One of the most difficult parts of being a digital nomad is the constant need for an internet connection, especially in places where wifi isn’t common.
An hour or two Googling at home, reading the first chapter in a few library guide books and calling up some old travel friends for tips can provide a wealth of general information. Knowing what you’re getting into will help make good decisions on the road. Online forums -- like Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree -- is a good place to start.
Use guide books: Thankfully guide book publishers have realized that internet connections (more specifically -- wireless internet) is a critical factor in determining where to sleep, eat, or hang out. New Lonely Planet books use icons next to listings, Rough Guides mentions internet access throughout their location descriptions. And other books are starting to follow suit.
Know the chains that offer free internet: Specific locations always offer free wifi. Usually it’s consistent throughout the country. For example, every McDonald’s in Australia currently has free wifi. Who knew?
Look for cities with free wifi: Especially in the States, more and more cities are providing a free wifi networks downtown. Try forums for the most up-to-date information. Check wifi signals as you move around to see what is available.
The Usual Suspects
Here’s the quick run down of usual places you can get connected. Most of this is subject to the country or region you are in, but if you’ve done your research you should know what to look for.
Cafe’s / Coffee Shops / Restaurants: By far the most popular choice. In western countries wifi is practically a requirement if you’re selling coffee (although not in EVERY country). Thankfully wifi is spreading to the rest of the world very quickly.
Hostels / Hotel Lobbies: Most hotels have business centers and most hostels have at least one computer to check email on. Although it’s not very polite to use it if you aren’t actually staying at the hotel, it doesn’t hurt to ask.
Libraries: It depends on the town and their policies, but most public libraries in the US have internet terminals and with a little advance notice you can usually use one for an hour or so.
Tourist Information Centers: Although not usually free, most tourist info centers have a kiosk available. If not, they can point you to the closest internet cafe.
Wifi Search Engines
It is ironic that without internet access it becomes more difficult to find internet access. However, if you’re looking in advance here’s a few sites to try. Keep in mind that it’s easier to find sites specific to a region or a country. The tools below attempt to be worldwide, but are far from comprehensive, and listings go out of date quickly.
Wefi: Thankfully has a downloadable version, so you do NOT actually need wifi to use it. There is also an app for Symbian, Android and Windows Mobile Phone 7. This service uses data provided by users around the world. www.wefi.com
JiWire: They also have an iPhone and Android phone app. Upon quick review it seemed there were tons of listings for the US, Canada and Europe, but the rest of the world was pretty thin. www.jiwire.com
Wifi Free Spot: Everything on this list is free. But again, the list outside the US and Europe isn’t very long. www.wififreespot.com
Sometimes there isn’t an easy or cheap way to get connected. When you need internet, no matter what the cost, try these options.
Boingo and other subscription services: Unfortunately reviews haven’t spoken highly of these services. Some locations are “premium” so even if you have a subscription, you still have to pay by the minute. Look into the options at your destination before buying a subscription service.
Take a mobile device: If you rely on internet to be there exactly when you need it, take a phone, a wireless card or dongle as a back up. If you need a quick connection to send an important email, cancel a meeting, it can help you out. If you spend hours online working on a big project, it’s probably not reliable or cost effective.
Take a Satellite device: I could write a book about satellite devices. In short, if you’re going to the middle of nowhere (the arctic circles, center of the Amazon, crossing the Sahara) and you feel the need to have a connection, satellite is your only option. There are three or four competing companies that service various parts of the world, Global Star and Iridium are two big ones. It is very expensive. $1500 for the device and between $2-$15 per MB (yes, per megabyte). Thankfully prices are falling, but cell phone networks are improving at an even faster rate.