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10 Internet access tips for travelers

It may seem like Internet access is available everywhere. But when you travel, you may hit limitations, inflated charges, and various connectivity gotchas.

As someone who spends a considerable amount of time on the road, I often have to connect to the Internet from places other than my home. Even though Internet access is nearly ubiquitous, Internet access while traveling can be expensive and sometimes, surprisingly limited. So I thought I'd compile a series of tips for those who need to use the Internet while traveling.

1: You might be better off using a public Wi-Fi hotspot than your hotel's connectivity

Almost every hotel provides Internet access, but there may be situations in which you have to look for a public Wi-Fi hotspot instead of using the hotel's Internet service. Some hotels are notorious for blocking various protocols and Web sites. For example, a lot of hotels block Netflix to try to get customers to order pay-per-view movies. I have also been on cruise ships that blocked VoIP to force passengers to use onboard telephones, which can cost eight dollars a minute or more.

Of course, hotels don't just block Web sites and Internet protocols in an effort to make money. Sometimes, they may have security or bandwidth preservation in mind. I've stayed in hotels that blocked instant messaging traffic, YouTube videos, and even videoconferencing.

2: Wired connectivity may provide a better experience

Some hotel rooms offer wired Ethernet in addition to the Wi-Fi signal that can be found throughout the hotel. Oftentimes, I have found that the wired connection results in a more reliable experience. Sometimes in hotels, the airwaves are oversaturated with Wi-Fi traffic, which may lead to slow or unreliable connectivity. Using a wired connection allows you to avoid the frustration of not knowing what you're going to get with Wi-Fi.

3: Beware of data plan limitations when using a mobile hotspot

Some smartphones can be configured as mobile hotspots. They include miniature wireless access points that allow laptop computers to access the Internet through the smartphone's Internet connection. Although these devices work well, it's easy to run up a large bill unless you have an unlimited data plan.

A few years back, I had a wireless plan that limited the amount of data I could upload and download. Whenever I was working directly from my phone, I would keep my data limit in mind. But when I worked from my laptop, the experience was basically the same as using it from any other Wi-Fi connection (although a bit slower), and I would sometimes forget about my data limitations.

4: Cut and paste can save lots of money on cruise ships

The Internet connections on cruise ships tend to be outrageously expensive. Most of the ships I have sailed on the last few years have charged about $.85 a minute for Internet access. To add insult to injury, the Internet connections are throttled to a painfully slow speed, which makes it easy to rack up a large bill.

I try to stay off the Internet when I'm vacationing, but every once in a while I need to send an email message. One little trick I use is to compose the email message before I actually get online. Every cruise ship does things differently, but I have found that I can sometimes compose an email on my own computer and save the message to a text file on a USB flash drive. When I get to the ship's Internet café, I log on, sign into my email account, and then copy and paste the message. This has saved me a lot of money because I'm not spending billable time composing my messages.

5: If Internet access stops working, check your roaming settings

I depend on my Windows phone for most of my Internet needs when I'm traveling. Every once in a while, though, Internet access comes to a grinding halt. This can be attributed to a setting (which exists on most smartphones) that disables Internet connectivity automatically if you're roaming.

Sometimes, roaming restrictions are controlled at the server end. Exchange 2007 and Exchange 2010 both contain an ActiveSync policy setting that can be used to prevent Direct Push from synchronizing users' mailboxes while they're roaming. This setting won't affect general Internet access, but it will prevent email from working.

6: Free Internet access can sometimes be limited

Some hotels have been known to charge as much as $40 for Internet access, so it's tempting to stay at one that offers free Internet access. Before you book, though, it is a good idea to do a quick check online to see if there's a catch to the free Internet access.

Most of the hotels I have stayed in don't limit your use of the Internet beyond what I have already talked about. Last year, however, I stayed in a hotel in Atlanta that imposed a three-hour limit for free Internet access. Even though three hours might sound like a lot, it's amazing how quickly you can burn through it.

7: Be careful about using mobile Internet on a cruise ship

Even if you have an unlimited data plan from your cell provider, using your smartphone while on a cruise ship can be very expensive. Most of the major cruise lines offer a service called Cellular at Sea. Essentially, the ship has its own cell tower and when you use your phone, you're roaming at a rate set by the cruise line. The service gets turned off while the ship is in port, however, which allows you to use the regular cellular service for wherever you happen to be.

Incidentally, some cell providers will allow you to use your cell phone (Internet access and all) from an American territory for the same rate you'd have if you were in America. For example, I have used my smartphone in places like Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, and Guam without incurring any additional charges.

8: Access Wi-Fi in the air

Given how strict the airlines are about the use of portable electronic devices, it is easy to assume that Internet access while flying is out of the question. However, in the last year or two, many of the airlines have begun offering Wi-Fi on their planes. The service tends to be slow and expensive, but if you really need to access the Internet while on the go, having Wi-Fi while in the air is great.

9: In a hotel, there is no such thing as privacy

We all know that Wi-Fi networks are anything but private. However, that point was underscored for me in a big way last year. I was staying at a hotel while attending a technology conference. One night halfway through the conference, a friend called and told me I just had to come down to his room and see something. Apparently, he had gotten bored and decided to sniff the Wi-Fi network for fun. You absolutely would not believe the types of things people search the Internet for from a hotel room late at night.

