November 23, 2012, 10:26 PM — Weird cranberry sauce recipes, rambling stories from drunken uncles, and crowded freeways aren't the only perils of traveling away from home for the Thanksgiving holiday. Finding a working Wi-Fi connection can be a pain even in these widely web-enabled times, and that holds true even if you're walking around a major metropolitan area.
Indeed, you can't even be sure your relatives will have a wireless router.
So what's a poor, laptop-lugging traveler to do? Fear not: You dont have to wander the streets searching for a signal like a nomad seeking the next oasis in a desert. In this story, we'll cover everything you need to know about jumping online while traveling, whether that means paying a cellular provider for a Wi-Fi connection in your pocket, or searching for that next Wi-Fi hotspot on the road.
Tethering your smartphone
For most travelers, simply tethering your PC to your smartphone is the most economical and straightforward option for staying connected on the road. "Tethering" means broadcasting your phone's cellular data signal (3G, 4G, whatever) as a Wi-Fi signal, letting other electronics (like your laptop or tablet) siphon off your data connection. If your phone supports tethering, you basically have a Wi-Fi router in your pocket.
Many cellular providers charge extra for tethering, but if youre a Verizon Wireless customer, youre in luck. Thanks to a recent FTC ruling, Verizon Wireless cant charge extra for third-party tethering app usage anymore, though the company still charges $20 per month to use your phone's native tethering capabilities. Other providers charge similar $20 to $30 premiums for this feature, or bundle it with more expensive plans. The shared data plans offered by AT&T and Verizon, for example, include hotspot functionality for phones.
Both the iPhone and Android phones have tethering options built-in, as long as your carrier allows you to use tethering. To enable this feature on an iPhone, go to the Personal Hotspot screen (Settings > General > Cellular Data > Personal Hotspot). On an Android phone, you'll find a similar feature in the Portable Wi-Fi hotspot screen (Settings > Wireless and network > Tethering and portable hotspot).
Third-party tethering options require downloading a separate app. FoxFi and PdaNet are two popular Android tethering programs. Third-party tethering apps are available for the iPhone, but they will require a jailbroken phone.
Once you're up and broadcasting, tethering your PC or tablet to your phone is usually as simple as looking for the new Wi-Fi signal. Our iPhone and Android tethering guides cover connecting to your smartphone in much greater detail.
Connecting to a mobile hotspot or USB modem
Mobile hotspots or "MiFi" devices work the same as a tethered phone, tapping into a nationwide 3G/4G network to create a workable Wi-Fi signal for auxiliary devices like PCs and tablets. Pricing usually starts at $50 a month for data service, though you can find discounts if you sign up for a subsidized data plan when you buy your hotspot. (You'll obviously need a carrier data planeither subsidized or prepaidto use a mobile hotspot.)
A dedicated mobile hotspot is a solid option if your smartphone doesn't allow tethering or burns through battery charges. Mobile hotspots also work well if you want to connect to a different cellular network on the roadfor example, grandma's house may be a dead zone for your particular smartphoneor you simply need more robust signal-sharing options. Most mobile hotspots offer the ability to configure secure networks and allow you to connect multiple devices so that you can hop online with several laptops, tablets, and smartphones at once. The best can handle 10 simultaneous connections and last hours and hours on a charge.
A USB modem, meanwhile, plugs into a USB drive on your computer and provides a cellular data connection for just the single PC to which it's connected. A USB modem is a good option if you only need to provide data to a single laptop, and don't want to burn through your phone's battery by tethering to it. They start around $100.
Because tethering devices tap into a cellular data connection, they're generally subject to data caps and overage fees, just as a normal smartphone would be. Consider this carefully: All the data used by your tethered devices will count toward your monthly cellular data total.
Providers generally sell mobile data by the gigabyte, and mobile data costs a lot more than its landline counterparts. Even if you can find unlimited data, youll often find that your provider will throttle your connection speed after a few gigabytes.
If you think you're going to use more data as a result of your wanderings, call your carrier and see if you can pay for additional data for a brief duration. For example, Verizon lets its "Share Everything" subscribers add an additional 2GB of data to their plans for $10 per monthbut only if they log into the Verizon Wireless website and pony up before hitting their cap. Otherwise, data overage fees for the plan cost $15 per 1GB.
If youre traveling outside the country, bear in mind that youll probably pay roaming fees, which can be exorbitantly expensive if you're not prepared. In the past, people have been shocked to return from a foreign country to find a bill for roaming fees costing tens of thousands of dollars. Many major carriers offer international data plans, so check with yours ahead of time about possible fees and roaming plans for your destination.
You likely wont be using a cellular tethering option to stream high-definition videos on Netflix or download large files, but its a great way to have access to your email and important websites anywhere you have cellular reception. Speaking of cellular reception, note that while it's widespread, it isn't universal, and speeds can vary greatlyespecially in foreign countries and rural areas.
Our own Tony Bradley recently took a road trip and found that you can't rely completely on mobile broadband options. Fortunately, booming Wi-Fi availability means you might not need to lean on cellular tethering at all.