My WiFi left me on vacation


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 (, 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.

Moreover, there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to hotels’ wireless fees. Many budget hotels, even abroad, include wireless connections in their room prices, while so-called “full-service” properties frequently add hefty connection charges.

Gary Arndt knows about overpriced connections. He’s been on an open-ended around-the-world trip for the past eight years, and if there’s one thing he’s learned, it’s not to take a wireless connection for granted, ever. He just returned from the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean, where WiFi cost £12.30 (about $21) for two hours, with no discounts for longer or shorter periods. “The most expensive WiFi I’ve seen in the world was at a two-star hotel in central London, near Paddington Station – $65 a day,” says Arndt, who blogs about his adventures on the Web site

Even if you can find a reasonably priced wireless connection, it may be a mistake to hook up. A recent study by Private WiFi, an Internet security firm, found that nearly 2 out of 5 Americans access sensitive information when they’re on a public wireless network. Among the lapses: checking a bank account (26 percent); paying a bill (19 percent); and revealing a Social Security or account number by e-mail (8 percent). Although these aren’t inherently dangerous activities, you can unwillingly expose your personal details to a hacker if the network isn’t secured.

So maybe the Germans are right when they password-protect their wireless networks, as opposed to, say, the Americans or the French, who offer WiFi at no charge in public places. You can’t be too careful these days.

Even when a network is access-limited, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re out of options, says Andrea Eldridge, the chief executive of Nerds On Call, a computer and laptop repair service. “Try asking for the password if your mobile device finds a network that you’d like access to,” she says. “Many shop owners are happy to oblige.”

Many, but not all. On my trip, I discovered that the famously privacy-conscious Germans are reluctant to offer you their passwords; the French don’t seem to mind; and the Italians are fine with it, except that having a wireless signal isn’t a given. (At one hotel in the Italian Alps, I mentioned that the wireless signal appeared to be offline. “There will be no Internet today,” shrugged a woman at the front desk. “Maybe tomorrow?” She was half right. There was no Internet that day, nor the next.)

Bottom line: The tried-and-true advice about using WiFi while you’re away to save money on an international roaming plan is neither tried nor true. You can’t count on a reliable or affordable wireless connection while traveling

Maybe you’re better off doing without. After all, you’re on vacation.

When I'm traveling, WiFi is ...

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • polexia_rogue

    I always assume it’s not free.

    how “not free” is the question.

    m,e and my husband both travel with laptops but if it turn out the wifi is 20 dollars a day for 1 computer (a 2nd computer needs a new payment) we just do one computer.

    in the VERY rare event we check in and the clerk says “here you go- the pass word for the free wifi is “welcome” have nice stay!”

    I am pleasantly shocked (it happens in a few small towns.)

  • Markus Fritze

    There were a couple of lawsuits from the US movie/music industry against people in Germany with open hotspots. After that the courts pretty much decided that you have to lock them down to not be individually responsible…

  • Helio

    It happens to me in Fance and UK that the hotel wifi supposed to work elsewhere, including the room, was only working at the lobby. Several hotels I stayed had free internet at the lobby, but if you want to navigate in the privacy of your room, you were asked to pay.

    In Paris I found a couple of free hotspots, but it wasn’t easy, and I had to fill a form to be able to get access.

    But you are sure – I only found free hotspots (Starbucks style) easily in USA & Canada.

    One reason for password locked wifi networks may be to avoid problems. I don’t know how are the things in Germany, but in Brazil, you are responsible for all traffic inside your network. If someone does something illegal using your connection, and it is traced back to your connection, you may be prosecuted too.

  • Charles

    There is no reason not to contact banks or other secure sites on a public WiFi, provided you ensure you are using an https connection. Don’t just type something like Instead, type Also, ensure your bookmarks all have the https. Then, ensure you see the lock in the browser indicating a valid secure connection. An https connection creates a secure connection between you and your destination that is encrypted with a very strong encryption algorithm. It also verifies that you are talking to who you think you are talking to.

    I’m sure someone will argue that this can still be faked. The https protocol is very hard to break. If you are concerned about that, you should be worried about more than just public WiFi. Your communications travels over a large number of networks between you and your destination, any one of which could be monitored. So, you should ensure you have a secure connection every time, not just in a public WiFi location. Do keep in mind that email is not sent via a secure channel, though your connection to your mail service is likely secure.

  • Cybrsk8r

    I’m sure, with enough time and effort, it could be hacked into. But it’s also true that the hacker will go after the low-hanging fruit first. Why put in all the effort to break encryption when there are so many other targets using un-encrypted sites.

  • Ribit

    This is an interesting article. I also appreciate the real-life experiences and comments of the other posters. Thank you. Happy Easter.

