A guide to using the Internet abroad

You’re heading to London for the first time, and you couldn’t be more excited — so excited, in fact, that you plan to share your adventures in real time with all your friends back home. But besides missing the scenery, there’s at least one other reason to take your eyes off your electronic devices when you’re overseas. That Facebook update with the picture of you trying to make the Queen’s Guard blink could end up costing you.

It’s easy to estimate how many minutes you might use for phoning home when you’re traveling abroad. Figuring out your data needs is trickier.

(Andrew Bannecker for The Washington Post)

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“That’d be like saying before you go to Italy how many pounds of pasta you’re going to eat or how many liters of wine you’re going to drink,” said Scott Tharler, a gadget expert and blogger for Discovery News and Fodor’s. “You don’t know how many megabytes of data you’re going to chew up.”

Start by thinking about what you’ll want to do on the Internet during your trip. Simple text e-mails won’t gobble up a lot of your allotment, but streaming videos and turn-by-turn navigation will. Play around with some online data-estimating calculators, such as those from Verizon or AT&T. If you’re a gadget hound or traveling with your family, you might need to take into account how many devices will need a connection. And the number of countries you’ll be visiting will also affect your decision.

“Really, when it comes down to it, there are lots of offline resources” for figuring out travel information on the go, Tharler said, but “it’s a safety blanket knowing you’re connected to the Internet.”

Once you’ve decided just how big your blanket should be, here are some options for getting online with your gadgets:

WiFi

Pros: Connecting to a wireless network is often free or very cheap. Look for hot spots listed on Wi-Fi-FreeSpot. Boingo, a wireless Internet provider with more than 500,000 hot spots around the world, offers a variety of WiFi plans, including daily or monthly access and prepaid credits. Examples: $7.95 per month for unlimited access on up to two mobile devices or $59 per month for 2,000 minutes worldwide on up to four laptops or mobile devices.

Cons: Of course, you’ll need to find a hot spot and, as at home, you’ll be at the mercy of the vagaries of wireless signals. Security can also be a concern. Wired magazine suggests using an encrypted virtual private network (VPN) or at least ensuring that Web services you access have a URL starting with “https” rather than “http.”

Be your own hot spot

Pros: Forget trying to locate someone else’s Internet signal. A 4- by 2.5-inch MiFi hot spot lets you set up your own wireless broadband connection — which is what Tharler said he’d do when traveling.

Some travelers may already have a mobile hot spot device from their cellphone providers, but if not, something like Xcom Global’s rental program is an ideal alternative. For $14.95 per day (plus a standard round-trip shipping fee of $30), you’ll get unlimited data coverage in any of 195 countries. The National Geographic-affiliated Cellular Abroad, Tharler’s pick for travelers who want stress-free service, offers a similar program. Rental for a trip of up to seven days costs $69, plus $59 for a credit good for 30-60 MB of data, and round-trip shipping that starts at $12.88. Cellular Abroad is available for more than 130 countries.

The MiFi device lets you piggyback up to five WiFi devices onto its 3G connection, which you can secure against digital eavesdroppers.

Cons: You’ll have another gadget to pack and charge.

Use your phone

Pros: How many electronics do you really want to carry, anyway? Check with your wireless carrier to see whether your phone is compatible with international data roaming and your destination has data coverage. If the answer to both is yes, getting connected can be as easy as an add-on plan through your provider. A $25-per-month plan, for example, will get you 100 MB on Verizon or 50 MB on AT&T. For very limited usage, you might be able to get away with a pay-as-you-go option.

Just as you might do to make phone calls when abroad, you can purchase a local SIM card to put in your phone for your data needs. It will come with a credit for a set amount of data: No need to worry about going over your limit. Examples: The $19 Passport SIM card from Telestial, including a $10 credit to use on data, with rates from $0.49 per MB, and the National Geographic Talk Abroad International SIM Card from Cellular Abroad for $59, including a $29 credit you can put toward an estimated 15-30 MB of data.

Cons: Surely you’ve heard of “bill shock.” If you plan to do international roaming, you need to keep an eye on your usage with a tracker already on your phone or any number of other apps. Overage fees can be outrageously expensive. Turn off data roaming when you don’t want to be on the Internet, and try to play with your phone’s settings to reduce or eliminate system updates and searches for new e-mails, tweets, etc.

To go the SIM card route, you’ll need to have your phone unlocked — by your provider, if you’re playing by the book.

Don’t use the Internet

Pros: Enjoy being cut off from the digital world.

Cons: Suffer while being cut off from the digital world.

 
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