Hi guys – this article is still roughly correct, but please read it in conjunction with this one, which describes our 2016 roaming Internet solution, thanks, Jay
If you’re off long term travelling in Europe, and want regular Internet access, then join the club! I’ve written some notes below on how we intend to access the Internet on the road, for minimum cost, over the second half of our trip between 2012 and 2013. You opinions, thoughts, corrections and questions are very welcome.
We’re committed to updating our blog each and every day we’re on the road, travelling Europe and North Africa. So far we’ve managed it, come rain, wind and beer. Already we’re finding we look back on what we’ve written and memories of adventure, friendship and a little fear come flooding back! This leaves us with a small problem though: how to get on the Internet reliably without spending a fortune.
Just a small caveat: The best method of getting on the Internet while roaming depends on you, your budget and how you want to use it. If you want to make daily Skype video calls and upload recorded video, then you will need a different (vastly more expensive) solution than someone who needs to occasionally check attachment-less emails and respond to them.
Before dipping into how we plan to access the Internet over the second phase of our trip, a quick look at what options are available (including combinations of these). Skip this if you’re already up on this stuff:
- WiFi, or WLAN. This connects you (your phone, laptop, Kindle, netbook etc) to a network which usually expands over a small area, from a few meters to the breadth of a campsite say. The network you connect to is in turn connected to the Internet, usually with a broadband connection, which you share with others. WiFi has advantages of sometimes being available for free, usually being fast enough to upload video, sometimes having a low latency so you can make calls with Skype without too much delay, and not being charged by the amount of data you transfer.
- Cellular, 3G, EDGE, GPRS, UMTS, HSDPA, 4G. These terms all refer to the networks spread across a country using similar infrastructure to that you use to make mobile phone calls. To access it you need a device which can accept a data-enabled SIM card, typically a smart phone, USB dongle, MiFi, or laptop with built-in 3G capability. Some devices have the SIM built-in, like the Amazon Kindle 3G. The big advantage to these networks is their availability, you can usually get a signal almost anywhere, although it may be one of the slower types (GPRS or EDGE, the former being the slowest). We’ve needed to take to the roof of a building at an oasis in Morocco, and climb a mountain in Switzerland, but have always found a signal. The big disadvantage is cost, the telecom providers (Vodafone, O2, Orange and so on) usually charge by the data you transfer (adding together the download and upload data).
- Wired Access. This means either plugging your laptop into an Ethernet cable, or using someone else’s computer. In practice, the second option is the only one available unless you have a friend who will let you share their network. Some campsite receptions have PCs you can use for free, as do some tourist information offices (and Apple stores!). Internet cafes still endure too, although they are few and far between in some countries, and where they do exist you are limited to using the applications available on their PCs, hunting them out, and of course leaving when they close!
- Satellite Internet. This means having an Internet-enabled satellite dish fitted to your roof (or carrying one in the van and bolting it to the outside or using a tripod when you stop). You’ll also need to pay for a data plan. Costs are coming down and the number of options for this are going up. One definite disadvantage will be latency, the data has to get into space and back, so time-critical applications like voice calls will have some delay, no avoiding it. Also, unless you have a fully-automatic roof-mounted solution, you’ll have to do at least some degree of set up, although that might be as simple as pointing the dish in a rough direction. If you want to have a look in this area, some companies to check out are: www.tooway4you.eu, www.satelliteinternet.co.uk and www.ipcopter.com/en. We haven’t chosen satellite (although we’d love it, especially with no data cap) as (a) we don’t want to carry a dish inside the van, (b) we often use aires where using a tripod is difficult and (c) we don’t want to fork out over a £1000 for a roof-mounted solution. We could look at mounting a pole on the back of the van, and fixing a manually-aligned dish to it, but we’ve chosen not to as for the cost of buying the hardware alone we could buy 3G access for over 6 months (£300 for a 75cm dish from www.satelliteinternet.co.uk).
With the above in mind, and taking into account the latest offerings (Sep 2012) from UK teleco companies, this is the solution we decided to try. Note that if you intend to only travel for a few days outside the UK, then the easiest option may be to simply contact your UK telco and ask what bolt-on solutions they can provide. We’ve checked and as of the date of writing, they are all cost-prohibitive for us travelling for months abroad.
