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Getting decent internet and telephone coverage while traveling is not a given. I find that outside of urban areas many places I stay when traveling have unreliable internet connectivity, if any. This question confirms that hotel wifi is hit-and-miss. I also find that cellular coverage is marginal in many places.

What equipment is helpful to take with you to maximize the odds of having decent internet and phone connectivity while traveling? And how, exactly, does each piece of equipment help?

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3 Answers 3

My list is:

  • Laptop
  • Unlocked iPhone
  • Cash
  • Credit Cards
  • Look respectable

These days you can get SIM cards for iPhones pretty much everywhere. Then you can usually use the "Personal Hotspot" function on the iPhone to share the connection. Make sure you keep the SIM card after you go home as it is usually easier to get top-ups when you return than to keep getting new SIMs.

If you look respectable you are much more likely to be able to wander into hotel lobbies and hang out there for free using their wifi. Be careful as higher end hotels generally charge for their Internet.

Bars and cafes will also be more willing to have you stay for a longer time if you look "ok". Hotels/bars will also be more willing to re-charge your phone if you look like you belong there.

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I arrived at the kit below by adding gear only as needed. I started with just an iPhone and laptop and only added to that when it was literally impossible to get reliable internet at my accommodations with the gear I already had. I have trial-and-errored through a bunch of other gear that turned out to be unhelpful or not worth the bulk (e.g. higher powered boosters, satellite gear) and deliberately left those out.


The No Holds Barred Approach

I have obligations that require me to have fairly decent internet most of the time, even when traveling. For most people my kit is probably overkill because they can either wait until they are staying in a place with better coverage, or travel a small distance to a public place with better connectivity. In my case pretty much everything (convenience, cost, etc) is of secondary importance to having 'uptime' wherever my accomodations happen to be. That said, I do not travel with anything that I do not rely on regularly to achieve good connectivity. I have found that the particular capabilities of the devices I carry is at least as important as nominally having them with me. I have included those particulars in the sections below.

Here is the concrete list of items that I currently travel with to achieve good connectivity:

  • laptop
  • smartphone
  • feature phone
  • tablet
  • cellular-based personal hotspot
  • cellular signal booster
  • USB Battery Pack
  • short USB patch cable to match devices
  • wireless access point
  • SIM card adapters
  • SIM card trimming template
  • kitchen shears
  • ultra-fine point sharpie
  • nail file
  • 2 phone cables and a splitter
  • 2 ethernet cables

Cellular Devices from Home that Work at the Destination

I travel a fair amount, so one of my criteria for selecting cellular network devices is that they have a hope of being used in other countries and with other mobile network operators. Here are the criteria that I look for in a cellular device for traveling:

  • not network locked
  • exact hardware used in as many jurisdictions and by as many carriers as possible
  • popular worldwide
  • uses a removable SIM Card (not the device itself) to identify you to the network
  • wired and wireless tethering works well

For my phone, I decided on an unlocked iPhone 4s. Apple only made the iPhone 4S with one hardware version for the entire world. So, there's a possibility that my phone will work with any mobile network operator that ever supported iPhone 4S. Contrast this with the iPhone 4 which had two hardware versions (GSM and CDMA) and the iPhone 5 which has three hardware versions.

I don't know other phone offerings very well, but I suspect some hardware versions are more widespread than others, so look for the most universally used versions.

A Second Handset that Works on Your Home Network and Can Roam on the Foreign Network

Sometimes I am able to save on international roaming costs by getting a SIM Card from a mobile network operator at my destination. In this case, I travel with a second handset and keep my home network's SIM Card in it. Its sole purpose is for me to see who is calling and SMSing my home mobile number. Without a second handset, I have no record of missed calls, and I would need to swap my home network's SIM Card back into my handset in order to get SMS messages for that number.

SIM Card Adapter Kit (smaller => larger)

These adapters allow me to take a smaller SIM Card and put it in a device that expects a larger one. Having the adapters makes it possible to move my SIM Card between dissimilar devices.

Get these before you leave home, they are mainly available mail-order and therefore not that easy to obtain while traveling. Without the flexibility afforded by these adapters, it is not always possible to achieve the combination of carriers and handsets that works best.

enter image description here

Now that I have the adapters, whenever I get a new SIM Card from a carrier, I always get the smallest one that works, so it will fit in as many other devices as possible.

