Internet access while traveling abroad
This article is a travel topic
As technology to provide us more ways of accessing the internet more often and at lower prices has developed, we have only brought the internet into our lives in more ways. No longer is email something we check only after we get home from a long busy day. Smartphones, now to be had by constantly increasing numbers in the population, give us instant access to our email wherever we happen to be, and even alert us the moment we receive mail. They are something many of us cannot stand to do without for even a short time.
Thanks to new innovations, we can now access the internet nearly everywhere in the world. It is in our reach in many places in big cities, small towns, in the woods, in the mountains, in the air, and at sea.
Currently, however, internet access while traveling abroad, especially on mobile devices, comes at a premium. Most carriers charge heavy prices for use of the service outside the boundaries of their territory. Many hotels charge for the use of their WiFi service. And cruise ships charge heavy prices per minute for any internet access at all.
The internet can be accessed on many different types of devices, including desktop computers, laptops, tablets, mobile phones, and e-readers. There are several types of connections to the internet, including dial-up, hard-wired DSL, wifi, and cellular signal. The latter two are the most common forms used today.
There is an attitude among some people that the internet should be avoided during travel so one can enjoy their trip. Even for those who feel this way, the internet can still be a very useful tool to the traveler. It allows travelers to read about attractions they plan to visit, and to see maps of how to get there. VOIP services, including Skype, allow travelers to keep in touch with family and friends back at home often for free, when the same could come at a hefty cost over a traditional phone line. The internet can also come in handy for those who have incomplete travel plans and need to book or change a hotel mid-trip, or for those who arrive at a hotel unhappy and want to find a new place to stay.
Types of devices
The following types of devices are capable of accessing the internet:
A desktop computer is a full computer that includes a separate keyboard, monitor, mouse, speakers, and more. Due to the large number of pieces of equipment it has, it is typically placed on a desk, hence the name. Desktop computers are decreasing in popularity as smaller, more portable devices are growing. Nevertheless, desktop computers still have a place in this world.
As a traveler, it is unlikely you will be toting around a desktop computer. Still, you may find yourself using one that is stationed somewhere for the convenience of travelers. Desktop computers are typically found in libraries and on cruise ships, occasionally in hotel lobbies, and even more rarely in hotel rooms.
A laptop computer is a device that folds in half, with one half containing the screen and the other half containing the keyboard. Laptop computers vary in size. The smallest laptops, which are typically 7-10", are sometimes referred to as "notebooks." Laptops, which are capable of performing most of the functions of desktop computers, are frequently toted around by travelers, whether the purpose of the trip be business or pleasure.
A tablet computer is a flat device that is mostly taken up by a screen. Tablet computers have no hard keyboards and few hard buttons. The keyboards of tablet computers are virtual, popping up on the screen when needed. There are many brands of tablet computers, though the most popular brand is Apple's iPad, whose name is nearly synonymous with tablet computers.
Tablet computers are valued by travelers for their portability. They are very lightweight and can fit easily into a traveling bag. But they do have limitations as opposed to desktop and laptop computers, which is why some travelers, particularly business travelers, may still need to bring along a laptop.
Most tablet computers can access the internet via a WiFi signal only. Following their purchase, their use is totally free, provided that they are within range of a WiFi signal, which may or may not be free. Some versions of the iPad and certain other tablets can also access the internet via a mobile phone signal. A subscription is required if this is the case.
A smartphone is a mobile phone capable of accessing the internet, though the term "smartphone" is generally used to refer to those with keyboards. Some smartphones have a QWERTY keyboard made of hard keys. Others have a touch screen with a virtual keyboard that pops up on demand. Also, some many mobile devices without QWERTY keyboards can access the internet, though it may be more difficult to use. There are advantages to each of these, though the touch screen allows the device to be treated more like a regular computer and is less strenuous on the fingers if used for a lot of typing.
An e-reader is a device that is designed to be used to store books electronically. Many e-readers are also capable of accessing the internet. Some even have the ability to do so through the cellular network. Some e-readers can be used to a degree like tablet computers, and some double as tablet computers.