- Our main method of accessing the Internet will, hopefully, be through WiFi. Throughout our travels to date, this has generally not been a good solution for a variety of reasons (see What’s wrong with WiFi below). We’re hoping that will change and have bought a uni-directional (boosts the WiFi signal in one direction only) antenna from Adam at www.motorhomewifi.com, which comes with a suction mount. Adam also supplied us with a powered 5m USB cable, so we can mount it anywhere around the outside of the van. The kit is sat in the UK ready for us to pick up next week. Adam also recommends using InSSIDer, a PC application which helps find open and strong WiFi signals. I’m a cynic for the reasons listed below, but for the price of the equipment it will hopefully easily pay for itself in just a few days of avoided 3G costs.
- Our secondary method will be using a 3G dongle fitted with a EuropaSIM.com SIM card. We again picked up the SIM from Motorhome WiFi, the sole UK agent and cheaper than buying direct. It provides 100MB per day for €2, or 500MB per day for the same price in Italy (it’s an Italian-registered SIM). We have an application called Connectify running on our laptop, which turns it into a WiFi hotspot, so we can share the 3G connection with our smart phone (alternatively you can use a MiFi personal hotspot device, or something similar). We have 3m and 5m USB cables for the dongle so we can pop it out of the roof skylight; we’ve found we get a better signal that way. We’ve checked the list of 33 supported countries and it meets our needs, and we are able to add more credit via PayPal (although they do charge €3.90 each time you top up).
- If we stay in any country for over 2 weeks, we’ll look at buying a local SIM for that country. This has proved cost-effective and fairly simple in France, Morocco, Italy and Germany. Typical costs are about €25 to €35 for between 1GB and 3GB of data valid for 30 days, costs vary significantly between countries and telco. We’ve always found at least one telco in each country which would sell us a pre-paid SIM without a local bank account and address.
- If all else fails, we have a UK registered Pre-Paid O2 SIM which gives us 25MB per day for £2 (we’ll have data switched off on the phone unless we have to use it). If we go over 25MB in a day, the service stops for that day, so no chance of using all our credit by accident.
Another option we have seen used is a 3G Amazon Kindle. Once you have bought one of these, you can wander between countries using the built-in browser to access your email, browse web sites and so on. There are no costs for data, but access is capped at 50MB a month (plenty for accessing a few emails and checking the BBC news). Also, you cannot (without hacking your Kindle) share the connection, so are limited to using the applications on the Kindle, and cannot upload photographs, use Skype and so on.
What’s Wrong with WiFi?
I’ve worked in IT for 18 years, including a spell as a solution designer which included some consulting on networking components, enough to make me reasonably savvy if by no means an expert. Armed with this knowledge, we’ve struggled to be able to use WiFi much while we’ve travelled to date. Why? Good question, I’ll list our issues below.
- We usually avoid campsites, staying on aires or free-camping in fairly remote spots. WiFi networks were simply not in range, even with an omni-directional antenna (The Rocket, which is an awful bit of kit, the laptop antenna often outperformed it). We’re hoping a good uni-directional antenna will help with this. We’ll report back how this turns out in practice.
- When WiFi networks are available, they are usually locked, with either a password being needed to connect to them, or appear open but you are blocked from general Internet access by a website demanding payment (a captive portal). It is possible to crack some network passwords but (a) it’s legally very dubious and (b) we can’t be bothered with the hassle.
- Sometimes WiFi networks are available which one device might connect to, say the phone, but the laptop refuses to connect to. Probably something specific to our set up, but frustrating nevertheless.
- MacDonalds offer free WiFi to customers. We’ve both sat outside using it without purchase and gone in. Sometimes it works fine, albeit slowly. Other times it just doesn’t work and the staff have no access to resolve it. In Italy you need an Italian mobile phone to use it, which we didn’t have. And of course, you can only use it when you’re in or near a MacDonalds.
- We’ve found in some countries campsites and cafes charge for WiFi, and it’s not cheap
I love talking about roaming Internet solutions, so please don’t hesitate to share any other options you know of (comment below), correct anything I have wrong or ask questions! Thanks, Jay