As more laptop-workers are unshackling themselves from their stationary lives, whether to earn a living while seeing the world, or save money by moving somewhere cheap to start a business, the subject of mobile Wi-Fi becomes crucial. I’ve recently discussed many of the positive things about working while traveling, but if you have crappy internet or no internet at all, none of that matters.
Unfortunately, there are no great resources for determining whether internet is fast or easily obtainable at little or no cost, so it can definitely be hit or miss. However, since I’ve been working while traveling all over Asia for well over a year now, I can offer some advice to help increase the chances of the best possible situation.
First off: In-room Wi-Fi is a necessity
While it’s true that Starbucks and some similar businesses offer free public Wi-Fi (usually after logging in), this is not an ideal work environment even where it’s available. As we’ll discuss below, the connection speed is usually poor in most countries, so sharing one pipe with a bunch of other people can suck. And after two or three hours you’ll be uncomfortable, either due to furniture or crowds. Thankfully, in-room Wi-Fi is very easy to find in many cheaper countries, which also helps when you want to download podcasts or torrents while you are sleeping or doing something else.
There are plenty of hotels that have free Wi-Fi only in the lobby, and while this is obviously far better than nothing, again it’s not ideal for working more than a couple hours at a time.
Weird paradigm: The cheaper the hotel, the better chances for free Wi-Fi
There’s a huge uproar in the travel community about this topic, with constant outrage that US$150/night hotels will try to charge US$20/day for Wi-Fi, while US$20/night hotels almost always offer it for free. It definitely helps to know that this phenomenon is mostly true around the world. Almost every hostel anywhere provides free Wi-Fi, and cheap hotels even in cheap countries often do as well.
Finding out whether a hotel you want to stay at has free in-room Wi-Fi can be challenging. Most “official” hotel sites include this information, in English, but not all of them. If you aren’t sure you can usually get an answer by checking recent TripAdvisor reviews (it’s a fairly common topic if they actually have it and it’s free), or by checking details on Expedia, which actually has very accurate records of what is included in the room price for all hotels that they cover. Most cheap hotels also do a good job of answering emails, which can also mean they will reserve a room for you that’s close to the router.
Watch out for non-free in-room Wi-Fi
Curiously, when I was traveling through Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Nepal, and Thailand, which are among the cheapest countries in the world, if a hotel had Wi-Fi it was always included for free. But in other countries, including India, they often charge an extra fee for it. It seems to be a regional phenomenon, but it’s still worth checking carefully if the wireless is free or not.
In an extremely annoying trend, I ran across many hotels that would show a list of “room features” on their official websites that would include such things as, television, hot & cold water, wireless internet, refrigerator, and TV with international channels. Then when I go to check in and ask for the password they finally admit that Wi-Fi costs perhaps US$15 extra per day. It’s listed right along with items that are obviously included for free, so it’s ridiculous that they include it without mentioning a price, but quite a few places do just that.
Book no more than one night if possible
Another fantastic thing about traveling through Southeast Asia and other cheap areas is there always seems to be an abundance of hotels and guesthouses, so except for peak times such as holiday periods, you can usually get a room with ease just by showing up.
Most places will also reserve a room by email, with no guarantee of any kind, so it’s worth taking advantage of keeping your options open. If a hotel has slow Wi-Fi or it doesn’t have a signal in your room, or if they try to charge a fortune for it, you can leave right away or no more than one day later.
Each country has a maximum speed for internet
People working while traveling have few heartbreaking moments worse than arriving in a new country to discover that internet speeds are slow or unreliable, nationwide. If you’d have to guess which countries would be better than others you’d be right most of the time, but not always. For example, Malaysia is extremely modern in many ways, especially compared to its northern neighbors, yet a corrupt monopoly on internet means that fast speeds are impossible even in the huge capital of Kuala Lumpur.
Below is a quick guide to many of the world’s cheapest countries and how their national internet tends to perform.
Thailand: Usually quite fast in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Phuket, but can be slower on smaller islands and in smaller towns. Almost always free when available.
Vietnam and Cambodia: Offered free at perhaps 50% of all hotels, including those that cost US$10 per night or even less. Speeds are never great, but service is reliable.
Laos: Speeds can be bad and some hotels try to charge for their Wi-Fi. Don’t plan on working for long in Laos.
India: Many cheaper hotels try to charge extra for Wi-Fi, which can range from US$2 per day to US$20 per day. Speeds are usually very fast and reliability is good in larger cities, but less so in spread-out places like Goa. Still, free Wi-Fi is usually easy to find.
Malaysia: As mentioned above, speeds are terrible everywhere, though finding free Wi-Fi in hotels is usually easy.
Bali, Indonesia: Free Wi-Fi is usually easy to find at cheap hotels, but speeds can vary from very slow to decent from one place to the next. It can be a crapshoot.
Nepal: A maximum connection of 256Kbps seems to be the national standard, so things are slow even when you aren’t sharing with multiple others.
United Arab Emirates: Speeds are excellent in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, but very few cheaper hotels offer Wi-Fi included.
Turkey: Speeds are extremely fast and free Wi-Fi is very common in cheaper hotels.
New Zealand: Public internet of any kind tends to be hard to find, and usually very expensive when you do find it. For such an otherwise wonderful country, New Zealand sucks at internet for travelers.
Europe: More and more hotels in Europe are offering free Wi-Fi for guests in their lobbies, but in-room Wi-Fi is extremely hard to find at cheaper hotels and even hostels. Free public Wi-Fi, such as at coffee shops and such, is also weirdly rare in most of Europe.
Ping times, reliability, and download speeds
Working most weekdays for me has been fairly easy in almost all of the places listed above, but that’s partly because I usually don’t need very fast speeds for the research that goes into my projects. The ping times in almost all of these countries is fine, so calling up almost any webpage usually takes no more than a few seconds anywhere except the worst ones mentioned above.
Reliability is another issue though, and some countries seem to have entire systems that go out several times per day or for hours at a time. I rarely actually had problems with this, but still it’s worth planning for outages by downloading and saving the information you need when times are good so you can still work when things are down.
Download speeds do tend to vary mostly by country, so if your work requires frequent or large downloads then you should definitely steer away from the marginal destinations. Personally, most of my downloading is for podcasts and such, and in the worst places I’d have to start the downloads before going to bed, hopefully to find them complete upon waking up. A 20MB podcast might average 40 minutes in Vietnam, 10 minutes in Thailand, about 5 minutes in larger cities in India, and under a minute in Turkey. Youtube videos are pretty much out of the question in the slow countries, but will load in realtime in the faster ones. If this matters to you, choose your destinations carefully.
Forget those “3G” USB sticks
Sometime in the future it seems probable that the equivalent of a USB Wi-Fi stick will work almost anywhere you want to go, but for now, at least in the cheaper countries, they don’t work nearly well enough. I spoke with quite a few people who’d tried them and reports were always that coverage was very spotty, and that Wi-Fi barely worked at all in many places. They also always seem to have a monthly bandwidth cap in the 5GB or less range, which is plenty for emails and a bit of browsing, but not nearly enough for downloading things or uploading photos.