Wi-fi Woes

Nearly two months into our travels, our biggest challenge by far has been finding free or affordable wi-fi. It may seem like a wired world out there, but guess again. When the road is your home, finding wi-fi is one huge pain in the ass.

Before setting off, we spent months reviewing campground websites, most of which listed “internet” among their amenities. I optimistically assumed they meant low-cost, high-speed, surf-in-my-pajamas connections like we had at home in Vancouver.

Wrong.

Way wrong.

So far, most campgrounds have had either no internet at all or charged prohibitive fees of up to €5 per hour. Two places had free campground-wide service, but that’s rare — at least, in the Netherlands and Germany, where we’ve spent our time so far.

Reality punched us in the face during the first few weeks of our new nomadic lifestyle. Most campgrounds in the Netherlands offered wi-fi for €5 per day (per laptop). That seemed steep, for us anyway, since we’re on a tightly budgeted,  year-long trip through one of the most expensive parts of the world.

We stayed offline at first, hoping for free (or cheaper) connections down the road, but our work piled up. Mark and I couldn’t launch this blog, communicate with our bank, or research things like transit schedules and museum hours. Scout couldn’t access her online math and geography programs or read about interesting things she was seeing. It really sucked.

Why is it that every grungy youth hostel I see offers completely free wi-fi? Can someone explain this to me?

In Berlin, things went from bad to worse. Our campground there charged €4 per hour — per HOUR — which made us long for the good old days of bargain-basement Dutch pricing.

But it was after Berlin that things went from worse to weird.

THE DEAD ZONE

We’d headed south, toward Dresden, and campground after campground had no internet at all. They actually laughed when we asked. We inquired in the local towns, too, at tourist offices. Usually the conversation went something like this (but in German).

Us: “Hello. Can you please tell us where we can use the internet?”

Them: “Nowhere. I’m sorry.”

Us: “Maybe the library?”

Them: “No. I’m sorry.”

Us: “Is there a Starbucks?”

Them: “No, I’m sorry.”

Us: “How about an internet café?” (We dislike using those but were getting desperate.)

Them: “No. There’s nothing like that here”

Seriously?

In Meissen, the town’s single, public internet-access point is a microscopic T-Mobile hotspot in the lobby of the local Sparkasse bank. The small counter was the size of a cutting board, and we had to work standing up while poor Scout milled around doodling on blank deposit slips.

Our excellent German friend Berni cleared things up when he sent us this Wikipedia article. Apparently we’d driven straight into a notorious east German internet “dead zone,” where many small towns are still totally unconnected, with no internet or even television.

We read that McDonalds offers free wi-fi here in Germany. Hey, great! After we left the dead zone, we stopped by but with no success. Yes, one hour of access was indeed free, but we needed a cell phone (which we didn’t have) to receive the text message with the log-on code. We’ve got a phone now though, so that might be an option in the future.

Eventually Mark plunked down €34 for a month of T-Mobile access. Some of the Autobahn rest-stops had hot-spots and, luckily so did the awesome Munich campground where we spent two weeks enjoying the city and catching up on our work. That wasn’t a permanent solution, but it helped for a while.

TIPS FOR WORKING ONLINE FROM THE ROAD

I’m hoping things improve down the road, but in the meantime, here are a few tips for anyone planning a long-term trip like ours.

  • Work offline as much as possible; when you are online, be efficient. Write blog posts and emails ahead of time. When doing travel research, copy the results to your laptop and read it all later. Keep a list of online tasks so that once you’re finally surfing, you don’t get distracted and forget something
  • Don’t keep everything in the cloud. Before traveling, copy all your trip research, itineraries, receipts and contact info on your laptop so you can take care of business even without a connection.
  • Budget for some wi-fi charges. It’s a fact of life.
  • When campgrounds confirm they have wi-fi, for God’s sake, find out the price. We’ve picked certain campgrounds over other nicer ones without internet only to discover the wi-fi was prohibitively expensive anyway. Damn.
  • Are you roadschooling? Make sure all of the schoolwork isn’t online based, so you have plenty of options during the offline periods.
  • Bring a Kindle 3G. You can download guidebooks on the fly and also check your email.
  • Bring actual hard-copy guidebooks. We didn’t, because we figured guidebooks were dead. But if you can’t connect to your favorite travel blogs, forums and websites, you’ll end up missing a lot of things. This happened to us in Berlin, and we had to make an emergency dash to the (totally freaking awesome) Dussmann bookstore. We bought a couple of guidebooks that have made big difference, but at €25 each (nearly $40) it would have been much cheaper to buy them at home from Amazon.
  • Gird your e-loins before entering east Germany.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 elaine June 27, 2011 at 4:41 pm

wow wow wow! I’m so surprised at the challenges you guys have had with wi-fi! that’s definitely what i thought your experience would have been. Well done on figuring it all out though. Hopefully it gets better from this point forward.

