Best Wi-Fi options for travelers

How to always have a Wi-Fi signal when you travel

Name three things you can’t travel without. We bet Wi-Fi made the cut. This summer, businesses (and cities) are making it even easier for you to plug in and stream.

Whether he’s exploring the Ecuador’s Amazon Basin or sightseeing in Madagascar, Ron Force starts every trip the same way: by finding a wireless hotspot.

You, too? It sounds a little extreme, but in an always-on world, we can’t live without our connections. This summer, our appetite for bandwidth seems to know no limits.

Force, a retired librarian from Moscow, Idaho, says he looks for the nearestStarbucks or McDonald’s, and if that fails, he pulls out his Google Fi phone, for a quick wireless fix.

“The only place I can’t connect is one of those expensive hotels in the U.S. which have outrageous access fees,” he jokes. (Well, technically you can get hooked up, but it’ll cost you.)

Americans are voracious bandwidth consumers, and they’re getting hungrier by the minute. Mobile data traffic is expected to more than double in the next three years, surging from 1,329 petabytes a month this year to 2,515 petabytes a month in 2018, according to the Cellular Telephone Industries Association (CTIA), an industry trade group for wireless companies. (A petabyte is a million gigabytes, or roughly 500 billion pages of standard printed text.)

Almost nine of 10 U.S. households have a smartphone, and more than one-third use Wi-Fi calling to stay in touch, according to research by Parks Associates. “To many travelers, including my teenage daughter, the three life essentials are food, water and Wi-Fi,” says Harry Wang, a senior research director at Parks Associates.

Fortunately, there are new strategies and new ways of connecting that can save you time and money and help you get on with your trip. They range from better ways of deploying a mobile hot spot, to connecting to a conventional wireless access point, to rigging something up that works almost anywhere.

Maybe the most convenient way to get connected is to carry your own hot spot. Like Force, I’m a Google Fi (fi.google.com) subscriber, and it’s a lifesaver when you’re traveling internationally and need to stay connected. But there are significant limitations. You can use it only with a Nexus 6P, Nexus 5X or Nexus 6, and at $10 per GB, it’s not the best option for bandwidth hogs such as me.

T-Mobile (t-mobile.com) offers attractive plans that let you connect overseas. For example, its Simple Choice Plan offers unlimited data and texting at no extra cost to your plan in more than 140 countries worldwide. Plus, flat-rate calls are just 20 cents a minute. I took my Samsung Galaxy S7 to Canada a few weeks ago and used the phone to stay connected. Cool feature: You can text in-flight on planes that use GoGo Inflight Internet. Texting is included in your plan.

Chris Pontine, an Internet marketer from Port Huron, Mich., who is always looking for a fast connection, says thinking differently about Wi-Fi is a key to success this summer. He recommends a good wireless finder app — a program such as Avast (avast.com) uses crowdsourcing to find the clearest connections — and to look where others don’t.

“Comcast allows you to connect to many hot spots as long as you have a Comcast account,” he says.

That’s true. Sometimes, you already have the ability to connect, whether it’s an AT&T account, a subscription TV account or a service such as Boingo (boingo.com). Actually, Boingo is a particularly appealing option at airports, where it provides no-cost wireless service, and recently launched a faster network for subscribers, featuring speeds up to 50 Mbps. You may qualify for the higher-speed access without knowing it; select American Express cardholders and Starwood Preferred guests can log in without paying extra.

If you’re a grizzled road warrior who gulps down data by the gigabyte, then you’re probably shaking your head right about now. I get it. You need more for less, but you are not alone.

Consider Mel Candea, who has been driving through Europe with her husband for the past four years. She’s a freelance writer, and he’s a filmmaker, so they have to stay connected no matter where they are. They have a total pro rig: a Huawei E5770s-320 mobile hot spot ($179) that allows them to swap out data cards, depending on which country they’re visiting. Every time they cross a border, they buy a new SIM card. They use Wi-Fi maps to find cafes for larger uploads and downloads. “We have a Wi-Fi booster for more remote areas,” she says.

If you need more power — and who doesn’t? — you could try the Worldsim Tri-Fi (worldsim.com), a pocket-sized combination of hot spot and powerbank ($164). The Worldsim comes with a data roaming SIM card that can be used to get low-cost data in 188 countries, and it’s unlocked, so you can easily swap out your cards like Candea.

Overkill? You tell me. You’re probably reading this online. How would you feel if the connection were lost?

Three convenient Wi-Fi alternatives

• The phone booth. Cities are busy networking their cities for wireless access. For example, if you’re headed to New York, you’ll be able to access Wi-Fi hot spots across the five boroughs at no charge with the new LinkNYC kiosks being installed. By July, 500 of them will offer not only high-speed internet but also phone calls and device charging ports. By 2024, New York expects to have as many as 7,500 of these kiosks.

• The car. Don’t look now, but several car manufacturers, including Audi and GM, have begun equipping their cars with Wi-Fi. Or you could bring your own a wireless device such as the AT&T Unite Explore mobile Wi-Fi hot spot by Netgear(att.com/uniteexplore, $50), a mobile access point that offers up to 22 hours of continuous use on a single charge. If you’re a power user, your plan will run out before the hot spot stops working.

• The service station. Many forward-looking gas stations offer Wi-Fi to customers. For instance, Pilot Flying J, a chain of truck stops in the USA and Canada, just put the finishing touches on an overhaul of its Wi-Fi networks. Flying J doesn’t charge guests to use Wi-Fi inside its travel centers.

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