We wrote last week about strategies to minimize the cost of internet access when traveling domestically. We have also written about how to minimize the cost of data access through your cell phone while out of the country. But there are some further considerations when you’re trying to use a laptop or other (non-phone) device while traveling internationally.
Our generally recommended strategy for cell phone data access internationally – using T-Mobile’s slightly slow, but full free service – has a problem in such cases. It doesn’t support tethering. You can not share your phone’s data access with other devices. And if you were to buy other types of internet access from your home country wireless service provider that did allow for tethering, you’ll find that you’ll quickly consume all the data you’ve purchased.
The more modern your laptop, the more it is continually ‘talking’ to other things on the internet (and much more so than phones do). For example, as I type this, my computer (with Windows 8.1) is fluctuating between about 2 kbps and 100 kbps of data, although I’ve no idea what the computer is doing with this flow of data. In the past, when on ‘metered’ connections in hotels, I’ve sometimes found my computer has used up a 500 MB data allowance in an hour, with almost nothing to show for it. To be fair, this was an unusual situation, not an every day situation – but it did happen. In general, it seems I average about 500 MB a day of data when traveling, but that’s a much higher than normal number because it assumes I’m working ‘normally’ as if I were in my office back home, so have much higher data consumption than a typical holidaymaker might experience.
So, generally, in hotels internationally, paying their high daily fee for internet access might be your best bet. But there are some possible exceptions.
The situations where you might wish to think about your options further are :
- When the hotel is unusually greedy in its internet charging rates
- When there are very low data caps on how much internet data you can actually access
- If you are on a series of 24 hour periods and end up wanting perhaps just one or two more hours of access and don’t want to buy another full day
- When your internet needs are very modest and all you need is a couple of quick checks of your email and maybe an update of your Facebook page and nothing more.
In these scenarios, and particularly if you are in one country either regularly, or for a one-off but several week stay, there are two or three possible better ways to access the internet.
The first option is to get a local SIM for your phone and sign up for a pre-paid data package with a local wireless company, making sure that the data package allows the phone to share its data via tethering with your other devices. Switch on the phone’s personal hotspot setting and away you go. With an iPhone, go to Settings – Personal Hotspot and turn it on. With an Android phone, go to Settings – More – Tethering & Portable Hotspot and turn it on.
Generally we travel with two phones for this reason. One is our regular US phone with T-mobile service, the other is a local phone, which we use for local calling (if cheaper than T-mobile), as a courtesy local number for local people to call us back on, and to access faster affordable data service. Many of us are into at least our second smart phone, and this is a great use for our old phone.
If you don’t have a spare phone, or perhaps it isn’t a state of the art phone, the second option is to get an international external Wi-Fi hotspot device and plus a SIM from one of the local providers in the country you’re visiting into that and use an appropriate data only plan with the external hotspot device.
We were speaking positively of some domestic (ie US) hotspot devices in our earlier article about beating hotel Wi-Fi costs, but many of those do not work on the different frequency bands used for data service in other countries (this is particularly true of the Karma device), so you may need to get a second device for international use. These are usually for sale in cell phone stores – if you only need it in one country, that is easy, but if you want to travel with it to various countries, you will need to get an unlocked unit to support SIMs from various wireless companies in various countries, and with a good range of frequencies supported.
Particularly if you are spending appreciable money on buying a unit, try and ‘future proof’ your investment by getting one that supports 3G, 4G and LTE connectivity.
Use caution and be sure to read the fine print before signing up for any of these services. They are seldom as good, or as good value, as they seem.
For example, Tep’s home page proudly boasts ‘Only $7/day’ but when you start to drill down into the fine print, you’ll discover that $7 provides you with 150 MB of data a day. Sure, you can pay more to upgrade to 250 MB a day or to an ‘unlimited’ daily allowance, but if you work your way down to near the very bottom of the FAQ page, you’ll discover than the unlimited plan actually has unspecified limits on how much data you can use (Tep blames the various wireless companies it contracts with for imposing limits, but one has to think that they get what they pay for and if they wanted free unlimited data, they could get it, albeit at a much greater cost). You’ll also find that their European product doesn’t actually work in all European countries – for example, it won’t work in France or Belgium, and so you might find yourself paying extra to rent two devices from them instead of one. There’s also a $20 delivery fee, and probably a $7.50 return fee, too.
Xcom charges $15/day for ‘unlimited’ use, and also vaguely avoids specifying exactly how much ‘unlimited’ is. Cellular Abroad charges $25/day for its ‘unlimited’ service, which it at least has the honesty to define up front as being no more than 500 MB (remember, my laptop used 500 MB in a single hour of connection on one occasion).
The other obscured ‘cost’ with these companies is that you are paying the daily rate for their service, whether you use it or not. If you luck out and find several hotels with good free Wi-Fi, you’re still paying the daily rate for one of these rental units.
This also points to an important piece of fine print. When you sign up for their service, does each day’s data allowance carry forward if you don’t use it all? For example, if you have a 250 MB a day plan, and on Monday you don’t use the device at all, then on Tuesday, you only use 200 MB of data, does that mean on Wednesday you can use up to 550 MB (ie the day’s 250 MB allowance plus the unused balance of Tuesday and all of the unused Monday entitlement)? Or does your daily allowance zero out at the end of each day?
A related point is that the limits on the ‘unlimited’ service might then start to pose problems. For example, in the last paragraph’s scenario, you might be able to use up to 550 MB on Wednesday without incurring any overages, but the data cap might limit you to 500 MB, no matter what your unused balance of available data is.
On the other hand, these services, while giving much less than they seem to offer, do have two advantages – they usually work in multiple countries, saving you the need to buy SIMs from local wireless companies in each country you visit, and they are American based companies. You can get the device before you leave home and learn how to use it, so you have no nasty surprises in a foreign hotel room, and if there are problems or things you don’t understand, you can speak to an American in English and get the support you need, again before leaving home.
You’re not fated to accept hotel Wi-Fi fees, whether while traveling domestically or internationally. Local data service, either through a tethered phone or a dedicated Wi-Fi hotspot device, or possibly one of the international data services offered by a US company, can sometimes prove to be better value – and sometimes also faster/better – than overpriced hotel rates.