SIM Card Trimming Tools (larger => smaller)

If you are in a bind where you have a larger SIM Card than you can fit in your device and you can't swap it for one of the right size, you can usually trim them down. There are loads of how-to pages and videos on how to do this (here's one). Here is what you need:

The process is rather quick, if unforgiving. The most important thing, though, is that you have the required tools to achieve the modification.

Personal Hotspot on A Different Network at My Destination

As a backup for my devices with built-in cellular data, I use a cellular data personal hotspot. The hotspot is deliberately activated with a different mobile network operator from my other devices. That way, I have slightly better geographic data coverage because I can use data from either network. I have also used this device during an outage on the network that my phone was on.

Car-type Cell Signal Booster

I use a signal booster to get a cellular signal that is otherwise too weak to be usable. Some car-type booster kits like the Wilson 2B5225 are small and light.

enter image description here

Despite that these boosters are designed to be used in a car, they can be used in buildings as well. Sitting at a desk with marginal cellular coverage, I often power the booster over USB from my laptop and use it to boost my phone for voice calls and internet.

Tablets, eReaders, etc. with Built-In Cellular Data

I have cellular data built-in to as many of my connected devices as possible. There are a few different reasons this helps achieve better connectivity:

  • If data signal strength is marginal on a cellular data device, the user experience on a device tethered to it is usually awful.
  • When tethering, the charge on both devices is depleted simultaneously which results in less total internet usage between charges.
  • Without built-in cellular, I'll often be carrying two devices instead of one (the one that I'm using + the one that provides data connection).
  • The more devices have their own data connection, the more redundancy I have against complete downtime from dead batteries, lost/stolen/broken devices, software updates, etc.
  • Each device usually has a different radio which may work better or worse than another. Which one works best can change from place to place and time to time. More diversity means more likelihood that one of the devices will be able to fetch a useable signal.
  • I can leave one of my wireless tether capable devices in a place with cell data coverage and connect to it from a spot that doesn't. I don't like to use my phone for this purpose in case I need to answer a call.1

1 From a ladder I once tied my iPad to the soffet of a tin-clad warehouse to get a reliable internet connection through a window where my laptop was. Haywire? Yes. But the point is that my iPad was the only device that could keep a signal to both to the cell network and my laptop. It worked all day.

USB Battery Pack

I recently added a USB battery pack to my kit. This allowed me to reduce the number of USB power adapters I carry to two: One AC, and one car adapter.

There are two main reasons why a battery pack works better than straight adapters.

  1. Longer periods between shorepower - My battery pack affords me about four full charges of an iPhone on a single charge. For my kit, this means I only need "shorepower" once every 72 hours. With adapters-only, I need shorepower as soon as my first device dies (which is generally less than 10 hours, less than 4 under heavy use).

  2. More work area mobility at your accomodations - A typical cycle involves arriving at accommodations and simultaneously using and charging devices. If you are strictly using adapters to charge, you are tethered to an AC outlet that is invariably in an awkward location where you don't really want to work. You can overcome this somewhat with long cables, however, I have found that long cables become tripping hazards (think yanking all of your charging devices off of a table and onto the floor). Long cables are also either bulky or limit charging rates, or both. With a USB battery pack, I find that I can almost always charge and use devices simultaneously from a comfortable location like a coffee table. Eventually, of course, the battery pack has to make its way close to an AC outlet to recharge, but that's a lot easier to manage than being for to work with all of my devices near the AC outlet.

I have standardized on dual 2.1 Amp (10 Watt) output chargers and battery pack. It takes about 6 hours to charge the battery pack using these adapters. Since switching to a USB battery pack I have neither had a dead device battery, nor have I had an awkward cabling situation.

Another nice side-effect of the battery pack is that I only need to carry short cables to charge my devices.

Phone and Network Cables

I find that four cables is all I need to carry to make the best of almost any terrestrial internet connection:

  • 7' phone cable
  • 50' phone cable
  • 7' ethernet cable
  • 50' ethernet cable

Some travelers' accomodations provide internet using DSL-based wireless residential gateway. These gateway installations often suffer from the following:

  • gateway locks up regularly
  • weak wireless signal strength
  • located far from a place where I'd actually want to work

With the above four cables, I can usually rearrange things so that I'm connected via cable or my own wifi access point using bridge mode, and/or closer to the gateway so that I have decent signal strength and can reset it when it locks up.

