Although the whole point of travelling is to leave life’s little distractions behind, staying connected to the internet while away allows you to keep up-to-date with the outside world. However with so many ways to keep connected, which one is right for your data needs?
Accessing the internet while holidaying is often an afterthought for many road travellers. But not only can it provide countless hours of entertainment, it lets you access information important to your trip such as the weather and road conditions ahead.
Unlike at home, where your connection is hard-wired into the telephone or NBN grid, you’ll be mostly relying on WiFi to keep you connected when you’re on the road. To access most of the WiFi options we will be discussing, you will need a device capable of connecting to a wireless network. The vast majority of modern smartphones, tablets and laptops should be able to connect without any problems.
You’ll usually get the strongest signal to the network if you use your device outside!
WiFi Connectivity Factors
When accessing WiFi on the road, there are a few aspects that will determine your signal strength, which leads to the download speeds you can achieve.
Number of Users: The more users on a WiFi connection, the less the bandwidth each user will receive. For example, a hotspot which has four users on it will run at half the speed as the same hotspot with only two users. That being said, some larger public hotspots will have capped bandwidth to keep download speeds measured and consistent.
Obstructions: Buildings, trees and even the walls of your caravan will often dampen the signal of your WiFi. Typically any obstruction that blocks the signal between the device and the WiFi connection will lead to a lower signal strength. For best possible results, stay as close as possible to the hotspot’s location, ideally within ten metres of the device.
Other Appliances: Microwaves, phones, televisions and radios all operate on frequencies sometimes used by WiFi hotspots and routers. Try to keep your device as far away as possible from these appliances.
Ways to access the internet while travelling
Depending on what you plan on using it for, there are many options out there for road travellers needing to access the internet. Public WiFi hotspots, using mobile data, satellite WiFi and installing a wireless router are a few of your options to help connect you to the internet.
Many places have a symbol on the outside of their entrance indicating if they provide free wifi.
Public or Free WiFi Hotspots
More and more businesses, accommodation providers and major towns offer it
Slowest connection speeds
Need to be in local WiFi coverage area
Some require entering details or filling out form to access
Questionable information security while connected
Capped bandwidth and download amount
Public or free WiFi hotspots provide travellers with a quick and easy way to access the internet. It is great for people only looking to check their Facebook or email every now and again or see what's happening in the news. If you think you will be using the internet infrequently and won’t be relying on it while you are on the road, then try to make use of free WiFi hotspots whenever possible.
However, there are many limitations to public or free WiFi hotspots. You are restricted to the coverage area of that WiFi connection – meaning that when you leave the area, you lose the connection. Many free connections, especially ones found in shopping centres and local businesses, will require filling out a form with your personal details. These details are often sold to marketing companies or used to promote a business's products to you later down the road. To counter this, setting up a ‘junk email’ account to direct all these emails to is a good idea.
You will also find many public WiFi hotspots will restrict the amount of data you can download. This means you won’t be able to perform any ‘big’ downloads such as software updates or watching a video online.
Where can I find public or free WiFi hotspots?
Council facilities such as libraries will often offer free WiFi or computers that can be used by the public for free for a limited amount of time.
Chain restaurants such as McDonald's allow people sitting inside the restaurant to access the WiFi.
Local businesses including cafes, restaurants and bars sometimes offer free WiFi. The best way to find out is to ask one of the workers or look for a sign at the entrance. You may be required to purchase something before they give you the password too.
City CBDs and large towns typically offer a government-funded, free WiFi hotspot for travellers. However, this is not always the case and it best to check the town’s or region’s website (Victoria’s for example) before assuming it is available.
Accommodation providers sometimes include a free WiFi allowance when you stay with them. That being said, you will more often than not have to pay extra per night to access it. Best to check with the business before you book if this is a ‘must-have’ requirement for your stay.
Facebook is currently beta testing a new application called ‘Find Wifi’. This application initially requires you to use mobile data to access the list based on your location, which then displays current usernames and passwords to free WiFi hotspots. Once you have connected to a free hotspot, turn off your mobile data and away you go. However, at time of writing, it is currently unavailable in Australia and still under development. You can track its progress on Facebook.
You can turn your mobile into a hotspot through the settings menu of your device.
Discover More: the great Australian road trip
Mobile Data and Hotspotting
Only download restriction is your mobile data limit
Allows multiple devices to use the data at once
Use wherever there is mobile phone coverage
Prepaid and postpaid options available
Great if you have a plan with large amounts of data
Data limit is dependant on price
Phone’s data limit can be used up quickly
Quickly drains hotspotting device’s battery
Requires a mobile data capable device to hotspot
Coverage is limited in remote areas
Requires modern smartphone or tablet to activate
Unsecure if not set up correctly
Hotspotting is a popular option for road travellers who will need frequent access to the internet but don’t need a dedicated wireless router. By turning on this setting in your phone or mobile-capable tablet, it allows other devices to ‘tether’ to your hotspot and use its mobile internet data. This is mostly used in conjunction with laptops or tablets which require a WiFi connection to access the internet. Using your mobile device as a hotspot allows many users to connect at once and still receive reasonable connection speeds. Hotspotting is ideal if your current phone plan includes a large data allowance.