10: Never underestimate the value of local storage

Although this might seem completely counterintuitive, don't underestimate the value of local storage. Yes, the Internet is nearly ubiquitous and there are many ways to access it while traveling. But I have learned through experience that if I really need access to a file, I should bring a copy of it with me rather than count on getting access to it from a cloud service provider. I have just seen too many situations in which hotel networks failed to operate correctly. I don't want to end up without access to a critical file just because I chose to put my faith in the almighty cloud.

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About

Brien Posey is a seven-time Microsoft MVP. He has written thousands of articles and written or contributed to dozens of books on a variety of IT subjects.

11 comments
klaasf
klaasf

Referring to "10: Never underestimate the value of local storage": This is not explicitly true in hotels, but location independent and subject to Digital Murphy's Law: The harder you need that particular file, the greater the change that the network will let you down.

terrymoir
terrymoir

Generally, internet access limits at hotels are per [i]IP address[/i]. If you have both a laptop, smart phone, Ipod, etc., you can get the free time for each, using the same access code.

Tim Heard
Tim Heard

Nice article Brien. I was on the road in December, and was just at the very limit of my provider's cell range. To add to my frustration, the place we stayed offered Wi-Fi coverage, but the bandwidth was really slow, and our condo was also at the extreme range of the network. Next year, I'm going to take a signal booster with me. Still researching what will work best for our needs.

TBone2k
TBone2k

Know wether or not your cell and especially data plan supports roaming and in what countries. Fortunately, I can set my blackberry data plan to "off when roaming" so I don't have any accidents. On cruise ships, its especially important to understand how this works. Especially if you have a teen or someone who doesn't realize that "unlimited" usually doesn't stretch outside your own border. You'll also recall that cruise ships charge by the minute, not the byte. So be careful to switch off your wifi on your laptop and avoid hooking up things like tablets and smartphones to wifi.

AppSupSpec
AppSupSpec

Last year I was in downtown Toronto. The hotel I stayed at had only wired connections in the rooms and only had guest wi-fi in the lobby. I did complain hard to hotel management on property & in their corporate offices about how more & more people are using tablets & smartphones now, how those devices do not come with ethernet ports, and how having wi-fi only in the lobby was limiting how their business customers could do their work. Also, was in Wheeling, IL in the early fall. The hotel had very slow & throttled wi-fi at 950 Kbits down. Local 3G service was faster at 3100 Kbits down. Don't always rely on the hotel's wi-fi for speed.

Boushe
Boushe

Im a little surprised that these two options werent added in this article, but these two aspects, or tips, are extremely useful when using public internet access while on the go. 1. Use Good Virus Protection There have been various experiences Ive had in the past where myself or another friend or relative has had the data on their computer or their internet traffic intercepted and used for malicious intent because they either had no virus protection running on their computer, or they had some free, knock-off virus scanner that only did a half-a** job of protecting the computer and the data stored on it. Zone Alarm is an Internet Security program that I have had the best luck with, as far as it doing a REALLY good job of protecting the data stored on my laptop and other computers when i used them on the go (www.zonealarm.com). This isnt a free internet security program, but in the long run, it is a small price to pay for protecting potentially hundreds of dollars or gigabytes worth of information. The programs virus protection also does a really good job without bogging your computer's performance down. If you feel secure enough using an internet security program that is free, Comodo is a really good option as well. From just one software download, Comodo gives you the ability to install just their virus protection, firewall program, or both rolled into one. One of the features that I love in both Comodo and Zone Alarm is that if someone tries to access your computer remotely, the software will kick up a warning message to let you know. 2. Use a Good VPN Service There have been various times when Ive been traveling out of state or just around town to different locations and Ive needed to access a particular website for business purposes or utilize a particular program on my computer to assist clients and other customers, but the wireless connection blocked that particular website or blocked the particular kind of network traffic associated with the needed program. HotSpot Shield is a free, but from my previous and long experience with it, a good VPN client to use when encountering either of the above mentioned situations. It allows you to access legitimate websites or services that have been blocked for no apparent reason, and it also does a good job of masking your network traffic from people who try to use network sniffing programs to unlawfully intercept your network traffic

chrislroy
chrislroy

I travel a lot, mostly in remote corner of the world where internet access whatever its flavors can be limited and expensive. Its also ime consuming - and loosing precious time oversea to sit in front of a computer to write and answer email, publish blog is not my kind of soup. So in order to same money and time, I use a mail client app to manage all emails. This way, I can take my time to write and reply to my emails while I am offline, in the calm of my room, when I feel like doing it, not pressured by anything. I also use a desktop blog client to do the same for my blog. This way, I can stay in contact with me world while exploring the world and make new friends.

BALTHOR
BALTHOR

Fn and the little antenna icon.

BALTHOR
BALTHOR

I put an SD card in my laptop and with Active Boot Disk in a pen drive I made a new installation restore to the SD card.The Pen drive has the program to make the restore and to restore the back up to the hard drive.The drive can be totally erased and restored with this pen drive program.If my computer goes down I'm back again as brand new.Wi-Fi in planes will be a must have.Carry an extra set of batteries or two for long flights.Maybe a movie to watch.Remote desktop is a serious consideration too.I even see web camming to the home office especially for truckers at the dock or enroute.Make web cam big.A small computer that folds open would be nice.

ozchorlton
ozchorlton

I once stayed in a hotel, in Hong Kong, which charged, excessive, rates, for internet, however, in the dining room, (for breakfast), you could pick up the Wi-Fi, from the Bank next door :-) Sometimes, finding 'free' Wi-Fi, is quite interesting :-)