  • Thomas M Bourke

    Personally I have mifi/portable wifi devices for countries I will be in for a while

    So I have a vodafone one for the UK (2gb – not travelling much there #securitytheateratheathrow).. Meteor (on prepay) – 10GB – for ireland and I tether of my tmobile phone (with it’s 5gb) in the US…

    well worth considering looking at prepay data using an unlocked (and compatible for the country you are in) mifi device

  • James Gerber

    I can’t believe you paid the exorbitant AT&T roaming price when you probably could have bought a SIM card or mobile hotspot for a small fraction of the price. When I was in London, I paid $7/day for a hotspot instead of $22/day for the hotel’s WiFi and could use it anywhere. It was really useful to find our way about using Google maps.

  • emanon256

    I’m wondering if there is a correlation between age and how people voted today. I’m not that old, but I grew up before we all had Internet. I used dial up in college and it wasn’t untill after I graduated and was working that WiFi started appearing as a new technology.

    While I am a heavy internet user, I voted that it was an amenity. If I need to work while traveling, which I did for many years, I made sure I had internet available, I even used some of the service CE mentioned and had a wireless data card often paid for out of pocket. Now when I travel, I refuse to pay for Internet, though it’s very helpfull. I still can’t view it as a utility. But perhaps those born after me who grew up with it never a world without it and therefore view it as a utility.

  • EvilEmpryss

    When I was in Spain I stayed at a few places where it was almost $16 for two hours of internet. Italy was even worse (came out to something like $40). Fortunately they give you two hours worth of connectivity, and it’s not the “from the moment you log in the clock is ticking, whether you’re online or not”–it’s only counted when you’re actually online. I was able to milk that by logging on, opening multiple tabs to load the content I wanted to see, and then logging off. Reading Elliott? Go to the page and then log off the internet. Take your time to read and type your comment offline, then log back on and post. Same with emails. I made two hours last almost eight that way. *grin*

  • EvilEmpryss

    I don’t know about that. I know plenty of older folk who want to be able to stay connected to their families via email and Skype. It’s really big in the retirement village that my MiL lives in, especially those who are starting to have a bit of cognitive decline: It’s easier for them to write an email than talk on the phone.

  • EvilEmpryss

    I’ve gotten the argument about content from business owners here in the States. “Do you know what kind of stuff people look at on public wifi?!?” is the shocked response I have gotten when I suggested it at both a hair salon and a comic book shop.

  • Bill___A

    I just got back from the UK and stayed three nights in a Hilton. I didn’t get a chance to get my data sim card reloaded,until the third night and I didn’t want to pay 15 pounds a night either, so I used the internet in the lobby which was free. For an hour.
    When I did get my data sim reloaded, I had 10 gigs for about 30 pounds, which isn’t bad.

    When I got home, I remembered that I got a year of free skype wi fi with my new Microsoft Surface. It seems I could have gotten free wi fi at that hotel, and they also have a lot of wi fi hotspots in Germany.
    If you don’t want to get a local sim card in each place (or have difficulty, such as in Italy) then Gigsky is something to look at.
    For privacy, have a look at VyprVPN, from Golden Frog. You can scoot past the security problems of the wi fi hot spot and even log in via another country if you like.

    I’ve had lots of problems connecting over the years, but have figured out ways around most of them.

    Hope you are enjoying your time in Germany, Chris, it is a great place to visit.

  • LadyLightTravel

    I also use a MiFi.its a great little investment. The only hassle is setting up the data card the first time (usually in the store to make sure it works). My MiFi is optimized on African / Europen frequencies. And since it acts as a hotspot for up to 5 connections it works well for family and friends. I carry a second battery just in case. But my USB chargeable MiFi also works while it is plugged in to the socket and charging.

  • Mike

    For free wifi in Paris, go to the McDonalds on the Champs-Élysées (the only reason to go to McD in Paris). I have come to accept that you can’t count on internet access when traveling abroad. The best solution I have found is an unlocked iPhone – I buy a local sim and add a prepaid data bundle. Most will let you tether your other devices for no additional cost. I buy a defined amount of data (100mb-5gb, depending on the duration of the trip) rather than an “unlimited” plan as the latter tend to be slower speed connections.

  • Kasiar001

    If you life depends on being connected, as it might for a travel writer or a business traveler, then do your homework before going. For most regular people, being connected all the time is not really necessary. So what if we miss a facebook post, or even 100. Is checking your bank account or paying a bill necessary on vacation? As for giving out your SS# or other such info in an e-mail, if you do that then perhaps you are to dumb to have internet access. As for decent connection speed, it is not that common in US hotels either, in my experience, limited as it is.

  • shishibeach

    Isn’t https with the little padlock the whole huge issue that’s been all over the news recently? https is no longer considered necessarily secure since the Heartbleed bug was uncovered; you have to be sure that the website you’re going to has deployed the fix for the bug – otherwise it’s wide open.

  • Charles

    That is correct, though that problem is unrelated to public WiFi. Pretty much you were vulnerable on a large number of secure sites (not by any means all, many companies did not use this software and were not effected: Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, eBay, Groupon, Paypal, Chase, Citibank, American Express, etc.). It was an incredibly stupid bug, too.

