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:
- feature phone
- 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.
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.
Despite that these boosters are designed to be used in a car, they can be used in buildings as well. The antennas are designed with magnetic bases to mount to the exterior of a car. This arrangement provides both a physical mount and a ground-plane for the antenna. 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. In that case, I have found that I can usually find a metal baking sheet or roasting pan to use as a ground-plane and mounting surface.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.