As a travel blogger and a busy working professional, one of the things I’m quite concerned about when I travel is being connected on the go. Yes, I agree that travel should be as carefree and uninterrupted as possible, but with a full-time job and having to update the blog frequently, making sure I can connect to the internet on the road is always an important thing.
You’ve probably seen some mentions in previous posts about how I’ve stayed connected on the go, usually through portable wi-fi devices and local pre-paid SIM Cards, but I thought I’d give you a more detailed rundown of the pros and cons of each method which might help those trying to work out which might be more effective and worthwhile for you.
Onward! Thanks to the folk at Changi Recommends who provided me with a SIM card for my experiment while I was in Hong Kong and helped inspire this sponsored post. Also props to the folk from Wi-Ho who continue to sponsor my wi-fi devices on trips and keep me connected.
Local Prepaid SIM Card
You purchase a prepaid SIM card with a certain amount of minutes/data from the country which you are visiting, usually in the airport when you land or a local phone shop. Usually you need to swap out your current SIM card on the phone, unless you have dual SIM or you carry a spare phone around because you’re very concerned about losing your current SIM card and try not to touch it where possible (like me >_<)
- 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 is kaput 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. The Hong Kong PCCW Tourist SIM Card I used cost S$13 for 5 days/1.5GB of data and unlimited local calls, which is relatively affordable for most travellers.
- 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 >_< You also need to take time to purchase your SIM card when you land – in the case of Changi Recommends, you can pick up a SIM card from Changi Airport for Thailand, Hong Kong and South Korea before you even check in at the airport, so that’s convenient!
- 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
I’d recommend Local Pre-Paid SIM cards 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 don’t use data very heavily, or will have wi-fi access during their trip so they aren’t completely reliant on data from the SIM card (if you don’t have unlimited data that is)
- Those who want something fuss-free – just pop the card in and you’re connected for the rest of your trip!
Where to get your SIM cards
Most of the time you buy them from the telco store of the country you’re visiting. Often, there are booths located right in the airports as well, or you can often find these prepaid SIM cards in convenience stores like 7-11 too.
- Changi Recommends [sponsor] – for those in Singapore, you can pick up SIM cards for Thailand, South Korea and Hong Kong at any of the Changi Recommends booths in Changi Airport, so you can pick it up while waiting to check in, and you don’t have to bother looking for a store when you land (S$13 – S$45)
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.
- 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
- 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.
I’d recommend portable wi-fi devices 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!)
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
- 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
- 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
I’d recommend roaming 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