Methods of connection
Dial-up internet connection is the old-fashioned method. It involves the use of a computer hooked up to a phone line that dials into the network. Though less common, this still exists in some places, especially where the budget is low. It is used primarily for desktop computers, so it is less likely to be the method used by travelers. And since it is not portable, it is not used in mobile format. Some providers allow unlimited access for one price; others give you a limit to the number of minutes you use.
Hard-wired internet is DSL access through a cable that is plugged into your computer, that being either a desktop or laptop. Found less often these days than in the past, as we have long entered the wireless age, it still exists in some places, and some hotels only offer hard-wired access. Hard-wired access has the drawback that it cannot be used if you are traveling with a tablet or smartphone that you are depending on using for your connection.
"WiFi" is a form of wireless internet access in which the device, being a desktop, laptop, tablet, or smartphone, is brought within the range of a wireless signal (usually 66 feet from a wireless router), thereby allowing the device to be connected to the internet. WiFi is the most common form of internet access today. WiFi is found in many homes around the world, and is also provided in many hotels and public places, including cafes, libraries, and airports. WiFi can even be provided in moving vehicles, such as buses, trains, planes, and ships.
In some places, the WiFi is free. In others, there is a fee for its use, that can be one price for unlimited usage, or per the amount of time the service is used. Sometimes, a WiFi signal can be accessed without restriction; in other places, a passcode is needed, or even if it isn't, one must agree to terms and conditions.
Sometimes, in the absence of a public hotspot, you may be able to find an unsecured WiFi signal that is not considered public, but is nevertheless open. This is known as piggybacking. Piggybacking is not legal in all places. Before you piggyback, you should find out if it is legal where you are. Even if you do not think you will be caught, there is a strong chance you may be, because the owner of a signal can determine if someone else is using it, and in which direction that user is located.
Most mobile phones on the market today are capable of accessing the internet. The very same signals that allow conversations can also transmit internet data. This enables your mobile phone to double as a mini-computer.
Mobile phones that contain hard keyboards or touchscreens with pop-up keyboards have come to be known as "smartphones." But even some phones with the traditional number pad can access the internet too.
Also, tablet computers are now popular. These are devices larger than mobile phones that cannot place phone calls, but can access the internet. Most can access the internet through WiFi only, but a small number of them, particularly some versions of the iPad, the most popular tablet of all, can also access the internet through cellular phone signals with a subscription.
As other forms of access limit us to internet usage at a fixed station, mobile access enables us to use the internet on the go wherever a mobile phone can connect. We can use the internet while on the road, at a rest stop, in the park, at the beach, or anywhere we may go during our travels. We can use it to send a message to family and friends about the great time we are having. We can even send live pictures. And it can come in handy in emergencies too.
Types of mobile internet signals
There are several types of mobile internet signals, each with varying degrees of speed and strength:
Understanding cellular data
When you use the internet over a mobile phone signal, the amount of your usage is often measured in data. Many mobile internet providers place limits on the amount of data used for the price paid.
Data is measured in bytes, kilobytes (KB), megabytes (MB), gigabytes (GB), and so on. This method is used most frequently for methods accessed over a cellular phone network.
Data is used for every online action over a cellular network. This includes all web pages that are uploaded, all emails sent and received, all videos played, all apps downloaded, every tweet, and everything else. Text consumes a very small amount of data, images consume more, and voice and video consumes the most. Additionally, actions involving pages that constantly change, such as a map, consume a lot of data.
It is nearly impossible to know exactly how much data will be expended in any given action. This will vary from one action to the next due to the individuality of the action. Emails vary in length, pictures vary in size, websites vary in numbers of characters and pictures, and videos vary in length.
It may be worth trying to get a sense of how much data you use from a typical action and over the course of a day or week. Your smartphone probably has a data counter that can be reset at any time. Try resetting it. Then perform various actions you routinely perform experimentally and see what is added to it. Then try using it for a day and see what you have used. Then for a week. This way, you can get a sense of how much data you typically consume.
Due to increasing costs, it is becoming less common these days for mobile phone providers to offer unlimited data packages. Generous data packages are still offered at reasonable prices. More than 95% of the population remain under the most common packages available.
