Internet Access When Traveling Internationally – Problems and Limitations

Whether through our phone, tablet, Kindle, laptop, or other device, access to the internet has gone from an optional extra to an essential inclusion.
Whether through our phone, tablet, Kindle, laptop, or other device, access to the internet has gone from an optional extra to an essential inclusion.

The last decade has seen a welcome collapse in the cost of placing phone calls on our cell phones while traveling internationally, for all but the most unwary.  If you’re paying more than 20c a minute for international calling, you’re overpaying.  If you’re careful, you can often find even lower rates.

But these days, you probably have less need to make phone calls, and a much greater need for internet access.  Instead of using minutes of phone calling time, you’re using megabytes (and gigabytes) of data.  Alas, internet access is still sometimes unreliable, often dangerously insecure, and data consumption can be potentially extraordinarily expensive.

The good news is that there are some good solutions to the growing need we all have for omnipresent internet access and data consumption, but you have to search around to find them.

This is the first part of a two part article.  In this first part we look at some of the challenges travelers face and some of the not very effective solutions that are available.  In the second part – in the form of a special report (see below), we switch from explaining the problems to offering effective and affordable data access solutions for international travelers.

Are Free Wi-Fi Hotspots a Feasible Solution?

Some people claim they can travel the world, using only free Wi-Fi hotspots as and when they find them.  We’ll not call such people liars or fantasists, but the reality is that free Wi-Fi hotspots are far and few between, and becoming ever rarer.  Originally, all Wi-Fi router/modems were shipped with a default setting causing them to be open to anyone to access, but with greater sophistication, and also, sadly, an appreciation of the security risks inherent in open Wi-Fi networks, these days all new routers ship with password protection.  The major security risks of open systems aren’t just for the official owners of the open/free system, they are for all the system’s users, including you too if you use such a system.

As for those that remain, Murphy’s Law seems to dictate that on occasions when you would most need or benefit from a free Wi-Fi hotspot, none are available.  We do not consider this approach remotely realistic; sure, if you can access secure free Wi-Fi, you’d be silly not to, but you’d be even sillier to think that secure free Wi-Fi will be readily available and all you need to recreate the ‘always available’ data experience you have at home.

In terms of security, a quick rule of thumb is that any hotspot not requiring a user name and/or password can be easily security-compromised.  Happily, most websites are getting better at using SSL for communication, including for initial logging-on information and the sharing of your sensitive user name and password information, but exceptions still exist.

Perhaps more concerning should be free hotspots of unknown provenance.  It is a known tactic of data identity thieves to create ‘spoof’ free hotspots that encourage people to join them, allowing the hotspot provider to monitor all the activity of people using the service.  Some particularly malevolent types of fake hotspots will also try to ‘reach back’ to your device and access any insecure data you have stored on your device and/or load malware/viruses on it.

For example, say you’re at the John Smith airport waiting for your flight; you open up your phone/tablet/laptop’s network settings and see a Wi-Fi hotspot called “John Smith Free Wi-Fi”.  What do you do?  Most of us will think happy/appreciative thoughts about the airport authority and quickly join the network.

But how do you know the hotspot is a valid official airport hotspot?  Anyone can create a hotspot on a laptop, or even on a tablet or phone, and assign it any name they choose.  For all you know, the hotspot is actually being operated by a hacker, maybe in the same or next gate lounge as you.

Our suggestion – only use free hotspots when you know the provenance of the hotspot provider and are sure the hotspot name is the correct name, and only when it requires you to log in with a login ID and/or password.

In-Hotel Data Access

Using internet access offered by the hotels you are staying in may sometimes be a good idea, but as often as not, may also be a bad idea.  To start with, all the same concerns as raised above in the section on free Wi-Fi hotspots also apply – including the fake hotspot concern.  Say your hotel offers hotspot access through its hotspot name ‘StayHere-Guest’; and you see connections ‘StayHere-Guest’, ‘StayHere-Guest02’, ‘StayHere-Guests’, StayHere-Open’ and ‘StayHere-Preferred’; some people will choose the other options, particularly if they seem to have stronger signal or if the first connection is slow/unreliable.  All these other hotspots might be fakes.

Similarly, can you see the two differences between these three hotspot names :  Holiday-HOTEL and Ho1iday-H0TEL?    You probably can because you are looking for them here, but what about when you see them in your list of Wi-Fi hotspots you can connect to?  You’ll probably just connect to the first one you find, or the one with stronger signal, without any careful inspection or thought.

