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 ways to connect to the internet while travelling and all the pros and cons for each different method.
Yes, I agree that travel should be as carefree and uninterrupted as possible, but sometimes it’s absolutely necessary. For me it’s having to occasionally react to urgent work-related emails or do blog-related stuff that, and as a solo traveller it makes life so much easier when you can just google things on the go.
Methods for staying connected on the go:
- Local SIM Card
- SIM Card sticker (info coming soon)
- Portable Wifi Device
- Data Roaming Plans
This post was sponsored by Changi Recommends. It was updated in Jan 2018 with additional methods of connecting on the go.
Local SIM Card
How does this work?
You purchase a SIM card from a local telco of the country that you are visiting and replace the current SIM card in your phone. It can be prepaid where it comes with a certain amount of minutes/data that you can use, or sometimes can you top up the card through the telco or other vendors.
You don’t have to replace your SIM card if your phone has a dual SIM function where it can contain 2 SIM Cards at once.
Where do you get a SIM card?
You usually pick this up in the airport upon arrival or a local phone shop. In some cases like 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.
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 – The good points
- 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 – What’s not so great
- 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
- 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
The Local SIM card is 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
Portable Wifi Devices
These are usually separate devices 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. Most commonly I use Wi-ho when I travel because of their kind sponsorship for the blog, so I’ll use those experiences as a basis for reference here, but there are other companies offering similar services and the general use is pretty much the same across the board.
Pros – The good points
- 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 – What’s not so great
- Short battery life, requires separate charging – You don’t have 24/7 connectivity – the device only lasts 4-5 hours 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! The cost of a wi-ho includes an additional $16 charge for courier of the device before and after your trip.
Portable wi-fi devices are 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 – so you can split the costs
Where to get your wi-fi devices:
Here are some of the sites where you can get the devices in Singapore pre-trip. I’ve found that prices and services in general are similar across the board, though some sites offer you more choice of countries, daily data caps or have seasonal promotions so pick one that fits your needs. You can sometimes pick up devices at the airports in the countries that you are visiting too.
- Wi-Ho by Telecom Square [sponsor] – they’ve given me great service all this while, and the best part is that my readers get $1/day discounts as well as free shipping (save S$16!) – check out my Perks page to get the unique link so you can get the discounts. They have a large number of countries available including a world travel plan if you’re visiting multiple countries (S$8 – S$25/day)
- Global Wi-fi by Changi Recommends – they have wi-fi devices for overseas and for Singapore too, and you can grab and return the device at any of their booths in Changi Airport, so you save on delivery fees (S$12 – S$25/day)
- XCom Global – They claim to have the most coverage with 170 countries available including South America and Middle East (S$9 – S$27/day)
- Y5 buddy – Quite a large range of countries available including Israel and Egypt. Needs a S$50 deposit though (S$9 – S$18/day)
- Visondata – 14 countries available including Russia, Canada and USA (S$9 – S$25/day)
- GotY5 – Only Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong available (S$13 – S$15/day)
- Rentalfi – Singapore only (S$15/day, unlimited)
(if anyone knows of any other companies, let me know in the comments so i can add to this resource list!)
International Data Roaming
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 use Singtel and 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.
Here’s looking at the Singtel roaming plans available. It is honestly quite confusing because some of these are plans, while others are subscription services. You have to be subscribed first before you can use a plan, so while it may seem reasonable at first glance, it can add up. If M1 or Starhub have better plans, do feel free to chime in here.
- There is a subscription that you need to activate called Easydata Roam so you can use data overseas for $1/month
- For plans, there is a prepaid dataroam pass for S$15/day for certain countries, which seems comparable to the portable wi-fi device (but only available for Singtel subscribers). But it also means you have to be connected to a particular partner telco which hopefully has wide enough coverage, or risk getting charged a bomb if you use the wrong network.
- Another plan is the travel pass option that gives you 100mb of data for S$45 in 30 days – I don’t know about you, but I’d bust the 100mb cap really quickly!
For calling and SMSes:
- Subscription-wise, there is the option of pay-as-you-roam (pay per use, +25% surcharge) or auto roam (S$10/month)
- There are overseas call/SMS rates as well, which vary from country to country which is a whole other kettle of fish
Pros – The good points
- 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 – What’s not so great
- 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
International data roaming is better 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