Thursday, June 28, 2012

International Travel: Pay for Plan or Free WiFi?

While travelling in Europe recently with my shiny new iPhone 4S and its GSM capabilities, I was faced with the choice of relying on WiFi connections as I could find them, or adding my carrier’s international plan for voice and/or data.  Now that WiFi hotspots are widely available, and usually free, it seems like an obvious choice instead of paying (sometimes a lot) for international service.

Through WiFi, I would still be able to check emails, surf the web, and even communicate with people back home through Skype or FaceTime (plus all my cool new apps).  All the hotels I booked offered free WiFi, and it was safe to assume I’d easily be able to find other hotspots while out and about in the cities I was visiting.  I could also have solved some potential issues by taking along the highly portable
Pepwave Surf Mini.  As a wireless bridge, it would allow me to connect to distant hotspots and surf more securely by creating a private network rather than using the open or unsecured connections offered by the hotels and cafes.

So why did I choose to pay for the international voice plan anyway?  Given my travel needs, it was a peace of mind issue.  The trip was for a meeting that required some last minute coordination.  There was also a potential medical situation back home that I wanted to be reachable for in case of an emergency.  Yes, I could rely on WiFi fairly easily, but I also wanted to enjoy my travels without constantly thinking about the next hotspot to check what I may have missed.

The small fee to temporarily add the plan, and the per-message and per-call rates were entirely worth that peace of mind.  I let people know I would be checking email a few times a day, but not to call or text unless it was an emergency (though I did offer to let them pay my bill if they just couldn’t resist!).  I was able to call home for Father’s Day while enjoying a gorgeous view out on the town.  The calls were amazingly clear with very little latency, and I had great coverage everywhere I went.  I was also able to receive the text that my friend’s long-awaited baby had finally arrived!


Yes, I could have accomplished it all (for free) via WiFi and apps, but knowing I wasn’t tied to finding hotspots allowed me to focus on the next big adventure instead of what I might be missing while between connections.  The unexpected bonus of having voice-only coverage and relying on WiFi for data is that I had time to think about what would make the biggest impact on just how cool my adventure was for my daily updates!