What is the best way to connect to internet while travelling?

As a travel blogger and a busy working professional, one of the things I’m always concerned about when I travel is having internet to do research and make bookings and just being connected on the go. Here’s a detailed post I made about the best way to connect to the internet while travelling and all the pros and cons for each method.

While I do enjoy going offline on my travels, life as a solo traveller is so much easier when you can just google things on the go and use google maps to find your way aorund. These days I keep e-tickets and other essentials in dropbox or my email, so having internet while travelling has become quite essential.

Portugal - Lagos Street Art Aryz
Travel blogger at work, posting on the go!

This post was sponsored originally by Changi Recommends, and updated in 2022 with additional connectivity methods to be more up to date with current tech.

Local SIM Cards

How local SIM cards work

A local SIM Card is usually from a telco in the country that you are visiting and purchased either when you reach the country, or sometimes available to pre-purchase so you can activate immediately upon arrival. With Changi Recommends, you can actually order the SIM card first and get it delivered to your house pre-trip, or pick it up at the airport before you leave so you don’t have to go hunting for a telco during your holiday.

You usually have to either replace the current SIM card in your phone or have dual SIM slots. Local SIM cards can be prepaid (comes with a certain amount of minutes/data that you can use) and sometimes can be topped up the card through the telco or other vendors.

Hong Kong SIM Card
My Hong Kong SIM Card courtesy of Changi Recommends – the card format definitely helps it from getting lost in my bag >_<

Changi Recommends sponsored the Hong Kong PCCW Tourist SIM Card I used on my trip to Hong Kong. It usually costs S$13 for 5 days/1.5GB of data and unlimited local calls

Pros of using local SIM cards

  • Not just data – depending on the plan that you buy, you usually have some minutes on your phone which can be helpful if you need to make a booking to an overseas number or check for directions with your hotel on the go.
  • Convenient – It’s just you and your phone, no additional devices to carry around or having to worry about charging. You’re connected all the time – you don’t have to worry about switching on the device or it running out of battery. If your phone dies you can’t use your data anyway so that’s one less thing to think about with a SIM card.
  • Pay as you need – you control how much data/minutes you use and it’s usually quite easy to top up additional minutes or data if you’re in a city. You don’t run the risk of bill shock because no money = no connection, simple as that.
  • Can be cheap – Sometimes data overseas is just a lot cheaper than data roaming

Cons of using local SIM cards

  • Having to spend time getting one – In most places, you’ll need to spend some time trying to procure the right SIM card for your trip, and this can be time consuming and challenging especially if there are language barriers. Of course if you get it beforehand like with Changi Recommends you don’t have this issue, but you also don’t have as much selection to choose from to get the best deal.
  • Foreign Number – you can’t get phone calls or smses directed to your original line when you are using a prepaid SIM card with a foreign number. Thankfully this doesn’t affect data-dependent programmes things like whatsapp and facebook messenger as your contacts are saved on your phone, but may be a pain if your bank’s 2FA is via SMS.
  • Limited by what you have on the card – if you don’t budget for it in the beginning or judiciously monitor your phone usage for data-eating apps, costs might start racking up when you frequently have to top up your card! Having to top up the card can also be quite a hassle
  • Limited by the SIM card – Most SIM cards have an expiry date or specific time period that they will work once activated, so unless you’re visiting the same country fairly regularly, your SIM card is mostly like a one-time use only. And also, the SIM card is so tiny I have a tendency to misplace it >_<
  • Tethering is draining – you can use your phone as a hot spot for your tablet/laptop/other people’s phones quite easily these days, but it will drain your phone’s battery more quickly

What type of travellers are local SIM cards best for?

  • People who aren’t expecting any urgent call-ins (i.e. not your business/sales folk), and are mostly using this to conduct local calls or just for data
  • Those who want something fuss-free – just pop the card in and you’re connected for the rest of your trip without having to worry about any additional bits and pieces

eSIM Cards

How eSIM cards work

An eSIM card is a data plan that you can purchase and set up directly on your phone without having to remove your current SIM card. You can set it up via QR codes before your trip and it is only activated when connected to the local network. I used eSIM on my trip to Spain and really like how easy it is to use.

Pros of using ESIM cards

  • Convenient – not having to swap out or risk losing your original SIM card. You also save time from not having to hunt down a telco store to buy a local SIM card and have internet from the moment you enter the country so useful if you need to access documents in the airport
  • All in one device – no separate devices needed, just your phone!
  • Prepurchase available – the plans are usually controlled via an app where you can monitor usage or purchase/topup accordingly. You can choose length of plan and it is only activated once it connects to local network for the first time.

Cons of using ESIM cards

  • Tech savvyness needed – you do need to know how to set up your eSIM on your phone. The method is honestly not difficult, mostly requires scanning of QR codes, but older folk or less tech savvy people might not be so adept, especially if they need to troubleshoot and aren’t familiar with how to switch around the SIM settings.
  • Less choice – depending on which provider you pick, you may not have as much option of network operators compared to if you purchase a local SIM. Prices may not always be the cheapest depending on the country/plan you pick.

