service graciously agreed to forfeit, but you can’t do that more than once.

And you sometimes find wireless serendipitously. Two locations where I was a houseguest benefited from “leakage” from the neighbors, although on my visit’s third day the service mysteriously disappeared.

This situation leads to a moral discussion that can go on for hours, but I justified my behavior this way: As a guest, and not a permanent resident, I didn’t provide a long-term resource drain. And if people were really concerned about bandwidth “theft,” they need only to add a password.

Still, it makes no sense to make any rules. It will all change again, before the ink dries.

If you have questions or suggestions for Charles Bermant, you can contact him by e-mail at cbermant@seattletimes.com. Type Inbox in the subject field. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.