WiFi & Data While Traveling
Tips for Staying Connected While Traveling Abroad
Staying connected while traveling without going broke is as easy as finding an Internet connection. Internet cafes abound and basic smartphones accept hundreds of free or cheap apps that ensure connectivity while exploring the world. Some apps are so popular they've become household names -- Skype, for example -- while lesser known options claim a following within the travelling community.
But first things first. Always, always remember to turn off cellular data once you've boarded the plane for departure. Although you may be able to make calls or access 3G or LTE networks overseas, the roaming data and call charges could leave you with a phone bill that doubles the cost of your trip. Breathe deeply, though: There are plenty of ways to stay connected cheaply while traveling.
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Establishing connectivity. Open Wi-Fi connections are common in most cities around the globe. In case your hostel or hotel comes up short, head for the local McDonalds or KFC (these chains really are everywhere); chances are they have open Wi-Fi service.
What if your itinerary takes you to a small town or rural area? A personal hotspot that provides a portable Wi-Fi connection, known as a Mi-Fi, keeps you connected any and everywhere. Available from companies like XCom Global for $14.95 a day, a Mi-Fi is not exactly cheap but is surely less costly than staying connected with your U.S. carrier's international data plan while traveling. Be careful about the data you send over open Wi-Fi signals, though, because anyone can snoop. A virtual private network (VPN), such as the HotSpot Shield app, keeps your information secure even on open networks and is highly recommended.
Local offerings for similar services may be available at a discount. For example, an advertorial post on Trip Advisor shares information about a company that rents Mi-Fi hotspots for about $12 a day to travelers visiting major Japanese cities. The company maintains booths at the airport or delivers the device to your hotel.
Regardless which path you take, save Internet updates until you're hooked into a free Wi-Fi connection.
Making the Most of Internet Connectivity. Once you've established a link to the Internet, you have several options for staying connected while traveling. Email is ever popular, but a favorite app among travelers is WhatsApp (99 cents for iPhone users; free download for other devices and an annual 99-cent subscription after the first year). Once installed, WhatsApp lets you send texts, pictures, videos, and voice messages at no cost. A Fulbright scholar who spent several years in Russia suggests a free alternative to WhatsApp called Viber. The one drawback to each of these apps is that the recipient must use the same platform.
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When it's time to actually call home, there's always Skype. Skype's rate of $2.99 a month for unlimited calls to U.S. and Canada cellphones or landlines is a real deal. All you need is an Internet connection to pull this off.
Staying connected in-country while traveling calls for a triband GSM phone. Swapping prepaid SIM cards into a phone is fairly common in much of the world. Rates are reasonable for local calls and in some places you'll only pay for outgoing calls and texts. You may already own a "world phone" such as the iPhone 5 or Galaxy S III, but you'll need to contact your carrier before heading overseas to unlock the phone so it can accept international SIM cards.
Other quick and easy tools for staying connected while traveling: Create a Dropbox account to store photo images. You can upload pictures directly from your phone into a gallery folder so that folks at home can view, but not edit or copy, them.
Skype maintains a fee-based Wi-Fi service that provides access to hotspots around the world.
Download any of the free "Wi-Fi finder" apps to point you towards the nearest hotspot.
The Google Translate app converts text or speech from one language to another, a handy device that lets you communicate (sort of) with locals. The Google Goggles app can be used to snap pictures of signs or menus and translate them into English.