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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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.

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