On a side note, i’m thoroughly enjoying your blog! hopefully the wi-fi connection continues so I can continue having something to read with my monday morning breakfast as I go into denial over the fact that I have to work.

miss you guys!
e

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2 Renee June 28, 2011 at 7:19 am

Yes, it’s been interesting, though we’re certainly learning how to cope. But if comments on this blog go unanswered for a few days, that would be the reason. It’s also just the luck of the draw at different campgrounds. I tell you though, when we do come across a site with free wi-fi, we stick there for a while. It’s interesting how much it affects our travel plans. No no worries. Life is still great!

Glad you’re enjoying the blog. Now that we’re settled in I’m working to get ore posts up. I’ve got about 20 in the works!

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3 Lynn June 28, 2011 at 2:28 am

It is a crazy how trying to live without internet has become sooooo painful. Great to hear your road stories. Caitlin asks about Scout, so please pass on a hello to her for us.

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4 Renee June 28, 2011 at 7:23 am

Yes! Living without internet for more than a few days is definitely a difficulty. Between the blog and doing travel research, I get pretty antsy if I’m disconnected for longer than that.

Scout says hi back! She’s starting her own travel blog, so perhaps Caitlin would like to follow along. 🙂

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5 The Ippels June 29, 2011 at 3:00 am

Really??? That’s so different than Italy, we were able to get free wi-fi everywhere we stayed, including one campground in Sienna. That’s how we booked all our train tickets and found our next hostels etc. It would’ve been be a royal pain because we were totally counting on it. Hope it gets better!

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6 Renee July 2, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Right, that’s exactly what I’m talking about! Free wi-fi at the hostels. We’re adjusting slowly to campground pricing. But we’re learning how to work with it. Just less posting and trip research than we’d like. Still thrilled to be on the road!

Our current campground is the most expensive internet yet…nearly three euro for 15 minutes.

What was the name of the Italian campground where you stayed?

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7 Europe By Camper November 3, 2011 at 8:06 pm

Wow, sounds like you’ve really struggled with Wifi. We’ve had it nearly every single day for the last 7 months (free too – unsecured / community / hotspots  / cafes) – but we wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for an external Wifi antenna. Even something simple like a 2w Alfa unit can make all the difference, our rig can pick up wifi from 18km away. I think if you had one you could discount points 1-6! We’ve never paid for Wifi and we need it most days for work.

As a backup we have a Smartphone with a data package from a UK Provider – Vodafone. This gives us 25MB/day for £10/mth – not a lot, but perfect for e-mail / blogs / news / Facebook / Twitter – in fact it is surprising what you can do with 25MB! In most countries you can pick up a ‘Pay as you Go’ data package for a month or two depending on how long you plan on being there – for example in Spain 9euro gets you 500MB & a free sim card.]

This might help? http://www.europebycamper.com/2011/04/wi-fi-access-in-europe.html

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8 Renee November 4, 2011 at 7:04 am

That’s awesome. I wish we’d known all that when we started.

You know, our situation is so different from yours. We bought the camper online and first saw it the day we moved into it, which was only a day after flying in from Canada. We didn’t have an opportunity to test it out and then look into these kind of improvements. Because we’re traveling with a child and juggling tight visa restrictions, we just didn’t have slow time to look into modifications. (Frankly I didn’t even know you could get an external wi-fi antenna!)

These days we’ve become used to the intermittent access. Though interestingly, campsites n Turkey, rustic as they are, have all had free wi-fi. It’s only in Europe that we’ve been charged or gone without.

Since we’ll probably sell the rig when we leave in April, we probably won’t start tricking it out at this point.

Thanks so much for taking the time to comment and describe how you deal with wi-fi on the road.

Cheers!
Renee

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