The network cables are also useful for connecting up the wifi access point that I travel with when I'm staying someplace with wired internet.

I suppose I might one day have to do the same rearranging with cable-based terrestrial internet, although I have not needed to do that yet.

Phone Splitter

These are handy when I need to move a DSL gateway to a more sensible phone jack, and that jack already has a phone plugged into it.

enter image description here

Wifi Access Point

I use my own Airport Extreme when traveling in two different situations:

  • Accomodations with DSL or cable internet that is terminated with either wired-only or unreliable wifi.
  • Hotels where wired internet is in-room.

I opted for an Airport Extreme rather than an AirPort Express only because it has 3x3:3 MIMO configuration as compared with 2x2:2. I made this choice on the speculation that the Extreme has better range with my other MIMO devices. I find that I am often near the limits of range between my laptop and my AirPort Extreme.

I also try to avoid any device with external antennas that can break off in my luggage. The AirPorts have their antennas built-in.

Laptop with MIMO Wifi

For the case where the only desk is far from the only internet connection, a laptop with a good MiMO wifi chipset (and my own wifi access point) is necessary if I want to make the connection without cables. My preference is the Intel 6300. I have had productive work days using a connection to my AirPort Extreme from remarkable distances.

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4  
Wow, this is really fucking detailed. +1 –  Ankur Banerjee Feb 19 '13 at 17:29
    
What came in handy for me and what's missing form the list are DLAN adapters adapters, which allow transmitting Ethernet via power cables. –  feklee Feb 19 '13 at 23:20
    
@feklee I've never used one of those devices. For traveling, what advantage do they have over using WIFI to make the same connection? –  alx9r Feb 19 '13 at 23:35
    
@alx9r These devices can bridge obstacles blocking Wifi, e.g. several reinforced concrete walls. Admittedly, I didn't have to use them in years. That was just for completeness. Satellite communication devices are also missing, which may be handy in remote parts of the world... –  feklee Feb 19 '13 at 23:43
1  
@alx9r Anyhow, thanks for posting your setup! My most important asset actually is a collection of SIM cards for different countries. It's necessary, though, to take care that they don't expire, normally by regularly recharging them or making a short call. I set myself reminders in my calendar. Because: Registering a new SIM card can be pain, depending on country. Sometimes it takes about a day until the card and data plan are fully active. –  feklee Feb 20 '13 at 9:37

@alx9r wrote a fantastically detailed post here, but I think it may be overkill. I'm on the road for most of the year and need to be connected 24/7 for work. For the most part you can get away with:

An mini-router (I use an Airport Express). Flakey hotel wifi can be remedied by using a LAN cable to your mobile router, providing a personal wifi spot, backed by reliable hardwire,

A multiband unlocked smartphone (I use an iPhone 5) Buy a prepaid SIM from your destination, most countries carry SIMs of all sizes, so the need for adapters is almost nil these days. Research your APN setting before you go if you plan on using 3G/LTE because sometimes out of network phones won't automatically update.

Your regular laptop/iPad and standard wifi equipment are now ready to go!

Don't overkill. I run several web based companies, one of then that makes digital travel guides (so travel + Internet are essential) and I get by fine with these things.

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+1 I was hoping others would report their lighter kit. FWIW, I basically started with your kit, and added to it as I encountered coverage issues. For my travels and coverage needs, my kit is pretty close to the minimum of what works. –  alx9r Feb 19 '13 at 23:32
    
@alx9r You need a phone splitter and different lengths of cord? LOL, I knew it! You're a spy! –  Stephen P. Feb 20 '13 at 0:11
    
However, the most basic kit is a LAN cable: it's lightweight, cheap and turns out to be very useful (IIRC, e.g. some airports have 15-minute limit on WiFi but no limit on LAN). –  tohecz Jan 26 at 21:18
    
Good point! New Macbooks don't have an ethernet port on them, so I only drag an airport express with me when I know there's going to be a LAN connection at the hotel. @tohecz –  Stephen P. Jan 27 at 22:34
    
Sorry, what is MacBook? It comes from that company I don't know ... it was something with fruits, right? :) –  tohecz Jan 27 at 22:39

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