Last week I returned from a 10-day trip to Ireland and while there, for the first time ever, I was fully online all the time – without roaming.
Typically I’m offline unless I find free WiFi in places like Starbucks – they’re a reliable source all around the world.
This time I used a mobile WiFi device and the ability to stay connected, even as I traveled from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland, two different countries and no need to change a SIM card, was liberating. It wasn’t just great for staying connected with home and using social media but I especially loved it for using Google Maps to find my way around.
Let’s review the free and low-cost options for using your phone anywhere in the world.
The Free WiFi Option
I’ve used Starbucks free WiFi in North America, South America, Europe and Asia. Yes, I’ve used it just about everywhere I’ve traveled. Of course, Starbucks is not the only place you can get free WiFi but it is a reliable source. You’ll also find it at independent coffee shops, your hostel, some hotels and restaurants.
- The upside of free WiFi is that it’s free. If you’re fine with getting online periodically free WiFi is perfect. I’ve been using it for years but I must admit I’ve had occasions when I’ve had to use my phone’s regular service and incurred roaming charges.
- The downside is that your identity can be exposed to hackers. As regular readers know I recommend having a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to protect your identity online – especially when you’re on public WiFi. A VPN is a service you connect to your computer, phone or tablet. I use StrongVPN and pay $69 for an annual plan. I did the set up myself – it was easy. Read VPN for Travel: What, Why and an Easy Setup Guide. Do it once and you’re set for years of security at home and abroad. If you just want it for a specific trip you can buy the service of a VPN for a month for $10.
See the list of apps further down for some of the best ways to use free WiFi.
The Low-Cost Mobile WiFi Option
The people at skyroam offered me a mobile WiFi unit to test out. Normally it costs $99 (or you can rent it for less) and then $8 a day for the actual service. I loved being able to stay connected and using the apps on my phone. The best things about Skyroam…
- Goes anywhere and requires no SIM cards. I didn’t need an unlocked phone and I didn’t have to research, find or buy SIM cards. With Skyroam you cross a border and your WiFi (within a few minutes) crosses with you. (It doesn’t go quite anywhere in the world. For that you’ll need a satellite connection. See the bottom of this post. As of this writing Skyroam covers 93 countries.)
- Unlimited data that’s pretty fast. I could use apps like the data-sucking Google Maps to find my way around. I could stream a show on Netlix at night. There was no limit to the data and it was fast enough for streaming.
But whether it’s great for you depends on a few factors.
- What your service provider currently offers. If your carrier has a “roam like home” service skyroam may not be for you as your carrier’s charge for additional roaming may be about the same as skyroam’s. When you’re comparing also look for whether unlimited data is included.
- How often you travel. Technology changes quickly so if you only travel once a year for a week or so, this would not make sense for you. If, however, you travel a few times a year, skyroam would be great.
- Whether you like to stay connected. Some of us travel to disconnect. If this is you, this technology is not for you. However, if you do feel the need to be connected or simply want access to the likes of Google maps then skyroam is a great option.
Smartphone Apps for Staying Connected as You Travel
With both mobile WiFi via Skyroam and free WiFi you have access to data but not phone service (without roaming) unless you use certain apps. Here are the apps I use most frequently when I travel. They make me glad to have access to WiFi.
- What’sApp – texting and calling to friends and family using WiFi. What’sApp Calling uses your phone’s Internet connection rather than your cellular plan’s voice minutes so, with WiFi, you can call to any other phone.
- Skype – it’s more commonly known than What’sApp so you may be more comfortable with it. You can call or video to another Skype account but if you want to call another phone there is a small charge per minute.
- Google Maps – Whether you’re walking, driving or taking transit, Google Maps gives you turn-by-turn instructions that make getting around easy in any new destinations. I use it a lot but it’s important to note that it’s not infallible. If you’re driving, one-way streets may be a challenge.
- Weather – I have experienced a massive downpour in Las Vegas and days of endless sun in Ireland. I would have expected neither situation had I not used the weather app. I use it before trips for long-term forecasts and daily as I travel.
- Entertainment apps – From Facebook to streaming movies on Netflix, Wifi, whether it’s free or from a service like skyroam, gives you full access.
If you’re traveling beyond mobile service you’ll need a satellite communicator to stay in touch. I haven’t used one in my travels (though I could have used it in Patagonia perhaps) but my brother-in-law, a really techie guy, uses inReach by Delorme. It offers texting but no voice. You can also get one with navigation built in.