Two other considerations are the quality and cost of hotel provided internet access.  If the hotel provides fast, secure, and fairly priced internet access, then, at least for while you are in the hotel, you are well cared for.  But way too many hotels fail on at least one, and possibly two or all three of these points.  Their internet might be slow, insecure, and/or ridiculously overpriced.  The chances are these days that you might have better non-hotel options (detailed in the second part of this report).

Just like hotel provided in-room phones have become largely obsolete for anything other than dialing down to reception or room service, so too is hotel provided internet access likely to also be obsoleted by better/faster/less expensive other options.

An example of a personal hotspot device.
An example of a personal hotspot device.

Your Personal Global Roaming Wireless Hotspot

These devices have been available for years, but are becoming more practical and affordable.  They connect to a cell phone wireless service provider’s network in each country they have agreements with, and re-broadcast the wireless data service as a Wi-Fi hotspot for you to access via any of your Wi-Fi devices.  The essential value-add they are intended to provide is that the rates they sell their data service to you for is lower than you’d be paying if you simply connected your phone to the wireless company directly, yourself.

These units, typically not much larger than a pack of playing cards, rely in being able to access a sufficiently strong/fast data signal from a local wireless provider, and will then rebroadcast it at low power for you to connect to, and usually allow for up to perhaps five, and sometimes as many as ten devices to connect simultaneously.  Five or more years ago, the 3G data service they were receiving from the wireless phone companies was generally slow, unsatisfactory, expensive, and often unavailable.  These days, the latest 4th generation type wireless networks can often provide fast and affordable data at low prices making them a practical consideration.  You can either buy a device (for about $100 – $200) or rent one (for about $10/day) for just the duration of your travels.

Beware of such products that in headlines offer ‘unlimited data’ at flat rates.  As often as not, you’ll see in the fine print a vague reference to something like ‘fair use applies’ which, if you can find it further explained, ends up telling you that your ‘unlimited’ data is actually nothing of the sort, and may be limited to a uselessly low amount, particularly if you are traveling with one or more other people and are all hoping to share the ‘unlimited’ data that it seems to offer.

One such example of a global personal hotspot is Skyroam.  On the face of it, this is a very attractive product, offering ‘unlimited connectivity’ for $10/day (or $40 for five days).  But if you search about their site long enough, you’ll come to this page which reveals that your ‘unlimited’ connection is actually 350MB, beyond which you drop back to slow rather than fast data, and we definitely do not agree that the slow 2G internet service that you are then restricted to is indeed suitable for web-surfing and may also be problematic for Wi-Fi type phone calling (and definitely too slow if you wanted to add video to your call).

Other companies offer similar products.  Xcomglobal would seem to be an even better deal than Skyroam, with a lower $7.77/day rate, and allowing up to ten devices to connect simultaneously (Skyroam is limited to five).  There are other costs over and above their ‘headline’ $7.77 rate, and they also refer to an ‘International Fair Usage Policy’, which they try to suggest is not their policy but actually that of the wireless companies they connect to.  That is likely to be a misleading suggestion – wireless companies are delighted for you to use as much data as you wish, as long as they can charge someone for the amount you use!  It is only when third party companies interpose themselves in the middle and try to resell ‘per MB’ data as ‘unlimited data’ that this self-created problem arises.

We asked Xcomglobal how much data they allow before invoking this policy, and their reply was :

We recommend 200mb per day.  We do not reduce the speed but the CARRIER in the country you are traveling in will throttle or even suspend the usage.  You would then have to get in touch with us to get the line reactivated.

This is a much lower limit than that imposed by Skyroam and the possibility of having the data connection turned off completely and needing a manual action by Xcom to get reinstated (how would you do that when you’re in another country and your data access has suddenly been turned off?) a very user-unfriendly one.  Not recommended at all.

And while of course it is the carrier that does the throttling or the disconnection, it is according to the agreement between Xcom and the carrier.  To blame this on the carrier is misleading.  If Xcom agreed to pay more to carriers, the carriers would in turn allow Xcom’s clients to use more data.

It does raise an interesting question, though – how much data do you actually ‘need’, each day?

How Much Data Do You Need Each Day?

Is Xcom’s 200MB a day a lot or a little?  How about Skyroam’s 350MB?  What is reasonable?

(Note :  Some people carelessly interchange the abbreviations B and b.  They are actually very different, and I’m being careful to use the correct abbreviates.  There are 8 bits (“b”) in one byte (“B”), and in data transfers, sometimes there can be more than 8 – perhaps 9, possibly even 10 bits per each Byte.)

You might think you can work out how much data you need by looking at your cell phone data use at home.  That would be misleading, because for most of us, much of every day, our phone is connected to a Wi-Fi network, and so its wireless data use is only for the balance of each day when it is away from one of the Wi-Fi networks it can connect to.

