World Wide Wireless: Connectivity while traveling

One of the biggest questions when traveling abroad is connectivity.  It can be expensive or non-existent. So what’s a traveler to do?

Wi-Fi_LogoWi-Fi is your Friend:

For the most part, you can rely on Wi-Fi in your hotel, coffee shops, or public spaces to stay connected.   If you really need to make or receive calls, you will need a voice plan (continue reading), however, if you have a smartphone (iPhone, Android phone or tablet), you can use services such as Skype to call home over Wi-Fi at drastically reduced rates or possibly even free, using Facetime between iPhone/iPad.  When we traveled around Europe for 2 weeks in 2011, we just used hotel W-iFi and it worked well.

Here are some options to keep you in connected to friends back home:

International Roaming: Danger, Will Robinson!

Everytime I touch down in a foreign country, I get an SMS from AT&T telling me about the crazy expensive rates that they will charge me for voice and data.  Often these numbers are on the order of $3.99/minute for voice calls and about $19/MB of data.  In a typical month, I use between 2-4GB (2,000-4,000MB), so roaming is not an option.   Be sure to turn off 3G roaming on your phone.  You can put your phone in airplane mode which will work well for most, however, you will lose GPS tagging on your photos (if you want to pin them to a map or figure out where you took them).  Airplane mode will also save your battery during the day.

International Voice and Data Plans:

One option to keep in touch is to purchase an international data plan from your service provider.   These data plans aren’t cheap, but international roaming charges are super expensive.

Here are some of the US Providers international data plans:

AT&T International Plans   |  Verizon International Plans  |  T-Mobile Plans

Renting a Phone:

This can be a good option if your phone does not have a quad-band radio.  Several companies rent phones for worldwide travel.   I’ve used  this type of service several years ago when I traveled to China.  These services are very convenient in that they ship you the phone prior to your arrival, however, they can be expensive ($3/minute).  A simple Google search for international phone rental yields several options, however I think these companies are disappearing as the adoption of quad-band phones become the norm.

Buying 3G SIM Cards

This may be the least expensive option but takes some coordination and requires an unlocked phone.    In the US, carriers prefer to lock phones to their network so you are forced to use their plans.   You may be able to find unlocked phones on Craigslist or Ebay.  I found an unlocked 4G MiFi (hotspot) on Craigslist that I intend to use overseas.  I plan to find 3G/4G SIM cards in the airports.  I have heard that it’s possible to find 2GB SIMs for under $20.  See the links at the end of this post to find the providers for each country that you’ll be visiting.

SatelliteIRDM_GlobalCoverage_MAPS_10Sept2010 (1)

If you are going to off the grid where cellular or Wi-Fi may be limited or non-existent, you may want to consider buying or renting a sat-phone.  These phones rely on a network of satellites to send and receive voice and data.   A full fledged sat-phone for voice can run $1,000 which you may or may not need.  You will also need a service plan to go with that pricey phone.  Major satellite providers include Thuraya, Iridium, and Inmarsat.

Less expensive options include offerings from Spot and DeLorme which sell for $169-$249 plus a dataplans of $10-$50/month depending on the number of messages you want to send.  The Spot provides one-way communication (you can send text messages out but can’t receive), while the DeLorme unit can send and receive messages.

Both Spot and DeLorme make 2 models: 1. a fully functional smart-ish phone and 2. a Wi-Fi-Satellite hotspot.  Both let you send and receive 160-character messages (SMS or possibly even email format) as well as let others track your progress.  One is a self-contained phone and the other is a hotspot that pairs via Bluetooth to your smartphone or tablet.  These hotspot devices are better if you have more than one device. Wired has a review and comparison of DeLorme and Spot.

So there you have it, several options to phone home.  And remember that you may halfway around the world, so if you want or need to call someone be sure to check the time back home first!

Additional Links:

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