  • Torsten Villnow

    Agreed. On a recent vacation in New Zealand we bought a local SIM with 1 GB of data, which costed 13 Euro only, This volume was sufficient for about three weeks of usage, before we had to buy a further data package.

  • Travelnut

    I second McDonald’s being a place you might find free wifi in Europe (and I have utilized the wifi in the McD’s on the Champs Élysées – it’s a horrid place though). Verizon sells internet access in $25 increments for foreign countries. That served me very well last year in Scandinavia. It would be better if it was prorated; I had to go to the third $25 the day before I went home. But it was worth it to be able to get around using Google Maps and to not have to hunt for the free wifi and hope the hotel had it. If it did, bonus, if not I could still connect. One place where I was very pleasantly surprised with free wifi was Buenos Aires. You can find it pretty much everywhere.

    Jealous that you’re visiting the Schwartzwald. So beautiful. I got my cuckoo clock in Triberg.

  • VoR61

    There is a “lite” option which I just confirmed with my carrier (T-Mobile). On our phone, setting the option “Always use 2G” will allow data when only the regular voice connection is available. While slower, it is adequate for most emails (no large attachments) and web sites with no video or large number of pictures.

    I have used this while traveling and it’s good if you’re not working with a lot of data …

  • emanon256

    That’s really cool. None of the older people in my life are into technology. I wish more of them were. My father was, but as he has grown older he has problems reading and typing and insists on only talking on the phone. I think adaptive technology would make thins easier for him, but he refuses help.

  • jpp42

    It’s not really “wide open” – exploiting the heartbleed bug requires a good deal of experience and luck. It’s not something that I feel the average consumer should worry about too much. Plus, all the major bank sites will deploy fixes immediately.

  • MarkKelling

    Most of the major bank sites were not using the software on their servers that allowed Heatbleed to work anyway.

  • MarkKelling

    Guess I have just been lucky, but I have not had issues finding “free” WiFi while traveling through Europe (UK, France, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland, Ireland, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Denmark).

    Every hotel I have stayed at included WiFi in the room rate and most coffee shops (not just the world wide chain, but the single location local ones too) had available access. Several other places I visited including museums and train stations all had WiFi as well. Sure many of those had passwords on the access, but all it took was a request for the password and it was cheerfully given. Sometimes in the hotels I had to sit in the lobby because the WiFi didn’t reach to my room. London even had free WiFi in the tube stations during the Olympics (you have to pay now, but only 2 pounds a day or 5 pounds for a week) which was convenient if you were using the subway. The speed at all of these has always been acceptable for reading email and websites like this one.

  • Mark Carrara

    Check out the sites for full time RVer’s. Many are retired folks. The complaints about poor wireless in campgrounds are very prevalent. As are the stories about getting wifi and cell service on the road.

  • Mark Carrara

    In the US cheap hotels=Free Internet, moderate hotels=paid internet, expensive hotels=rip off internet.

    My wife and I travel 4-5 times a year and stay at the low end chain hotels. We have never had to pay for Internet. At a few business hotels I have stayed at the charge is almost universal. At a resort we stayed at it was at least $25 per day, plus the usual resort fee, plus parking, pus almost 15% tax.

  • Zod

    That’s why:
    I like to vacation in the United States…my cellphone works everywhere at the same cost…From Hawaii to Bangor Maine
    I like to use 3 star hotels…Wifi, or at least internet is included with the room…I then fire up my Laptop, hook up to the wired network and set it up as a WiFi access point for me and my wife to use while we are in the room…Heck, last year in Hawaii, I was able to access my WiFi downstairs in the restaurant..from my room!

  • Zod

    Guys? One word…Heartbleed.
    If you don’t know what this is, do yourself a favor and look it up…this is *VERY* bad and makes HTTPS moot!
    If you *REALLY* want to protect yourself, use a VPN. Many routers these days can set up a basic PPTP or L2TP. If your router doesn’t do this, do yourself a favor and purchase a NAS for your home that does VPN like the Synology NAS. Almost all computer devices support VPN…except for Windows Mobile. it doesn’t, and it never will…so don’t even try. I have an L2TP VPN setup with my router and a RADIUS server setup on my NAS. Nobody captures my data without me knowing it!

  • Stereoknob

    Hard to answer this one. Traveling for pleasure – wifi is a luxury, and I wouldn’t want to connect to it. The point is to check out and go off grid. Traveling for work – it becomes a utility. Need to submit work quick, efficiently, and reliably.

  • Mel65

    Ever so slightly off topic: My son and 2 of his friends are going to Europe for 2.5 weeks leaving end of May. Spain, Italy, England, Amsterdam. His Vz smartphone won’t work. Anyone who lives in Europe: Can he buy a relatively inexpensive throw away phone there and add minutes like a prepaid here or what?? Is it better to use a “rental” phone from here? I don’t want him to be dependent upon what sounds like it might be flaky wireless to keep in touch, etc….? Any advice from the “travelerati”? Thanks!

  • Name

    Sure, wireless is a utility, but if you spend more than 15 minutes every other day online, you’re ruining your vacation! Business is another thing, of course.