Plus remember that at home, all your devices are separately connecting to the internet in different ways.  But when traveling, all the data use, from all your devices, needs to be considered.  Your laptop.  Your tablet.  Your Kindle.  Your phone.  Your other phone.  And so on.

Plus maybe you need to double the data you’ll need/use if you will be traveling with another person and sharing the data with them too.  Of course, each additional user you share the connection with will further increase your usage, and some will inevitably be less careful at keeping their data use minimized.

You need to understand how many devices you’ll be connecting and how each device will be used, and possibly consider changing their settings before you travel.  For example, I have a laptop, plus several tablets and phones, all of which download my emails as they come in.  So each email uses maybe four times the data to appear on four devices as it would to appear on only one device, because, when at home and data is readily available and free, I have things configured for convenience rather than trying to be careful with data use.  But when traveling it isn’t really essential to have every device always getting copies of every email.

There are other settings which can potentially have a huge impact on your data use.  Perhaps the most impactful are settings that allow devices such as phones and tablets to automatically update their apps.  A recent update to the iOS version of Gmail is 187MB.  A WhatsApp update is an unfathomable 120MB.  Skype even larger at 125MB.  Microsoft’s OneNote is 320MB.  Keynote is 630MB.  Sure, some apps are relatively small – the Alaska Airlines app is ‘only’ 45MB, but most are 100MB or more.  Android apps are often smaller than iOS but still large.  As you know, it seems that every day there is one or more apps that want to be updated, and if you have more than one such device sharing your connection, you could be going through 500MB or more of data, every day, just to update apps.

There is another subtle but huge catch to the app updating (I know this after being caught out myself).  Hopefully you’ve set your app updating option so that they will only update through a Wi-Fi connection, not over a wireless (phone) connection, but if you are connecting the device to the internet via a personal hotspot, your devices will ‘see’ the personal hotspot’s Wi-Fi network and not realize that beyond the Wi-Fi network there is then a potentially costly wireless data connection that the hotspot is using to connect on to the internet.  And so it will update its apps, mistakenly thinking it is using (probably) free Wi-Fi.

Some types of apps also use huge amounts of data.  Any type of video streaming/chatting app of course gobbles up data at a voracious rate.  Mapping/GPS programs that download their map data realtime use a lot of data for the map information they are displaying, but you can get around that with Google maps by preloading map sections onto your device, and/or choosing a GPS program that uses locally stored maps such as CoPilot.

Another large user of data is the automatic uploading of photos (and, even worse, video clips) that you might take with your phone and which are then uploaded to a cloud storage/sharing service.  Both Android and Apple phones have these types of services on by default, and with each photo being probably 2MB or larger in size, this can quickly start to use up a lot of bandwidth.  This bandwidth can increase if you not only have one of your devices automatically uploading new photos ‘to the cloud’ but others of your devices automatically downloading copies of the same photos.

You probably already know that downloading/watching videos is a huge consumer of data – potentially a GB per hour of movie.  But did you know that listening to streamed music can also use appreciable data – a 128kb stream goes through 58 MB of data an hour. If you’re paying 50c/MB for data use, it is cheaper to buy full price CDs and throw them away after listening to them once than it is to stream ‘free’ music through your data connection!

Another potential trap lurks within all the apps that do background refreshing – that is, they are using data even when you don’t have them active.  Messaging type apps are one example – they are all the time ‘listening’ for messages and ‘asking’ central servers ‘do you have any messages for me’ and receiving messages back, usually saying ‘we have no messages for you at present, ask us again a bit later’.  But there are many other types of background apps too – maybe you have a weather app, or a stock tracking app, or even a currency exchange app.  The chances are these types of apps are getting updates every few minutes, whether you need/want them or not.

Turn the background refresh setting off for as many apps as possible.  Better to turn too many off, and then to turn them back on, one at a time, as you discover you need the background refreshing, than it is to leave too many on and suddenly find an unexpected data usage cost.

As much as you conveniently can, you need to restrict your devices and the apps on them not to use any internet at all when traveling.

Another data drain is lurking within many apps – those that you allow to ‘share usage statistics to help us better improve the app’ (or however else it may be described).  These apps, many times even apps that don’t normally need any data access at all, are now sharing information about your use of the app with central servers, and while it is altruistic to do this so as to help the developers better understand how their app is being used, all that data being used to share the information comes at a cost to you.

Another feature that you often don’t really need are location based services, except for when you directly need your mapping/GPS service.  So many different apps use location based services, including many unexpected ones, and many times their use of your location on your device is mirrored by ‘phoning home’ to then tell a central server somewhere where you are.  There are bona fide reasons for this – so your weather app automatically knows where you are, for example, but if you’re trying to minimize your data usage as much as possible, this is another setting to consider turning off except when absolutely needed.

