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Getting online overseas without breaking the bank

Traveling abroad is often like traveling into a black hole. All of a sudden your phone doesn’t work, and with it goes your ability to use maps, find places through Yelp, research travel plans, or do any work. Over the years, I’ve found a few tips that have helped me stay running and connected as I transition through various countries.

1. Once abroad your data plan can bankrupt you.

I’m an AT&T customer. Once you’re abroad, your standard international roaming plan costs $20/MB of data. That can quickly add up. In Spain I turned my data connection on for just a few minutes and used maps to find my hotel. AT&T tried to charge me $200 for that privilege. Be warned!

T-Mobile seems to have some good international roaming and data plans, but if you’re stuck with a behemoth carrier like I am, there may be additional plans to take advantage of. AT&T offers an international data plan of 120MB for $30. It’s still expensive, but that should be plenty to let you use maps, check emails, and do a little browsing while on the road with your regular phone.

2. Wifi is ubiquitous and a pain in the ass.

Wi-fi is widespread throughout the world. You’ll find it offered in coffee shops, malls, hotels and hostels. But it always seems to come with a fair amount of stress. You buy your coffee and the internet goes down; there’ll be a time limit of 90mins; the connection is slow; the coffee grinder never stops; the connectivity doesn’t reach to your room…. etc etc etc. In Montreal last year, I found myself becoming increasingly stressed trying to find a Hortons or Starbucks that would let me connect.

Oddly enough, budget hostels seem to do a better job with wifi than bigger establishments. In the US, chain motels will have wifi in every room, but the Marriott will try and charge you $20 for the privilege. I don’t get it; they should try charging for water too.

3. Get an unlocked phone and free yourself.

An unlocked phone can be a huge lifesaver when traveling. Most countries have carriers that offer pre-paid plans that enable you to pop a new sim card and instantly have a local phone and local rates for internet connectivity.

If you have an older phone, your carrier might be willing to unlock it for you. In the past I had to argue with sales reps, or pay someone on eBay to hack it. Now AT&T will unlock phones once the contract is paid off – More info – If you don’t have a phone you can repurpose, it’s fairly easy to find one off eBay…. the key term is ‘unlocked’ which means it will work on any carrier.

You’ll also need to make sure your phone will work in the countries you plan to travel. Over the years the variety of frequencies has proliferated to the point of incomprehensibility. Phones from AT&T and T-Mobile which use the more internationally common GSM networks are usually a better bet, but you’ll want to check your phone against a list of network. I found this comprehensive list of mobile carriers in Asia from Wikipedia.

4. Faster with newer technologies

If you’re willing to pay for it, an unlocked new phone gives you the possibility of getting really high speed LTE connectivity abroad. But be careful. The unlocked iPhones (5s) sold in the US are designed to work well with US carriers, but not so much with international carriers. Unlocked iPhones sold in Asia also differ from those sold in Europe. Here’s a good article : iPhone 5s and LTE support worldwide

The apple documentation also shows reason to be careful. iPhone LTE compatibility

The iPad air seems to be the wonder machine at the moment, with one processor working with most of the world’s popular frequencies. That’ll be on my wish list.

Android devices, I have no clue.

5. Tether and work anywhere

If you need to do real work on the road, tethering is the ticket. Tethering is when you connect your laptop to your phone’s data connection so you can work, literally, anywhere. AT&T in the US restricts tethering to their most expensive paid plan. T-Mobile is probably more lenient. In the Philippines in Dec 2013, I had no problem tethering my laptop to my iPad for internet access everywhere. With a local data plan and a tethered laptop, you really can work around the world.

In India four years ago, I was able to do a full-on VOIP conference call from a train while rattling across Tamil Nadu at 2am. I had two kids sleeping up against me, and I probably earned more on that train ride than the family did in a whole year. Sometimes it is surprising just how well it works.

I did run into trouble once in Jerusalem in 2007. I was holed up at a hotel with wifi in the Arab quarter preparing for a 6pm call with my clients who were probably just starting their work day in New York. I hadn’t let on that I had hit the road, and I was able to keep the charade going until that call. Connectivity was strong, WebEx was working, but as soon as I had started talking, the Muezzin from the mosque next-door started wailing his call to prayer. I don’t know any solution to canceling out that sort of give-away, so I hung up and emailed them that my phone had died and I would need 20mins. I don’t think they figured it out. The call went great after that.

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