Internet options when traveling

Everywhere claims to have “free WiFi”, but it often doesn’t work

Internet has become a way of life for many people. For us, we need to work remotely when abroad, so working WiFi or other internet options while traveling is essential. We also use it to find the best tours and sights to see rather than scour through pamphlets with annoying touts hassling you. We scan through hundreds of TripAdvisor reviews to check to see how good the internet service is at whatever hotel we are staying at. On our current trip, good internet trumps everything else. We’d stay in a lean-to shanty if it had a T1 connection. The difficulty is actually finding good internet. We’re not expecting too much I think, just something above 2G/128kbps. But what about that cafe/restaurant down the street? They advertised free WiFi and I could use a coffee.  Let’s go!

“It’s not actually hooked up to anything” – A German couple we met who has been traveling around the world for 9 months, talking about WiFi

5 bars, great WiFi! Many lies. Every shop we see now has WiFi, even some bizarre little stands that are rolled onto the street. You’ll get great connection to the WiFi router because you’re sitting right beside it. The problem is that the router can’t connect to the internet.

This seems to be for a few reasons:

1. There is no internet. This is the most pessimistic approach, but seems to apply now and then. My devices (phones, laptop) tell me, even though I’m connected to WiFi, I’m “not connected to the internet”. The workers at these places hate even being asked about WiFi, telling me that this conversation never goes well for them.

2. The router connects to a phone that tethers, or the phone itself is the network. We run into this in more remote towns. The dead giveaway is when the network is called “Motorola 3G XKGI” or something. This can range from fine to unusable. The problem is that the 3G data isn’t enough for an entire cafe and gets overloaded quickly. Another problem is the cell tower can be overloaded with people in the general vicinity. For example, in Ollantaytumbo there are thousands of tourists that are bused into a city of a few thousand people every day. These tourists are all sporting web-enabled devices. The internet service drops out for all phones from roughly 12pm to 6pm until all the tourists leave.

3. The WiFi is being leeched by locals. I understand if the shop owner lets some friends use the WiFi for free. Most people aren’t as lucky as we are, that’s a fact. But it sucks when my wife and I are paying money on coffee/snacks or picked this hotel just for the internet to then see locals huddling on the steps of the cafe because the WiFi got turned on or see the employees streaming YouTube while we can barely send email. Our connection goes from good to crap pretty quickly.

4. The WiFi is set up horribly wrong.  Not everyone is a network admin nor does the local internet company necessarily know much about networks.  There will tend to be several problems with the WiFi network that could easily have been prevented.  One we’ve encountered is channel congestion.  In New Zealand, the owner set up 10 WiFi routers so everyone had maximum coverage at all times.  However, they were all on the same channel.  Imagine 50 people all trying to talk over the same phone line and you have an idea of what the technical problem is.  Another issue is the lease cap, where the network won’t let more than say 100 devices on at a time.  Alicia and I have 5 WiFi devices between the two of us and many travelers are similar.  You might have 30 guests in the hotel but 150 devices.  This means some people won’t be able to get onto the network.

Solutions to the WiFi problem when traveling

T-Mobile Simple Choice: T-Mobile offers free, unlimited 2G data in their partner countries as part of their base plan.  And looking at the list of countries on their website, it’s darn near available everywhere.  Right when we land and turn our phones on, the partner network says “Welcome to our country!  Your phone is ready for use”.  It’s very slick.  This works really well for most smartphone applications but is too slow for most internet browsing.  Another downside is that the network is too slow for tethering.  So it’s not possible to use this for all your international needs.  However, to get 2G data and a working cell phone in almost every country for roughly $50 per phone per month, total… So nice.

T-Mobile does have high speed data packages you can buy that will work internationally, but they are insanely expensive and not recommended.  If you absolutely need high speed data, buying a local SIM card is better and cheaper.

SIM cards – These are chips that plug into your cell phone and give you access to the local cell phone networks.  Before you can use these, you must make sure your phone is compatible.  Normally phones can only be used with certain networks and/or size of SIM cards.  We had to buy unlocked iPhones because we needed maximum flexibility.  This can mean spending more on a phone up front.

The good news is that you’ll enjoy the high speed data that the country has to offer.  The downside is that it is still very limited by the cellular network and your phone itself.  If your smartphone or provider doesn’t allow tethering, that’s another fee you’ll have to pay on top of the plan.  Oh yes, you also need to purchase prepaid time or get a mini-cell phone plan to go with your SIM card.  Your phone number also goes away when you put a new SIM card in the phone (it reverts back to your old number when you put your old card back in).  Some of the cards come with prepaid time.  SIM cards are widely available, even at the little convenience stores.

To be able to quickly toggle between your old SIM card (and thus your old phone number) and your new card, there are dual sim card cases so switching cards is just as easy as flipping a switch.

The best place to buy SIM cards is typically at the airport right after you get off of the plane.  They will most likely speak better English that what you’re going to find elsewhere and can help you install and set up your phone.  Another option is looking up the local providers and visiting their store.  If you feel confident doing it yourself without help, even little convenience stores often carry SIM cards.

Wireless USB Dongle – These little devices plug into your computer and allow it to get data off of the cellular network, just like your smartphone does.  The benefits is that they run off your computers’ power supply, which often lasts longer than a little smartphone battery.  Another perk is that your phone number stays the same so you can make and take calls from your normal phone number.  The downside is that you do need a SIM card and data plan wherever you plan to use one.  Linked above is an unlocked dongle that is capable of taking multiple types of SIM cards.  Beware buying dongles that are locked into certain networks and won’t take other countries’ SIM’s.  If you are going to be buying a SIM for your smartphone and your smartphone allows tethering, than there isn’t much point to a dongle.  But it’s a still good to know that this exists.  Another downside is since it acts just like a cell phone, you’re still limited if the cell reception isn’t good or fast in that area.

Starbucks, McDonalds – These companies consistently have good WiFi, with poor or nonexistent WiFi being exceptions.  Instead of doing the local cafe-hopping, these brands will tend to have the best.  If these two don’t have good WiFi, then it just might not exist in your area.

Overall

Our solution to this problem is to throw more money at T-mobile, Starbucks, or other big conglomerates rather than locals who need it more. These companies understand that if you say “free WiFi” or “high speed internet”, you actually have to offer something that loads web pages. We love to drop $20-$40 per day on a little cafe where we can work for a few hours with solid internet. But instead, it feels like we get cheated every time we see those 5 solid bars and can’t even get Google to load.

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