Good news for tech-toting travelers: The world is better prepared than ever to help you get online and keep your laptop, cell phone, and other devices fully charged. Bad news: It is still very far from having universal standards in place. Still, with a little research and a few gadgets, you can keep your costs and headaches to a minimum.
Wi-Fi in the Air and on the Road
Your research should begin when you start making your transportation arrangements. For flights within North America, several airlines now offer in-flight Internet access through GoGo, at prices ranging from $5 for a single journey of less than 90 minutes to 30-day passes for $30 (single airline) or $40 (all participating carriers), with automatically renewing monthly subscriptions for $35.
Unfortunately, not all airlines that offer GoGo’s service provide power outlets–and Wi-Fi consumes lots of power. Check to see whether outlets are available on a prospective flight; if they aren’t, consider bringing an extra battery to ensure that your device stays charged throughout your time in the air.
Don’t expect to see GoGo on flights to Europe or Asia, however. Since the service relies on a network of transmission towers on the ground, it isn’t available during transoceanic flights.Nevertheless, you may still have access to electrical outlets, especially if you’re flying first class or business class, in which case you can use your laptop for work or entertainment without worrying that it will die on you.
Wi-Fi service is also starting to appear on some trains and buses, both in the United States and overseas. Faced with competing bus services that offer Wi-Fi, Amtrak recently began providing free Wi-Fi service on its Acela express trains and at stations along the northeast corridor (from Boston to Washington, D.C.).
In Europe, Wi-Fi is available for a fee on some French (Thalys) high-speed trains but not on the Eurostar line to England via the Chunnel.
In general, the Wi-Fi on planes, buses, and trains is adequate for handling e-mail and doing some Web browsing, but it doesn’t support high-bandwidth activities such as elaborate online games and virtual worlds–especially when several passengers are sharing the service.
Keeping your electrical gear fully charged when you’re overseas can be a challenge. Electrical systems in most of the rest of the world deliver 220 volts at 50Hz, compared to our 110 volts at 60Hz (both systems use alternating current but are incompatible).
Fortunately, many modern electrical adapters can handle both: If your notebook’s AC adapter includes a brick, you’re probably fine, and most cell phone electrical chargers can perform the conversion, too. Many other phones have USB chargers that bypass the issue by connecting directly to your notebook.
On the other hand, though you’re unlikely to encounter hassles in converting a 110-volt device to 240-volt power, the same cannot be said for dealing with the many different types of outlets used outside North America: Most of them won’t accept our standard two- or three-prong plugs.
England, for example, uses three-pronged plugs that are much larger and bulkier than ours, but most of the continent uses skinnier plugs arrayed with two narrow cylindrical prongs. Before you travel abroad, it’s worthwhile to research the type of outlets used at your various destinations; then pack a couple of appropriate plug adapters.
Plain-vanilla adapters tend to be fairly inexpensive–maybe a couple of dollars–and many hardware stores stock them. One thing to check for is grounding support: Some cheap adapters don’t support the third prong included on our modern electronics, and though the device might work without an adapter for the grounding prong, the unaccommodated prong might prevent the two primary prongs from making a proper connection.
If you plan to travel to more than one country, plug converters that you can configure to support different outlets types are handy. I’ve had good luck with the Kensington International Travel Plug Adapter 33117 (about $15 as of April 2010), which has slide-out prongs for use in different countries; the only time I’ve run into trouble with this converter is when a recessed outlet is too narrow for the fairly bulky unit.
If you travel with lots of small electronic devices that need recharging (such as laptops, cell phones, cameras, camcorders, and e-book readers), you may have to deal with a shortage of electrical outlets in hotel rooms–especially conveniently located outlets. That’s why I strongly recommend bringing a surge protector/power strip along: It protects against surges and allows you to power several electronic devices from a single outlet.
The $25 Belkin Mini Surge Protector with USB Charger provides three standard outlets and two powered U.S. outlets (for your iPhone and the like). Unfortunately, because it’s designed to sit directly against a wall outlet (it has no cable), and can fall out of a recessed outlet, especially when weighed down with hookups to several adapters and battery rechargers.
I also like the Monster Cable Outlets to Go line of power strips. These strips don’t come equipped with USB ports, but they are well designed for travel: You can wrap the unit’s short, sturdy cord neatly around the oblong strip and then secure the plug by inserting it into one of the ports. Priced at between $10 and $30, the strips come in three-, four-, and six-outlet configurations.
Wi-Fi on the Ground
These days, most travelers usually don’t have to hunt around for an Internet café to get online: Many hotels now offer either broadband ethernet or (more typically) Wi-Fi service. But while some places provide it for free in order to attract customers, many others charge a fee.
Another complication: If your roommate wants to go online, too, you might get hit up with separate fees for each laptop or device. Such costs can mount rapidly, so it’s a good idea to check on a hotel’s policy before you make reservations there.