What type of travellers are eSIMs best for?

  • Tech savvy travellers who are familiar with apps, online purchases and their SIM phone settings
  • I personally recommend this as my favourite method of connecting to the internet while travelling nowadays!

Portable Wifi Devices

How Portable Wifi Devices work

Potable wifi devices are sometimes referred to as ‘dongles’ or ‘eggs’. They connect wirelessly to the local 3G/4G network and you tether your phone/laptop to the device via a unique ID/password for online access.

A typical portable wifi device – it’s usually around palm size or smaller and doesn’t need to be plugged in to work

Pros of portable wifi devices

  • Tethers multiple devices easily – Wi-ho lets you tether up to 5-10 connections at once as long as you have the ID/password (printed on the back of the device) so it’s useful when you have several devices like a phone and tablet and/or laptop running at the same time. Multiple tethering is also good when you’re with friends – I was quite popular during the Shanghai trip with other travel bloggers last year because they got to be connected around me!
  • Control from 1 central device – I like this because you don’t have to be connected 24/7 and that lets you concentrate on your holiday. I usually take ‘social media breaks’ on the go, so I only turn on the device when we’re in transit or having meals/rest breaks. For groups, it also means that you don’t have situations where people are perpetually checking or updating their statuses and ignoring the rest of the group, as you do when you are connected 24/7.
  • Retaining your original number – No worrying about whether you are missing any important calls to your original line. It’s useful for smses, but note that you still need data roaming to receive any calls while overseas.
  • Unlimited/High amount of Data available – I’ve never had to worry about my social apps using up all my bandwidth or data plan to date! The speed has generally been quite decent.
  • Security – the unique password for each device gives you more security as compared to using open free wifi networks where you are more vulnerable to hackers, which protects your online accounts and passwords

Cons of using portable wifi devices

  • Short battery life, requires separate charging – You don’t have 24/7 connectivity – the device battery depletes quite fast if you leave it on continuously so I usually only turn it on when I need it. Also, my device tends to get really hot if you leave it on for too long!
  • Additional device to carry around – if you’re trying to streamline your packing, this might be annoying. The device isn’t very big (palm size), but if you’re the sort to just stuff things into your pockets, it’s still an additional device to worry about.
  • Charge based on per day rental – the device usually costs anywhere from $8 – $25 per day rental, so this can be add up to be quite expensive if you are on a longer trip. Also, each device is usually tethered to just one country, so for those doing multi-country travel, might not be such a practical option. The bonus is you know how much you are paying upfront so it helps with budgeting, so you don’t get one of those crazy bills that you see only when you get back home!
  • Getting and returning the device – you are just renting the device, so you need to make sure you don’t lose it or you will be liable! You will also need to coordinate receiving and returning the device.

What type of travellers are Portable wi-fi devices best for?

  • Travellers who have multiple devices that they need to be connected all at once – blogger, techie or business types usually
  • Business travellers who need the security and connectivity the dongle offers, and can also charge it to their company’s bill so costs don’t matter
  • People travelling in groups who are a little more budget focused – you can split the costs of sharing a device, but you always need to be travelling together to use it

International Data Roaming plans

The most traditional way to be connected when overseas is to have roaming services enabled on your phone with your telco so you can get calls and use data from the local networks of the country you are visiting. I do have pay-per-roam (so only pay per use) though I never use it – I turn off my mobile data when overseas so I don’t get any roaming data charges, and I don’t make any calls as far as possible from my phone. If I do, it would need to either be a very short call or an emergency.

Pros of international data roaming plans

  • Less hassle – no need to change SIM cards or tote around another device. Activation happens on the phone directly and billing is through your usual monthly bill

Cons of data roaming plans

  • Can be hard to monitor – we’ve all heard the stories about people coming back from trips to find that they’ve racked up thousands of dollars in roaming charges! You can use the Singtel app now to keep track now though. With regards to the select network, you can now also lock your network to a particular telco, which helps.
  • Complicated – I spent a really long time trying to figure out the plans on the Singtel roaming page to try and understand them, and I still don’t quite know if I’m right honestly, so I wouldn’t actually try to use them overseas for fear of billshock!
  • Expensive – none of the plans seem particularly attractive to me, except for the prepaid dataroam pass, but it’s only limited to particular countries

What type of travellers are International data roaming plans best for?

  • Very frequent travellers who don’t want the hassle of having separate devices or changing their SIM cards. Ideally they can charge these costs to their business accounts so they don’t feel the pinch. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t recommend roaming at all as I think you can get far cheaper and better deals with the other options or just using free wi-fi services
  • For emergency purposes, I would suggest just having pay-per-roam so you only use when necessary

Hope you found the breakdown of pros and cons useful in deciding what might work best for your travels – what’s your preferred way to stay connected on the go? Share in the comments and maybe we can exchange useful tips and help each other save some money and hassle :)

Cover Image: Connecting the World by Michael Summers via Flickr CC

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