If you’re planning a summer trip, you need to do more than just figure out a way to pay for your ever increasing airline tickets, hope your flights aren’t cancelled, take out a second mortgage to finance your gasoline or, if you have an electric car, figure out where you can charge it.
You also need to think about connectivity.
Your first thoughts about connectivity should be whether you even want it. You probably do want to be able to make and receive calls (hopefully not work related), and if you’re driving, have access to your navigation app. But, if you’re trying to get away from it all, you might want to take a holiday from email and work related messaging. If so, before you leave, see if your email system can send automated “out of office replies” so people who write you know not to expect an immediate answer. Also, consider disabling any work related messaging apps you might have or at least turning off those app’s ability to send you notifications. Several years ago, my son and daughter booked a family vacation at a Mexican resort that had no cellular or internet access to force me to get off the grid. It was hard at first, but after a couple of days, I started to appreciate being unplugged from the world.
If you need internet, make sure you have a plan that won’t cost you a fortune. If you’re traveling within the United States, it’s probably not an issue, but if you’re leaving the country, be sure to see if there are roaming fees, which can sometimes add up to hundreds of dollars if you’re not careful. Most carriers charge a lot extra for text messages and incoming and outgoing calls when you’re out of the country, but they typically offer roaming packages that can reduce or eliminate those costs. AT&T, for example, has a $10 a day “international day pass” that gives you unlimited talk, text and data in more than 210 countries. $10 a day can add up but not nearly as much as roaming charges. If you don’t need to have people call you on your number, you can purchase SIM cards in countries you visit. It’s a bit of a hassle though well worth it if you’re spending a lot of time in that country.
If you don’t have an affordable roaming plan, make sure you turn off data, messaging and any other services you don’t want to pay for. I’ve heard horror stories from people who forgot to turn off data and were billed for automatic downloads that they didn’t even realize were happening.
Even if you don’t have an international plan, you can usually get internet access and, perhaps, text and phone calls via WiFi when you’re at a hotel or other hotspot. That can also work if you’re in the country but away from a cellular signal. My wife and daughter recently spent a few days at an Airbnb near the Russian River with WiFi but no cellular access. Before she left, I configured her phone to make and accept calls via WiFi (available on most newer phones) so she was able to make and receive calls and texts as soon as she logged onto the house’s WiFi network.
Sometimes you wind up at a place that doesn’t have WiFi or it’s unreliable or expensive to use. If there is a cellular signal, you can get your email or access the web from your phone, and if you want to use a laptop, you can probably tether your laptop to the phone via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or USB so that you’re using your cellular plan for internet access. Before you do, make sure it’s affordable. You might want to upgrade to an unlimited data plan to avoid what could be high data charges. I have an unlimited data plan and often use my cellular WiFi when I’m away from home, even if there is an available WiFi network. It’s less of a hassle, and it’s a lot more secure than logging into a public Wi-Fi network. Frequently it’s also faster and more reliable than a crowded public WiFi network.
There are options for when you’re away from any type of land-based signal. If you Google “Portable satellite Internet” or “portable satellite phone” you’ll find devices you can purchase or rent, but be sure to check out the usage charges. If you’re going hiking and simply want to be able to seek help in an emergency or keep loved-ones informed about your whereabouts. you can purchase or rent a satellite communications device that can locate you and send out an SOS. You can Google “satellite communications device” for links to all sorts of information, including a couple of good explainer articles.
Despite my pleasant off-the-grid experience in Mexico, I do like being connected while I travel. Sometimes just to watch movies and TV on my laptop or phone but often to check out local attractions, make reservations or — especially with COVID — find food for take-out or delivery. It’s also nice to have access to Google maps and other navigation tools even if I’m not driving. They can be handy for walks or bike rides or if you’re in a taxi that charges by the mile, to make sure your driver is taking a direct route. I could have used that in Paris when my driver took me out of my way to increase the fare. Because of my very limited French, I didn’t say anything, but I thought about using Google translate to tell him what I really thought.
Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.