It has been one of the most unquestioned pieces of travel advice since the first WiFi hotspot flickered to life in an unnamed hotel more than a decade ago: If you want to stay connected while you’re on vacation, you can save a bundle by skipping a pricey cellular roaming plan and using a wireless Internet connection instead.
And it works – except when it doesn’t.
This is one of those times when it doesn’t. I’m sitting outside someone’s apartment in Unterkirnach, a village in Germany’s Black Forest, trying to log on to a wireless signal. It’s a cold, windy spring morning, and people are staring at me. I took my own advice about saving money while connecting abroad. Now I regret it.
Wireless hotspots in Germany, it turns out, are usually locked down tight and password-protected. But at least there are hotspots to connect to. Elsewhere, wireless Internet coverage is spotty or prohibitively expensive, or both.
If you want to stay connected when you’re traveling internationally this summer, there may be only one way to ensure that you can stay in touch American-style: Ask lots of questions, do your research, and avoid some of the common but erroneous assumptions that travelers make.
First among them is taking wireless Internet connections for granted. That may be possible in the United States, but cross the border, and WiFi becomes a luxury. Yet many travelers, says Michal Ann Strahilevitz, a marketing professor at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, regard a fast wireless connection on the road as a utility, like running water and electricity, or at the very least, as an essential hotel amenity. Charging us extra for a WiFi connection is a little like billing us for heat or air conditioning, she says. “Even if the total bill was lower, we would be furious.”
My recent vacation rentals in Germany and France came sans wireless. Instead, I relied on my AT&T iPhone, with an expensive international roaming plan, to check e-mail.
“WiFi does not have the ubiquity of 3G or 4G cellular,” says Ritch Blasi, a retired cellular company executive and frequent traveler. A smarter solution is a wireless plan with a generous data allocation, which allows you to tether your laptop to your cellphone, or using a service such as Boingo (Boingo.com), which connects you to a collection of premium public networks, he says.
But those solutions require the presence of a wireless network or a strong cellular signal – not always a given. I’m writing these words as I sit on a park bench, with only two bars of wireless. It looks as if it’s about to rain.
Second mistake: assuming that your connection will be reasonably priced. Fast WiFi can come with your room, or there may be a modest fee – or a not-so-modest fee. A few days ago, I checked into a business hotel in Paris that offered a “free” WiFi connection through a company called Swisscom Internet. But the download speed was torturously slow, so I splurged for the faster premium option, priced at 15 euros (about $21) a day. That roughly doubled my connection speed.