However, hotspotting will require a device that has this function and access to mobile data. Hotspotting will also drain your device's battery very quickly so it is important to keep an eye on this as it is used. You may also burn through your data very quickly with multiple devices connected at once.
Mobile Coverage for Hotspotting
Hotspotting is highly dependant on your carrier’s mobile coverage. If you are within it, you can hotspot, if you are outside of it, you won’t be able to access the internet. Australia currently has three main mobile networks. Optus, Vodafone and Telstra. Currently, the Telstra mobile network offers the best mobile coverage, with Optus being a close second. Many providers work off these networks. For example, Virgin Mobile operates on the Optus network, while Boost Mobile uses the Telstra infrastructure.
If you looking for a new plan to hotspot your phone with, best talk to each of the providers to find a plan that fits your budget and coverage needs.
Portable systems give you more flexibility on where you can place and aim your satellite dish.
Access to the internet anywhere in the world
Relatively fast connection speeds
Larger download limits
Most systems are extremely expensive to set up
Plans are also extremely expensive
May require mounting satellite dish to roof of vehicle
Often used by offshore oil rigs and remote mining operations, satellite WiFi can be installed to most RVs to access the internet anywhere in the world. Satellite WiFi offers some of the fastest wireless internet connection speeds available with fairly large download limits.
Satellite WiFi comes in two different types of system: full or handheld. Full systems typically feature a dish that is mounted on the roof of your RV or on a portable stand that is still connected to your RV. These satellite dishes are able to track satellites for your internet connection. Handheld options such as the Iridium GO! are typically cheaper, but offer limited messaging services and can’t be used to hotspot multiple devices.
Most satellite WiFi systems are very expensive, with some of the most basic ones costing a few thousand dollars. Data plans are also typically not included with the system and some can cost up to $2 per minute of WiFi use. These devices are best suited to people who will be out of mobile phone coverage for hotspotting or require constant access to the internet for their job or communication needs.
For more information about satellite coverage in Australia, check out our ‘Sat Phone Buyers Guide’.
Portable Wireless Routers
Many different plans available
Many different types of wireless routers available
Far cheaper plans and hardware than satellite WiFi
Better local range than mobile hotspotting
Prepaid and postpaid options
Operates on mobile coverage so can be patchy at times
Not very fast connection speeds (but better than free WiFi)
May require external antenna to receive better coverage
Using a portable wireless router is the second most popular option for road travellers needing the internet frequently. They offer a larger local hotspot range and can sustain multiple devices on the system better than using your mobile as a hotspot.
However, most portable wireless routers, such as the one designed by RV Wifi, still operate off the 3G or 4G networks, which require you to insert a SIM into the device. This SIM operates similarly to a SIM in a phone and will require a mobile data plan to work.
A portable wireless modem is ideal for families and larger groups who need a hotspot that can provide a stable internet connection for a lot of devices at once.
Mobile broadband dongles like this Telstra one are small enough to fit in your pocket...
Mobile Broadband Dongles
Can connect directly to your computer
Devices don’t require a SIM to connect to mobile broadband
Large variety of inexpensive plans
Most carriers only offer prepaid plans
Plans have time restrictions to use data up within
Small range for hotspot
If you don’t want to use your smartphone as a hotspot and would rather not install a router inside your RV, a mobile broadband dongle may be your solution. These devices can plug into your computer to create a small local hotspot. They are standalone devices that have a special inbuilt SIM that typically runs off a prepaid plan.
However, the hotspot’s range is fairly limited. The plans for these devices also only last for a month, with any leftover data expiring when it’s over. If you will be on the road for more than one month, a postpaid plan will workout cheaper. If you are travelling infrequently or for less than a month, try to find a ‘pay-as-you-go’ or prepaid plan instead.
Even if you’re out in the open, you may still struggle to receive signal in remote areas.
Deciding on which type you need
There is a multitude of options out there for staying connected while out on the road. To help narrow down what you need, consider the following questions.
How much data will you need? If you are only checking Facebook or email, reading the daily news and searching for the upcoming weather forecast, using free WiFi hotspots or using your phone's data may suffice. If you need to entertain kids on a long drive across the country, a mobile broadband dongle with a high data limit would be more appropriate. Choose the device and plan that suits your data needs.
Where will you be going? If you plan to be spending large amounts of time in remote areas away from mobile phone coverage, satellite WiFi will be needed to access the internet. If you are sticking to populated areas, a wireless router installed in your RV will suit you better.
Will you have access to free WiFi or not? If you will be staying at caravan parks or accommodation that offers free WiFi, you may not wish to spend money on a mobile internet device. That being said, many places charge extra for WiFi it and may end up cheaper upgrading your phone plan for additional data.
Although this guide is designed to inform you about which WiFi devices you may need while travelling the country, it is important to remember why you are on holiday – to leave the daily grind behind and relax in comfort away from life’s distractions. Just because you have access to the internet doesn’t mean you need to be online 24/7. Sit back, relax and make some great memories for the years to come!
Photos taken by the Outdoria team and robert paul van beets/Shutterstock.com
How do you stay connected while travelling? Let us know your top tips by leaving a comment below!