Wi-Fi on the Ground
These days, most travelers usually don't have to hunt around for an Internet café to get online: Many hotels now offer either broadband ethernet or (more typically) Wi-Fi service. But while some places provide it for free in order to attract customers, many others charge a fee.
Another complication: If your roommate wants to go online, too, you might get hit up with separate fees for each laptop or device. Such costs can mount rapidly, so it's a good idea to check on a hotel's policy before you make reservations there.
If you frequently travel within the United States, even if you rarely go outside your own city, you might want to sign up for some type of cellular data modem and plan. Unfortunately, data-only service isn't cheap: It runs about $60 a month (with a 5GB cap). But if you need to access the Web several days a week, the service can be cheaper than paying as you go for Wi-Fi, and you don't have to worry about finding a Wi-Fi hotspot.
In the past, these products and services catered primarily to business users; but their appeal to people who travel less frequently is growing, and carriers have begun introducing pay-as-you-go plans. Verizon Wireless, in particular, has rolled out options to buy service by the week, the month, or even the day.
Prepaid options come with significant bandwidth caps. For example, you may be able to buy a day pass for $15, but the maximum amount of bandwidth you can use may be 75MB. Check what your data usage patterns look like before investing in a modem.
Pay-as-you-go usage is a great way to ensure access overseas without depending on finding hotspots. During a recent trip to Germany, I bought a Vodaphone USB modem for $21, which also supplied me with 3 hours of Web access. I was able to use it in France as well, for about $14 a day--not cheap, but I was in a home that didn't have Internet access, and I was happy to pay the fee.
Wi-Fi Networks in the Air
If you frequently travel with a spouse, colleague, or partner who needs to be online as much as you do, consider investing in a mobile broadband router such as the Novatel Wireless MiFi 2200 (available from Sprint and Verizon Wireless) or Sprint's newer Overdrive 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot by Sierra Wireless; the latter supports 4G speeds in areas where Sprint's WiMax network is up and running.
These routers permit up to five people with Wi-Fi-enabled devices to share a single wireless broadband account, and that arrangement can be a lot less expensive than paying for separate accounts for each individual user.
Several third parties make small travel routers that create Wi-Fi hotspots powered by wireless broadband modems from multiple wireless carriers. The CradlePoint PHS300, for example, costs about $180 and works with just about anyone's USB broadband modem.
It's more expensive than a MiFi, and you have to pay for a carrier's modem and data plan, but for individuals or offices that don't want to be tied to a single carrier for wireless broadband services, it offers valuable versatility. It's also one of the first Wi-Fi travel routers I've seen that supports the latest and fastest flavor of Wi-Fi, 802.11n.
Other Wi-Fi travel routers simply let you share wired broadband access, typically in a hotel. Again, this is useful if more than one person wants to be online simultaneously, or if you want to be free to wander around your room without being tethered to an ethernet cable.
Several companies offer these, but the TrendNet TEW-654TR ($70 as of mid-April 2010) is one of few I've seen that supports 802.11n (Belkin, D-Link, and Linksys have older products that support only 802.11g).
Phones and Travel
Traveling with a cell phone is a no-brainer as long as you stay in the United States: Most carriers' contracts include provisions for roaming that allow you to use your phone pretty much anywhere in the country. The fun starts when you travel overseas.
If your carrier's network supports GSM/GPRS technology (AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile are the two major companies that do so in the United States), you may be in luck: Outside the United States, GSM/GPRS is the dominant cell phone network technology.
You must decide, however, whether you want to pay steep international voice and data roaming fees so that you can make and receive calls at your usual cell phone number--or whether you're willing to save a ton of money by removing your phone's SIM card and popping in a local, pay-as-you-go replacement (recognizing that you won't be able to receive calls to your usual number).
To switch SIM cards, you (or your carrier) must unlock your phone, which simply means adjusting the phone's software so that it will accept and read a new card. Carrier policies on unlocking phones varies; much depends on how long you've been a customer.
In some cases, unlocking is illegal. For example, AT&T and Apple's agreement bars AT&T from unlocking an iPhone. (Hackers have found workarounds, but we don't recommend violating agreements.)
Sprint and Verizon Wireless operate on CDMA networks in the United States, but both offer global phones that support GSM networks overseas. Typically, however, you can't unlock these phones; instaed, you must use the carriers' international roaming plans.
If you can't unlock your phone, you can buy or rent a phone overseas, which still may be less expensive than using international roaming--especially for data. Carriers will sell you services that bring the costs down a little bit.
For example, AT&T sells overseas data plans that cost less than its per-megabyte fee for data if you don't buy a plan--but the plans still run as much as $193 for 200MB of data (on top of your usual data-plan fees). Extra charges apply for text messages and voice calls made overseas, too.
Bottom line: As convenient as it is to be able to make and receive calls from your own phone number wherever you are, if it's not a necessary business expense, you should seriously consider using an overseas carrier when you're abroad, either by obtaining a SIM card to put into your unlocked phone or by using a different phone. This is one instance where technology doesn't necessarily travel well.