That is generally true in your own country. But when you leave your home country, data rates become more stingy. It is not uncommon for a carrier to charge $20/MB as the default rate in foreign countries. Given that high amounts of data routinely consumed these days, this cost is prohibitively expensive for smartphone users. But most carriers will even some still stingy but more affordable packages where a week or two's moderate use of data can be purchased at a more reasonable price.
Using your smartphone abroad
Most smartphone service providers offer generous data plans, and in many cases, unlimited data plans, that allow users to surf the internet pretty much as much as they wish. In their home countries, that is.
But when traveling outside one's country, one cannot use that data for free. It generally comes at an increased cost. A much higher one. Many companies charge as much as $20/MB, which translates into $20,000/GB. With many people using several GB of data in a month these days, this is obviously unaffordable to most. But there are ways around this if you wish to be able to have internet access anywhere and not be limited to WiFi zones.
Renting a smartphone
One option you have is to rent a smartphone. Many of the companies that rent cell phones with voice plans are also willing to rent you a smartphone that can be used in the country where you are traveling. The cost of renting a smartphone is more than one with a voice plan, so you still do have to pay a lot. But it is surely better than $20/MB.
Renting a SIM card
Another option is to rent a SIM card. You can either temporarily replace the SIM card in your current phone with the rented one (though you may have to have it unlocked), or if you have an older smartphone that you do not use anymore, you can place the SIM card in that. A rented SIM card is also useful for a voice plan if you pay for that through the rental company.
If you upgrade to a newer smartphone, but your old smartphone still works, it may be worth saving, especially if you travel internationally. It could come in handy as a place for a rented SIM card in the event you travel. For some countries, SIM cards can be rented cheaply and will allow you to enjoy a smartphone just as much as you do at home for a reasonable price.
A new company called KeepGo rents SIM cards for most countries, multi-country trips, and even for cruise ships. These SIM cards, which can be placed in unlocked or AT&T locked iPhones, offer daily data allowances of 50, 100, or 500 MB, depending on the plan purchased, and have varying price ranges. Depending on the nature of the trip, amount of usage, and available alternatives, this may or may not be the best offer available. Regardless, it is the most available option.
Arranging a data plan through your carrier
Many carriers offer temporary data plans that allow you to use a fixed amount of data while traveling abroad. These plans are far more limited than those you normally subscribe to in your home country and cost more. But they are still way less than $20/MB.
To see what your carrier offers, you can call them or visit their website. Once you find out what your carrier offers, call the carrier and arrange the international data plan, stating the exact dates you will be traveling. Also be sure that the plan will include the countries where you will be traveling, because these plans are not always valid in every country.
Since these plans are more limited, and overages are quite high, it is recommended that you do not use this service for high-data applications, such as those with video, audio, or a large number of pictures, or else the data will be consumed quickly. It is best to limit its use to email and stationary web sites, preferably those with few or no pictures (most social media sites, Wikipedia, and most mobile sites are usually okay, YouTube and Skype are not). You can still access such sites in a WiFi zone, and doing so while connected to WiFi will not count against this data allowance. And if you are anxious to send someone your latest picture by email, send a reduced resolution version of it.
In order to keep track of the amount of data you are using, immediately prior to your departure from your home country, reset your device's data counter. Then once you are in the foreign country, check the data count frequently.
More recently, T-Mobile started to offer a plan that allows American customers data usage in over 100 foreign countries at no extra charge. This could come in handy for frequent foreign travelers. Whether or not it is worth rushing to switch to T-Mobile from the carrier one has enjoyed for a long time is an individual choice that depends on one's circumstances. It is possible that other carriers may introduce similar plans in the near future; that waits to be seen.
A relatively new technology is called "MiFi." It is a small device that fits into one's pocket that can allow several devices located near the Mifi device to be connected to the internet at the same time, essentially creating a personal hotspot via a cellular signal. MiFi devices and service plans can are offered by some companies for domestic use, though they are generally not unlimited.
For travel to foreign countries, mifi devices can be rented. They are not cheap however in most countries. In addition to payment for the rental of the device, which comes at a high cost, the user is usually required to pay per data. Some companies charge prices around $9/MB (or $9000/GB), and with many applications being high consumers of data, this could cost thousands of dollars for a small amount of usage. At the present time, this is not a practical form of internet service abroad.