If you frequently travel within the United States, even if you rarely go outside your own city, you might want to sign up for some type of cellular data modem and plan. Unfortunately, data-only service isn’t cheap: It runs about $60 a month (with a 5GB cap). But if you need to access the Web several days a week, the service can be cheaper than paying as you go for Wi-Fi, and you don’t have to worry about finding a Wi-Fi hotspot.
In the past, these products and services catered primarily to business users; but their appeal to people who travel less frequently is growing, and carriers have begun introducing pay-as-you-go plans. Verizon Wireless, in particular, has rolled out options to buy service by the week, the month, or even the day.
Prepaid options come with significant bandwidth caps. For example, you may be able to buy a day pass for $15, but the maximum amount of bandwidth you can use may be 75MB. Check what your data usage patterns look like before investing in a modem.
Pay-as-you-go usage is a great way to ensure access overseas without depending on finding hotspots. During a recent trip to Germany, I bought a Vodaphone USB modem for $21, which also supplied me with 3 hours of Web access. I was able to use it in France as well, for about $14 a day–not cheap, but I was in a home that didn’t have Internet access, and I was happy to pay the fee.
Wi-Fi Networks in the Air
If you frequently travel with a spouse, colleague, or partner who needs to be online as much as you do, consider investing in a mobile broadband router such as the Novatel Wireless MiFi 2200 (available from Sprint and Verizon Wireless) or Sprint’s newer Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot by Sierra Wireless; the latter supports 4G speeds in areas where Sprint’s WiMax network is up and running.
These routers permit up to five people with Wi-Fi-enabled devices to share a single wireless broadband account, and that arrangement can be a lot less expensive than paying for separate accounts for each individual user.
Several third parties make small travel routers that create Wi-Fi hotspots powered by wireless broadband modems from multiple wireless carriers. The CradlePoint PHS300, for example, costs about $180 and works with just about anyone’s USB broadband modem.
It’s more expensive than a MiFi, and you have to pay for a carrier’s modem and data plan, but for individuals or offices that don’t want to be tied to a single carrier for wireless broadband services, it offers valuable versatility. It’s also one of the first Wi-Fi travel routers I’ve seen that supports the latest and fastest flavor of Wi-Fi, 802.11n.
Other Wi-Fi travel routers simply let you share wired broadband access, typically in a hotel. Again, this is useful if more than one person wants to be online simultaneously, or if you want to be free to wander around your room without being tethered to an ethernet cable.
Several companies offer these, but the TrendNet TEW-654TR ($70 as of mid-April 2010) is one of few I’ve seen that supports 802.11n (Belkin, D-Link, and Linksys have older products that support only 802.11g).
Phones and Travel
Traveling with a cell phone is a no-brainer as long as you stay in the United States: Most carriers’ contracts include provisions for roaming that allow you to use your phone pretty much anywhere in the country. The fun starts when you travel overseas.
If your carrier’s network supports GSM/GPRS technology (AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile are the two major companies that do so in the United States), you may be in luck: Outside the United States, GSM/GPRS is the dominant cell phone network technology.
You must decide, however, whether you want to pay steep international voice and data roaming fees so that you can make and receive calls at your usual cell phone number–or whether you’re willing to save a ton of money by removing your phone’s SIM card and popping in a local, pay-as-you-go replacement (recognizing that you won’t be able to receive calls to your usual number).
To switch SIM cards, you (or your carrier) must unlock your phone, which simply means adjusting the phone’s software so that it will accept and read a new card. Carrier policies on unlocking phones varies; much depends on how long you’ve been a customer.
In some cases, unlocking is illegal. For example, AT&T and Apple’s agreement bars AT&T from unlocking an iPhone. (Hackers have found workarounds, but we don’t recommend violating agreements.)
Sprint and Verizon Wireless operate on CDMA networks in the United States, but both offer global phones that support GSM networks overseas. Typically, however, you can’t unlock these phones; instaed, you must use the carriers’ international roaming plans.
If you can’t unlock your phone, you can buy or rent a phone overseas, which still may be less expensive than using international roaming–especially for data. Carriers will sell you services that bring the costs down a little bit.
For example, AT&T sells overseas data plans that cost less than its per-megabyte fee for data if you don’t buy a plan–but the plans still run as much as $193 for 200MB of data (on top of your usual data-plan fees). Extra charges apply for text messages and voice calls made overseas, too.
Bottom line: As convenient as it is to be able to make and receive calls from your own phone number wherever you are, if it’s not a necessary business expense, you should seriously consider using an overseas carrier when you’re abroad, either by obtaining a SIM card to put into your unlocked phone or by using a different phone. This is one instance where technology doesn’t necessarily travel well.