When someone sends you an email message, they often expect a response, occasionally even a prompt one. Whether they're business customers with questions or urgent issues, or your Uncle Joe emailing you the latest photos of his bunions, if you get as much email as I do every day, it can be difficult to keep up.
So, what happens when you take a vacation and won't have access to email? Unless you have someone to whom you can delegate answering your email, this can be a problem. A reasonable solution
While there might be a situation where you would send out an email announcing that you'll be away, a more targeted approach is to have some technology that replies to each person's email, telling them that you're away and won't be able to reply until you're back. This is typically called a "vacation reply" or "away message," although some systems use the more general terms "auto-reply" or "auto-responder." The wrong place to look for the solution
If you use "regular" email software like Outlook Express, Outlook, Apple Mail, etc., you're not going to find a "vacation reply" function. If you look closely you might find the ability to create an email "filter" or "rule," which you could
use to make your email software reply to every incoming email with a message telling the person that you'll be away, but this is not
a good solution for a number of reasons:
- It depends upon your computer being left on while you're away.
- It depends upon your internet connection working while you're away.
- It may cause a dangerous "email loop" to occur (see below for details).
- It may cause other unpredictable problems, especially if you have multiple email addresses.
- Or, it might just not work at all.
On the other hand, if you use webmail then you're one step closer to doing this correctly. However, for some of the same reasons listed above, don't create a "reply to everyone" rule or filter in your webmail. The right place to set up your vacation reply
The place to activate your vacation reply is your email server. It's "upstream" from your computer, and it receives and stores your incoming email 24 hours a day, so it's completely independent of your computer.
You get access to your email server by signing into your webmail, i.e., by opening your web browser (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, etc.), going to the web site for your email server, and logging in with your email address and password. The web site you go to depends on your email address:
- If you have a consumer email address like firstname.lastname@example.org you'll find your webmail at http://www.gmail.com, for email@example.com you'd go to http://www.verizon.net, etc.
- If you have a domain email address like firstname.lastname@example.org, you'll need to ask your email hosting company for the web address of your webmail. It's usually a variation of the domain name ("kadansky.com" in this example).
Once you sign into your webmail, the vacation reply function may or may not be easy to find. On some systems you click on "Preferences" or "Settings" or "Options," and then look for a function called "vacation reply," "away message," "out of office," "automatic reply," "auto-reply," "auto-responder," etc. If you can't find it, ask your email company or check the online help.
The vacation reply function is very common, but some email companies may not provide it. For example, RCN email didn't have this function until just a few years ago.
Here are a few common consumer webmail sites and how to access their corresponding vacation reply functions:Setting up your vacation reply
Once you locate the vacation reply function in your webmail, to activate it:
- You may have to click on a button to "enable" or "activate" it, or to declare that you're "out of the office."
- You'll need to compose the "body" of the reply message that the server will send.
- Some systems let you set the start and end dates during which the vacation reply will be active. This not only lets you set this up in advance of your trip, it also turns it off for you when you get back without any additional effort on your part.
- Be sure to click the appropriate "Save" button to save your changes.
Once you've set it up, have a friend or colleague test it by sending you an email and then letting you know if they receive the automatic reply. Unless you have multiple email addresses, this is a better (and less confusing) test than sending a test email to yourself.
Once you figure out how to activate it, I recommend writing down the steps so you won't have to figure it out again next time, either on paper or in a document on your computer.
Here are some examples of vacation replies:
How your vacation reply function avoids dangerous "email loops"
- "Thanks for your message. I won't have access to email until Monday January 10. I'll do my best to get back to you then. Martin"
- "I will be out of the office starting July 1 and returning on July 8. I will respond to your message when I return. Regards, Martin Kadansky, Kadansky Consulting, Inc."
- "I am away, returning on Tuesday, March 16. I will not have access to my email until I return. If you need help before then, please contact Mary Smith at email@example.com or (617) 555-1234. Regards, Martin."
Let's say I've just set up a vacation reply on my email account. Then, imagine that my Uncle Joe sets up his own vacation reply, sends me his latest "All about my bunions" email, and then leaves on a walking tour of Ireland. What happens next?
- My email server will receive Uncle Joe's email, and send him my vacation reply.
- Uncle Joe's email server will receive my vacation reply, and send me his vacation reply.
- My email server will receive Uncle Joe's vacation reply, and then....
Here is the critical moment. If my server sends back another automatic reply, this could go on forever, filling up my mailbox, Uncle Joe's mailbox, and bogging down part of the internet as well for days or weeks until one of us finally comes home and turns our vacation reply off!
The good news is that most email servers avoid
this problem by keeping track of each address to which they've sent your vacation reply and don't
send it to anyone more than once. So, in my example, after receiving Uncle Joe's vacation reply, my email server would see that it had already sent my vacation reply to Uncle Joe once, so it would not send him any more
. Don't forget to turn it off when you get back!
Since you don't see your vacation reply in action, it's easy to forget that it's active. I recommend leaving yourself a paper note taped to your computer keyboard (or monitor or desk phone) to insure that you'll turn it off when you get back. The downsides of using a vacation reply
Even with the clever logic to avoid replying more than once to each person, your email server's vacation reply function is still a "robot" that replies to everyone who sends you email. This means that it will reply to messages that you probably wouldn't have, especially spam, which will probably lead to your receiving more spam. You will have to weigh the benefits of using a vacation reply against this possible "cost."
Also, just like email messages that you send yourself, vacation replies may not arrive (they may get caught in spam filters or have other delivery issues), or the recipients may simply not notice them. Having a real person answer your email while you're away
You may decide that having a person to whom you can delegate answering your email while you're away is better than using a vacation reply. If so, think about how that person will get access to your email messages:
- You may give them physical (in-person) access to your computer, or you may set them up with "remote" access to your computer over the internet.
- You may let them access your email account using their computer (as long as your computer isn't left on to "clean out" the new incoming messages).
- You may choose to forward your email messages to that person's email account, which may mean that their replies will come from their address and not yours.
Whatever method you decide to use, you will need to set up this access when you leave, and turn it off again when you get back. Conclusions
Where to go from here
- When you go away, weigh the trade-offs between using a vacation reply, delegating your email to another person, or simply doing nothing until you return.
- Don't try to improvise a vacation reply as an email rule or filter in your email program or webmail. Instead, find the specific vacation reply function in your webmail. It will do the job in a better, safer, and more efficient manner.
- Find out how to access your webmail, and where its "vacation reply" function is located. If you can't find it, ask your ISP or email company. (If they don't provide it, ask them to implement it or you might just take your business to another company that does provide it. If enough people ask, they may eventually add it.)
- Write down the steps required to both activate and deactivate your vacation reply so you won't have to figure them out each time.
- If you have more than one email account, you'll need to do this for each one.
- Right before you leave on your trip, tape a paper note to your keyboard (or monitor or desk phone) reminding you to turn your vacation reply off when you get back.
- Do the same for your answering machine or voicemail greeting--Don't forget to update it when you leave, and leave yourself a note to update it again when you return.
If you're confused or frustrated by something on your computer, I like to say, "You can do it!" You might just need a little encouragement, or information, or change of perspective, and that's where I come in.