As an alternative to the smartphone, if you need mobile internet access while abroad, you may be able to use your Kindle. The Amazon Kindle 3G Keyboard, if purchased in the United States, allows free unlimited mobile internet access in more than 100 countries. In some places, the Kindle even works on cruise ships while out at sea. It can be purchased for around $150, and following this purchase, it can be used for free unlimited access for the duration of ownership of the device, with the exception of PDFs, which cost 95¢ each in foreign countries.
The Kindle has some limitations. It is not able to access all websites. It cannot open attachments in email. It cannot display video. It has black-and-white graphics only (known as E-ink), is not backlit. Its format is more like a BlackBerry smartphone than an iPhone or other touchscreen phone. And the reception is not always reliable and can fade out at times.
Access in various places
In a hotel
Today, most hotels offer wifi internet access that is useful for connecting laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Ironically, while cheaper hotels tend to offer this for free, the more luxurious properties are more likely to charge for the same service.
Not all wifi is created equal. The quality of the signal varies by property, and while it is strong in some places, it may be ineffective in others, or it may not be reachable on all parts of the property. Some facilities allow users to log in freely; others require the user to obtain a password from the front desk.
Nevertheless, the hotel's wifi may be your only way to access the internet during your travels.
Some hotels do not have wifi, and instead, have hard-wired internet access. This may pose problems for those who use tablets or who connect their computers. If this is an issue to you, carefully read the description of a hotel's offerings before booking it.
In some hotels, internet access is available in the lobby only and not in guest rooms, or in a limited number of guest rooms.
Some hotels have computers in the lobby for guest use. More rarely, some hotels have computers in each guest room.
At a campground
Many campgrounds are in extremely rural areas where mobile phone signals are non-existent. At the same time, as the public has demanded it, many campgrounds are now accessible to the cellular network, and some even have WiFi signals, at the very least in the office, and sometimes in reach at individual campsites. With many campgrounds now having electric hook-ups at individual campsites, staying connected is now much less of a worry.
On a cruise ship
In the car
For the driver, use of the internet or texting while driving is banned in most places and is far more dangerous than talking on the phone while driving. Studies show that writing a text message while driving is more likely to contribute to an accident than driving while intoxicated. Even if there is no law against texting and driving in one's location, it should not be done under any circumstances.
Still, passengers can feel free to safely talk and text and use the internet while riding in a vehicle.
The cellular phone network has become more comprehensive over time. Once limited to mostly urban areas and including dead zones even in big cities, a mobile phone reception is now available on many highways and even on many rural roads. Many parks and tourist areas have a very clear reception that is useful for phone and mobile web.
Most mobile phone manufacturers make potable car charges that plug into the vehicle's electrical outlet, making it possible to keep the device charged up during the ride. Some adapters can charge multiple devices at the same time, which is a necessity, given the number of devices each individual now has.
On a bus or train
Some trains and intercity buses offer WiFi internet access, which allows laptops and tablet computers to be connected. Even in the absence of WiFi, there may be a cell phone signal in which one can use their data plan along the railroad.
On many underground subway trains and in subway stations, there is no reception for cellular signals.
On an airplane
On airplanes, mobile phones are currently banned, and cannot be used for either phone calls or internet service while in the air. This can be frustrating for those who need or enjoy communication with the outside world at these times.
Some planes, though, offer WiFi for a fee. Sometimes, one price is charged for the duration of the flight, which in some cases, can be carried onto connecting flights. Other times, there is a price that is paid for a fixed amount of time.
With WiFi on airplanes, the flyer can access the internet using their own device, be it a laptop, tablet, smartphone, or e-reader. The user enters their credit card info into the screen, and is then connected on that particular device. If one wishes to have another device connected, another fee must be paid.
The use of VOIP services on an airplane is presently not permitted on most airlines.
Technology to allow WiFi services to be used on airplanes is currently in the works, and some countries are exploring the possibility of allowing 3G services to be allowed for data and texting while in the air.