internet access

last updated March 2nd, 2013

One of the questions we field most often is how to stay connected on the road. Surprisingly, it really isn't that hard. Internet cafes (often called "internet points"), some campsites, most hotels, nearly every McDonalds, and the occasional coffee shop are relatively ubiquitous solutions in the first world. If you're industrious enough to embark on a bicycle tour, you will have no trouble getting online.

When we were travelling (we returned in May of 2011) I worked from the road programming and providing support for several companies running mission critical installations of my software. Below, I've compiled a rough outline of all the options we used to stay connected. I've also included detailed information about each country we've traveled through.

Cellular Broadband (GPRS/3G)

In the first world cellular broadband is widely available. As of 2010 it is very easy to get pay-as-you-go data plans in many countries. The structure of these offerings vary. We've paid $1-$5/hour for plans based on connection time and $0.05-$1/mb for plans based on the amount of data transferred.

There are also worldwide cellular broadband options available from providers like GoSim (avoid MobilityPass like the plauge). These companies partner with cellular networks all over the world, allowing you to use a single SIM card no matter where you go. The plans are pay-as-you-go and the cost varies from country to country. Expect to pay in excess of $1/mb of transfer.

For all of these options you'll need a 3G/GPRS USB modem. If you buy yours directly from a cellular company it will likely be locked to their network. This means the modem you bought from them won't work with a SIM from another provider. A google search for "unlocked usb modem" is a good place to start for a) finding one or b) unlocking one you may already have.

McDonalds

McDonalds provides free wifi at over 15,000 locations in 24 countries. In some places (Switzerland and Italy that we know of) you must request a login key which will be sent to you via SMS. In Switzerland they accepted US/UK and Swiss phone numbers. In Italy they accepted only Italian numbers. It can be a pain at first, but once you have this detail ironed out you can use the same login (in that country) for the duration of your stay. If you don't have a phone just ask a local nicely to use theirs.

Mobile Satellite Internet

Our satellite internet receiver is a BGAN Explorer 110 from Globalcom. I've written a review here.

UK

Primary Connectivity: 3 Mobile
This was easily our favorite pay-as-you-go plan on the trip: quick, easy and incredibly affordable. The pricing structure: £10 for for 1GB of transfer, £15 for 3GB and £25 for 7GB. Just walk into any 3 store, pick up a SIM for £5 and whichever "top-up" you want and you're ready to go. The only catch: top-ups expire after 30 days.

France

Primary Connectivity: SFR / McDonalds
SFR was the most expensive and inflexible pay-as-you-go provider we've dealt with. First, you must purchase their network-locked USB modem if you want to use the service. Then, they pair the SIM you purchased to the modem – one cannot be used without the other.

If you lose the SIM or your USB modem dies inexplicably like ours did, you have to make the whole purchase again (and they won't/can't transfer time you've purchased from one account to the next!). Good luck explaining the concept of a warranty to the French. SFR's service is based on time connected, not data transferred and you can expect to pay between €2-€3 per hour of access.

Orange mobile has pay-as-you-go offerings as well. Unfortunately you won't have any luck getting your hands on the contractless service without a French bank account.

UPDATE: I received an account from a fellow cycle tourist (Thanks David!) who had a little better luck with Orange. You can read it by clicking here.

Switzerland

Primary Connectivity: MobilityPass / McDonalds
We didn't investigate any pay-as-you-go offerings in Switzerland. Our MobilityPass connection worked reliably throughout the country for email and work (and then, never again). McDonalds saved the day for uploading photos!

Italy

Primary Connectivity: 3 Mobile
3 Mobile wins again for being one of the easiest cellular broadband providers to work with. Just one hitch: to buy a SIM you'll need an Italian "Codice Fiscale". The woman working at the 3 store we visited was incredibly friendly and used her own to get us going! In Italy, 3 Mobile charges by connection time at €0.90/hr. You can purchase top-ups in any of the ubiquitous Tabaccherias around the country.

Tunisia

Primary Connectivity: Satellite Internet, open wireless networks, cheap hotels & internet cafes.
Long after leaving Tunisia, we discovered there is a good data cellular provider there, Tunisiana. We asked them several times but were always told no!

Greece

Primary Connectivity: Wind

Macedonia / Serbia

Primary Connectivity: Satellite Internet, open wireless networks & not-so-cheap hotels.
Reader Dusan Sukovic reports that as of January 2013, two companies provide mobile internet without contract: Telenor and MTS.

Romania

Primary Connectivity: Vodafone

Germany

Primary Connectivity: Vodafone
Very simple setup, purchase a SIM for $5 and connect immediately. Once you try to browse, you'll be presented with a page to buy plans ranging from 24 hours to a month. Payment can be with credit card, Paypal, or existing credits if you decide to load money into the card.

Luthiania / Latvia / Estonia

Primary Connectivity: Open wireless networks, hotels.
Our stay in these countries was very brief, we didn't investigate local options. If anyone reading this has first-hand experience, please contact me and I'd be happy to add whatever you'd be willing to share.

Finland

Primary Connectivity: Saunalahti
The home of Nokia doesn't disappoint! €20 nets you unlimited access for the entire country – there are cell towers everywhere. Stop in any store to pick up a card, it couldn't be easier.

Russia

Primary Connectivity: Megafon
Coverage for a remarkably broad portion of Russia (including almost everywhere in Siberia that we visited). The pricing structure: 3 rubles per mb; pretty expensive, this roughly translates to $100 US per GB. You can top up your credit (in English) at most ATMs.

Mongolia

Primary Connectivity: MobiCom
Who knew getting connected in Mongolia would be so easy? The pricing structure: $10 for for 1GB of transfer, $20 for 3GB. Visit any MobiCom store and ask for an internet SIM. 3G connections are available in all major cities, EDGE connections in smaller ones.