Getting Online, On the Road
A few months ago, I went to Dublin. Thanks to free WiFi at the hotel, my traveling companions and I were able to Skype home and say “hi;” reassure my clients that even though I was on a trip this week I’d still be able to get work done for them by the deadline; and of course, go through the modern-day traveler’s ritual of documenting my trip via Instagram pics and Facebook posts.
Then, last weekend, I went to Paris. Like any halfway decent accommodation option these days, our hotel boasted that it had WiFi throughout the hotel for a small fee. But, on arrival, we found out that the Internet connection “wasn’t working.” (I put that in quotes because it also didn’t work the next day, or the next…)
No problem, I thought. We’ll stop in a cafe for breakfast so I can check for important email and give that crucial shout-out to my family that we made it to Paris.
“Of course we have WiFi,” the waitress told us. And they did, it just didn’t work.
The bistro for lunch? “No WiFi, madame,” the man said. “Try Starbucks.”
Starbucks was full–not a free tabletop in sight.
Eventually, our 4 p.m. cafe-au-lait pick-me up stop afforded us streetside seating and a WiFi connection strong enough for me to check my email and look up our dinner destination on TripAdvisor.
I don’t want it to sound like I just *had* to be online while in Paris. I also enjoy radio silence from time to time, and off-grid travel is always a refreshing choice. I wanted to explore Paris–and we did. But, I’d taken this weekend trip with the idea that Friday was still a working day. I wanted to share snapshots of my trip with my friends and social media followers. I wanted to quickly check distances between points (luckily I’d downloaded an offline map before our trip, so we were fine for directions), check the opening hours of the Musee d’Orsay, and make sure that if a client needed to catch me about an upcoming project, I’d be able to get back to them within 24 hours.
For most travelers nowadays, access to the Internet simply makes the trip better. For others, it means the difference between a long trip, and a short one: I met someone recently who took an eight-week trip to Europe, and six weeks of those she was telecommuting back to her job in the States. Having access to the Internet made that possible.
Cellphone data roaming plans solve some of the issues with getting online on the road, but not all. For one thing, tethering your laptop to your cell isn’t fun, reliable or easy. For another, those data plans can add up. Increasingly, I’ve been turning to portable WiFi devices. In the US, last year, I was able to keep my mobile data costs to a minimum and support five devices’ Internet needs while visiting family and friends. In India a few years ago, a simple USB modem gave us online access even in the jungle. And, if you’re lucky enough to travel in Europe, there are even cheaper, more reliable services. For example, you can rely on WiFi in Spain from 5€/day –cheaper than my hotel in Paris wanted to charge for their nonexistent Internet service.
Unfortunately, even though travelers now embrace online apps and social media as a given–hotels and restaurants aren’t always ready (or able, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt) to provide their guests with unfettered online access. Getting a portable WiFi box (I have usually just referred to ours as “the magic box”) is also a good idea if you want to protect sensitive data. I do use the Internet while traveling for business, and if I want to do something sensitive while using public WiFi, I’ll use a VPN to mask my details. But it’s even safer to use that VPN over my own, more private WiFi.
How have you solved the question of getting online while traveling? Let us know in the comments!