Staying Connected while Traveling

Posted by Arlo on Jan 13, 2011 under Postcard Valet, Travel

Yesterday, I was asked a question and, after typing up my reply, decided that posting the answer here might satisfy other people’s curiosity, too.

In the future I would like to do some traveling like you, but I work on line for about 25 hours a week. How easy would it be to find wireless in other parts of the world that you have traveled? –Rich Marcus, via Facebook

In 1998, my college roommate and I spent three months backpacking around South America.  I had just opened a Hotmail account and once a week or so we’d stumble upon an internet café and I’d send an email update to a mailing list made up solely of family and friends.  It surprised the hell out of me that we were able to get online in Aguas Calientes, a tiny, remote town at the base of Machu Picchu.  Granted, it was with a slower-than-molasses modem connection to Cusco, and it cost an arm and a leg, but I was still able to send an email out of the remote Peruvian jungle.

The lesson I learned then: If a place is popular with tourists, someone will be making money off their internet access.

Okay, “internet abroad.” I’m not an expert on this issue; however, we’ve been traveling in South America for a couple months now, and previously in other parts of the world, so we have some practical experience.

The first thing that makes it easy for us to get online is our iPhones.  Yes, we kept our service plans (We had a year left on our contracts, anyway), which is starting to look like a waste of money.  If we were to accept (or place) a call on my iPhone, it would cost us about US$2.30 a minute.  And, no matter how convenient it would be to load up Google Maps in a strange new city, we wouldn’t dare turn the data plan on!  It’s something like US$20 per MB and the internet is littered with stories of thousand-dollar phone bills by customers that didn’t know it.

Our AT&T family plan is about $130 a month for something that we’re really not using at all.  We don’t want to cancel it for two reasons: 1) We’re grandfathered into the “unlimited data plan,” which is awesome when we’re in the States, and 2) we’d have to pay a huge contract-cancellation fee, anyway.

That said, my phone has connected to the cell networks down here (which is weird, because it’s not supposed to work; Oksana’s doesn’t!) and I can make an emergency call if I need to.  Always nice to have the option.  I’ve done that once so far and it cost us about $6.

The best thing about the iPhones, though, is that we can put them in our pockets and walk around with them all day.  We may pick up an open wi-fi signal when we stroll by an internet café, nice hotel, or even a private residence.  We don’t need the world’s best connection to post a quick update on Twitter or Facebook.

Surprisingly, we get much better results from locked wi-fi networks.  You would be surprised how many restaurants, bars, malls, and hotels have secured wireless networks. It only takes a purchase to get the password, so sometimes we’ll take time out of our day to sip a Diet Coke and check our emails.  Furthermore, the bandwidth is usually better because there are fewer data-hogging freeloaders sharing your signal.

Obviously, with the exception of connecting over the cellular network, you could get online just as easily with a cheaper, contract-less, iPod Touch.  As long as you’re in wi-fi range, the Skype and Google Voice apps are a super-cheap (if not quite free) way to send text messages and make calls.

Posting updates on our blog – the videos, especially – is more difficult.  We often choose our hostels by their internet connections, so I can usually upload bigger files at night, while we sleep, but it can sometimes take a really long time.  For example, the 42MB McDonald’s video I posted recently took well over an hour to upload.  While writing this entry, I’m uploading a 1.26 GIGABYTE(!) video file (a film festival submission) and I would say a decent FTP client like Filezilla, with resumeable  uploads, is crucial.  I expect this file to take 12+ hours and I consider this to be a good connection.  It’s a big reason why we’re paying $35 a night for this hostel when we could be paying half that.

And speaking of places to stay, I’m practically overjoyed that this hostel even has a desk!  If you’re planning to do a lot of work in your room, you should be aware that many places don’t.  Not even a table.  Or sometimes even chairs.  You might want to consider how well you can work on your laptop in bed.  (I can write, but I sure can’t edit video!)  Of course, you can always pick up and go to a café, but for long stretches, working in a busy environment is taxing in its own way.

All in all, our style of “on the move” travel makes getting online more difficult than it needs to be.  Later on, it’s likely we’ll end up settling into a place – probably one with plentiful water, sand, and sun – for a month or more.  With some semblance of permanency, we could easily rent an apartment instead of hoofing it from hostel to hostel, and then we can pay for our own, reliable internet connection.  I’m looking forward to our next stay of any length – probably a week or two in Buenos Aires in March – so that we can try out exactly that.

I see many backpackers traveling now with netbooks because they’re small and lightweight (iPads are getting popular, too.)  Oksana brought one of each and uses them both, but there’s no way I could edit video on either one, so I carry a full-fledged laptop with me.  I did pay extra to get one that’s lightweight, though.

Lots of people travel with nothing more than a digital point-and-shoot camera and they still manage to update their Facebook pages and travel blogs with ease.  Again, in any place that’s popular with tourists, or even just populated, you should be able to find a cybercafé.  Prices down here run from $.50 to maybe $2 per hour.  Not everywhere is as cheap; Australia was a nightmare in comparison. Internet cafes charged $6 per hour there and open wi-fi was practically a fantasy.

So, is it doable?  Can you work online and travel at the same time?  I’d say, sure, almost certainly.  You just have to realize that it will take some effort to find decent connections (and furniture!)  I think that’s been our biggest hurdle and, to tell the truth, probably why we haven’t been updating our blog as often as we’d like.

Further reading:

Good Digital Nomad Locations
I read this Everything-Everywhere forum thread awhile ago and it was one of the first things I thought of when you asked your question.  This would be the opposite of the “on the move” style of travel, but if you think you might be interested in setting up shop someplace, it sounds like there are some inexpensive and exotic places with great internet access!

We’d be happy to try to answer any other questions you might have about our traveling.  Choose a way to contact us and fire off a question!