There are apps – and the best of them is even free – that can help you track and monitor which of your apps are using data and how much data they can use.  See part two of this article for further details.

Internet Access When Traveling Internationally – Solutions

For many of us, and for much of our international traveling, the good news is that there are other ways to get online – variously more convenient, less costly, and offering faster data, than the three alternatives above.

Please read on to part two of this article series for a discussion on how to affordably get good data while traveling internationally.  The second part, crammed full of value and cost-saving ideas, is offered as a special premium Travel Insider Supporter Report.  This is a comprehensive but still very readable 29 page PDF in ten major sections that considers the specifics of various approaches to getting the best internet access internationally, plus three appendices including a collection of nine bonus tips and suggestions, plus 14 footnotes.

You’ll learn about some of the hidden traps in some internet access products, and you’ll discover some simple and creative ways to save money and get more/faster/better – and less expensive – internet access.  Whether you choose the ‘unlimited free internet access’ product we tell you about (but note the two limitations which we also advise you of), or the ‘flat rate per day all you can use’ service which might well become your regular wireless phone and data service back home (currently only for US readers) too, or a hybrid approach (complete with special extra tips on how to fine-tune this), or one of the other options outlined, you’ll do so with confidence knowing that you’ve had a chance to clearly understand all the choices and their implications available.

To get this special report, simply choose to send in any level of Travel Insider contribution, $10 or more.  You can quickly and conveniently do this by credit card from this page.  We’ll quickly send a copy of the PDF to you in return.  You could save more than $10 in the first day – maybe in the first hour – of your next international journey!

Note – if you have already contributed more than $10 in our 2016 annual fundraising drive, you of course can have a copy of this report for free.  Simply ask.

5 thoughts on “Internet Access When Traveling Internationally – Problems and Limitations”

  1. David, Do I need to send an additional contribution for the 2nd part of the report? I really don’t mind doing so, but wondered if that was a requirement. I do understand the reason.

    I have in the past 3 years purchased a foreign SIM card for my smartphone when staying overseas for over 10 days. Plenty of data as well as voice and texts, good speed, and quite inexpensive. Usually less than $30 for a month. Some countries require a passport be shown to the vendor. Just be sure the SIM is working for both phone and data before leaving the store (usually a matter of inserting SIM card and sometimes changing a setting). Also write down you new Tel # (tape to phone?) and store your old SIM very securely as it is easy to lose.

    Also having just returned from a month in Spain, I found almost all hotels, B&Bs, cafes, etc. have a password protected WiFi – most with a pretty good speed. Even public transportation has WiFi, but often not protected with a password, so use caution. Some hotels may require you to access in lobby to get better speed.

    I believe Europe is working toward a roaming free policy within the EU – so that would really add to the benefit of a SIM card.

    1. Hi, Mike

      Thanks for pointing out my need to better explain the ‘donate for part two’ concept. You are completely correct, all 2016 contributors of course get it for free. I’ve updated the article.

      Foreign SIMs are a good way to go, although there are a couple of considerations and sometimes other options. You’re right about the EU moving to abolish roaming fees, in the case where a wireless company is based in the EU, and for roaming within the EU. That, and everything else, is discussed in the report. 🙂

      Here’s a link to a great device for storing SIMs, Micro-SD cards, adapters, etc. I use one of these myself :

    1. Hi, Stephen

      You’ve been a kind and generous contributor to The Travel Insider repeatedly in the past, thank you. But the last time you helped out was in 2012. Any chance of sending in another small amount now? I am backdating entitlement to 1/1/16, but don’t think I should reach all the way back to 2012 – the whole idea is to encourage new support, not to reward four year previous support. 🙂

  2. Good review for me. I head to Europe soon and wish there was a comprehensive guide to how to set up electronic communications in advance. Things change so fast that it is difficult to keep up. Of concern is 2 factor verification when I change SIM card to a European system (and new phone number) when trying to log in. If I sign in now, I suppose the 2nd factor will text my old phone number or email me (and how do I see that if I am trying to log into my email system?). For now I have tried to disable 2 factor and just use passwords.. Similar problem if on a hotel or airport lounge and need Last Pass or similar Log in system – as passwords change all the time.

    I wish the major sites (email, banks, etc.) would have the “fob” available that I could carry which are very light and easy to use in connection with a password. The “fob” second factor changes every minute. Etrade has had this for about 6 years. Carrying 4-5 fobs would be a pain (although very small and light), but makes it much easier.

    I need to send another contribution as I feel I am not contributing enough considering the value of your efforts. Mike

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