Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

When traveling, your options to connect to the internet are plenty these days. I'll review some of the more common ones.

I live in Germany and assume that I have a German IP address. I shall shortly visit California on holiday. Can you tell me what I must do to stay in contact via my laptop while in the USA?

There are actually several alternatives these days, some of which are even free.

I'll review a couple of the most common solutions, including the one I use as I travel around myself.

Given that your laptop probably has WiFi, that puts you in a good position to take advantage of many options.

Like coffee?

One of the simplest and most inexpensive ways to connect to the internet while you're out and about is via free open WiFi hotspots. Naturally, I'm somewhat partial to Starbucks as they seem to be almost everywhere and most offer free internet access. For the cost of a latte or whatever your favorite drink might be, you can connect. (Technically, even the latte's not required, but I consider it somewhat rude to use their free service without having purchased something.)

"One of the simplest and most inexpensive ways to connect to the internet while you're out and about is via free open WiFi hotspots."

Many, many locations - coffee shops, libraries, even some restaurants and book stores, now offer free, open WiFi connections. Depending on your travel plans and your connectivity needs, they might make for a suitable network of connections points for you to use.

Important: make sure you know how to use an open WiFi hotspot safely. It's not terribly difficult, but it's also often easy to overlook, particularly if you're in a hurry.

Where are you staying?

Depending on your travel plans, the places that you're staying at may offer assorted connectivity options that can work well.

Free, open WiFi is sometimes a perk of many hotels, motels, and RV parks.

Almost all hotels now offer some sort of paid internet connectivity - either WiFi or wired in your room - for their guests. Depending on your needs, the fee may be worth it. In my experience, I know that hotel connections typically seem a little more reliable and perhaps a little faster then those provided elsewhere for free. (And if you have difficulty on a paid connection, be sure and mention it when you check out - the fees are often easy for the desk clerk to reverse.)

And, of course, if you're visiting friends or relatives, it's always worth asking if you can connect to their connection during your stay.

Once again, though, be safe about your connection. It's not just open WiFi that you need to be concerned about here; any connection provided by a third party, such as a hotel or even a relative, can be a source of various types of threats.

Got mobile?

Particularly if you're going to be traveling around to various locations, mobile broadband is a convenient way to access the internet during your stay. You'll be able to connect anywhere the mobile provider has coverage.

I'm going to throw mobile broadband into two distinct buckets:

  • Phone-based: many cellular phones can be tethered to be used as a cellular modem or in some cases, can even be configured to be used as a mobile WiFi hotspot. If you've got a mobile phone that you're bringing with you, it might be worth exploring the options offered by your carrier while you're in the U.S. If those are too expensive, a pre-paid or pay-as-you-go solution from a carrier, such as Virgin Mobile, can be a fine solution that you can acquire once you're here.

  • Device-based: many mobile providers now offer both USB modems that connect directly to your laptop to access the internet, as well as portable "MiFi" devices, which are small, stand-alone devices that are simply portable WiFi hotspots when turned on. Once again, pay-as-you go plans are probably the way to go for travelers so that you're not tied into a more common lengthy contract.

Regardless of which you choose, it's well worth checking the coverage map for the mobile provider that you're considering using, specifically for their data coverage. Data coverage is often the same as voice, but not always.

What I do

In short, I do all of the above when I travel, depending on the situation.

In what I believe is my order of "most used":

  • My Android-based cell phone can act as a wireless hotspot and I find it perhaps the most reliable and convenient way to connect in most circumstances. It's perhaps my #1 go-to connection option when I'm out and about. I'm with Verizon Wireless and the hotspot is a $20/month add-on to my plan for 5GB of data transfer. The great part is that you can turn the add-on on and off via your phone, so you really only need pay when you use it (although it's convenient enough that I leave it available most of the time).

  • At Starbucks and at the airport, I'm just as likely to avail myself of free WiFi. It typically works and works well (although when it doesn't, I switch back to my trusty phone).

  • At hotels, depending on the circumstances and the price, I may well opt for the wired or wireless connection. I don't find myself doing this often, but as this is my business, it's somewhat of a safety net if the cellular coverage isn't up to the task for my mobile broadband.

  • As a backup to all of that, I also carry a Virgin Mobile MiFi. This is on a month-to-month plan and I only activate it if none of the other options above apply and I get a signal. Because Virgin Mobile is a different carrier than Verizon, the theory is simply that if Verizon doesn't cover where I am well, perhaps Virgin Mobile will.

As you can see, I have myself perhaps over-connected ... but then, this is my job.

Hopefully, from all that, you'll be able to get some ideas that work for you.

Article C4901 - August 12, 2011 « »

Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

August 16, 2011 8:35 AM

We enjoy camping and have found that many campsites also have wireless access.

Roger Ubl
August 16, 2011 12:09 PM

Many of us use a computer for the information we can access. All we wish is the info.

When seeking info, an issue about the operation of the computer/software may arise.

You may answer the computer/software question.

But if we do not understand the computer/software, we get lost during the fix. I like cake but don’t want to bake a cake.

May I suggest you create an expandable "Leo computer data base" and in your articles highlight words/phases/instructions that are in the "Leo computer data base" so without explaining basic stuff we can read your article and refer to your "Leo computer data base" to understand the details how to fix the computer/software,,,,, to better get at the info we really desire.

Example: “254 shell extensions loaded” what is a shell extension, I don’t know. Highlight shell extension and explain it in "Leo computer data base"

What I mean is, you speak a computer lingo that can go over our heads, we readers cover such a wide range of knowledge/experience. You can't cover the range of the basic without turning off the experienced people. Write the article for the experienced people as you do now but give us basic people a guide so by looking at your "Leo computer data base" we can muddle thru.

Enjoy you stuff. Thank You

Peter B
August 16, 2011 12:40 PM

Just wanted to check if the 'German IP address' is important for you? If you use your local supplier for your e-mail address, and an e-mail package on your laptop, you may have problems sending mails when connected in the USA. It won't be a problem if you use one of the free services (gmail, yahoo, hotmil, etc).

Here in the UK, you need to be using a UK IP address to access the BBC's iPlayer (7 days of their radio and TV programs) - I can't access it from my office (in London) because we are connected through the USA. However they do offer some podcasts - always worth a listen!!

Dale Gupton
August 16, 2011 9:33 PM

I very much agree with Roger Ubl. How about it, Leo? Can you do that?

Mark J
August 17, 2011 7:17 AM

I am currently visiting the US from Germany, staying for an extended two and a half month visit. I am using my German Android with a T-Mobile (USA version) monthly prepaid service. I use the Portable Wi-Fi hotspot option to connect my computer to the Internet. T-Mobile doesn't charge for tethering and you can get Unlimited Phone and 4G connectivity for $70 a month or Unlimited Phone and 2G connectivity for $50 a month.

If you don't need to be always connected and just need to check the Internet occasionally and you are in a rural area where Starbucks is not available, most MacDonald's and many other fast foods joints offer free Wi-Fi.

Mark J
August 17, 2011 7:23 AM

A warning about airport and other free Wi-Fi access points. In many airports hackers set up fake hotspots which connect you to the Internet for free but at the same time are stealing your passwords typed in during these sessions. Be sure you are accessing the correct hotspots. Airports with free Wi-Fi have signs telling you the SSID for their Wi-Fi access. In a restaurant, you can ask what the correct SSID is. Accept no substitutes.

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