WiFi – A constant battle we never really won!
Wifi connections have become an integral part of daily life. When travelling abroad, WiFi offers vital access to those left behind. It keeps us abreast of news and developments and helps us to map resources and plan our next stopovers. On rainy days it brings entertainment through movies, books, and social media.
During our tour of Europe, we had a constant battle with WiFi services. Our experiences varied, from great reception (that was free) to poor reception (that was costly). No reception and slow reception were also thrown in for good measure.
The Reality of WiFi in Europe
Wifi in Europe is a mixed bag. When it is good it is very good, but when it is bad it is awful. Below I’ll explain what this looks like in reality:
Free WiFi is like gold dust. It is something we take for granted at home. When you are travelling it feels like a lifeline. Here are some ways to access Free WiFi Services in Europe;
MacDonalds is a great source of free Wifi across Europe. Practically every MacDonalds’ restaurant offers it. It is free to access as long as you navigate past their sign-in page, and on most occasions, it can be accessed in the car park, without even entering the store.
Some of the larger superstores and malls across France provided customer Wifi. Restaurants and bars are also willing to offer free WiFi in return for a purchased meal/drink pretty much all over Europe. But if you want great Wifi, locate a posh hotel and pop in for an espresso. Most hotels offer high-speed WiFi.
Spain and Italy had free zones in popular parts of the major cities, such as plaza’s, piazza’s and parks. They generally work well, but some only tempt you with 15 minutes free before charging.
Most Office de Tourism in all major countries provided a free WiFi service either in their foyer or at a designated zone. Initially, you might feel the need to pick up a brochure or ask a question about local amenities, but gradually you’ll become more brazen in your approach!
On some occasions, especially in France and Portugal, Wifi was free on campsites. We generally found that it was the smaller, more intimate family-run sites that offered a free service. The national chains almost always charge.
But even when charges are made, before parting with your well-earned dosh, ask if there is a free ‘Wifi Zone’. Most well-managed campsites usually offer at least one free wifi spot somewhere, either at a bar or reception room. These zones are fairly easy to locate and can be identified by numerous motorhomers pacing around with their arms extended upwards, twisting left and right, in the universally recognised Wifi dance.
Be prepared to become proficient at signing-in. It becomes laborious after your 30th campsite. Some require pitch numbers and passwords. Others require your inside leg measurement! You will accumulate hundreds of little cards with scribbled access codes if you don’t discard them after they expire.
Signal strength varies with free Wifi. Most free services are sufficient to update social media feeds, download or upload photos and occasionally a Skype call home.
In Spain and Italy, the majority of campsites charged for WiFi. We also found the charges to be quite high and in some cases, extortionate. On one or two occasions we paid for Wifi, only to discover that the service was diabolical. If this happens, visit reception and complain politely. They will either sort it out, offer a refund or shrug their shoulders.
Another frustrating anomaly is that many campsites and aires now realise that Wifi is a money spinner. So when you pay and are presented with an access code, double check that it is open access for everyone in your van. More often than not, the code only enables one device to be connected at a time. Some won’t even allow you to swap. This scenario is rather irritating as you either have to purchase more codes or take in turns. Believe me, ‘taking in turns’ is a recipe for disaster when you have kids!
If, however, your code offers open access and you decide to leave the campsite early, why not pass your code to a neighbour before leaving? They will appreciate it. We received 15 days of free Wifi in Benicassim thanks to generous neighbours!
The cost of paid Wifi varies from 3 euros an hour to 8 euros a day; or 18 euros a week to 30 euros a month. Generally, your internet package will be dictated by the length of your stay.
To combat these costs, we opted to become Euro Travellers before leaving the UK. As Vodafone customers, we registered for a ‘Euro Traveller’ bundle which charged £3 per day for using data, regardless of how much we used. It was often cheaper to activate our own data than it was to purchase a day ticket from a campsite.
Between us, our Euro Traveller package offered about 10Gb of data, which we used by setting up mobile hotspots and tethering devices. Tethering multiple devices enables more than one person to operate off of one WiFi hotspot.
Overcoming Wifi withdrawal symptoms
Before we left the UK on our 12-month trip, we researched the 3 main ways of staying connected. As a consultant, it was important to maintain regular contact with the UK for business purposes. We considered adding upgrades to our motorhome, such as a WiFi booster, MiFi (Mobile Internet) and satellite internet;
As aforementioned, you can obtain Wifi abroad either freely or via a paid connection. However, the signal strength can vary, as can cost, depending on the system in place, your distance from the signal booster and natural obstacles such as trees and buildings. Generally, your Wifi experience on a campsite or aire can be a frustrating one.
We discovered that the iBoost system for motorhome Wifi, could boost and strengthen the Wifi signal you receive, resulting in improved connection speed and greater flexibility in terms of the number of devices connected.
Unfortunately, this system is unable to overcome some issues, such as oversubscription of WiFi (during peak times) or residual blockages between you and the server, such as a weak WiFi point or distance from the signal booster to your pitch.
MiFi (Mobile Internet)
This option works just like your mobile phone, taking a mobile internet connection and turning it into a private network inside your van. Obviously, the downside to this is the mobile data charges that are incurred with usage.
Our ‘Euro Traveller’ Vodaphone package limited our costs to £3 per day, which was cheaper than most of the paid for services on campsites and aires, however, it was £3 per day in addition to our normal standard tariff.
In Spain, Media Markt offered a PAYG sim, which provided 2Gb of data for 6 euros a month. With an unlocked MiFi device, this was a great option, not just throughout Spain, but across Europe, as Media Markt is the largest European electronics retailer.
With the MiFi system, we could swap our sim cards around to gain maximum use of our data. The MiFi system allows up to 10 devices to connect simultaneously and can be used whilst moving, giving it some clear advantages over the static Wifi system.
In our opinion, Huawei makes the best MiFi devices, with excellent reliability and usability due to its smartphone, android and tablet app, ‘Huawei HiLink’.
This is the Roll Royce of internet solutions and as such comes with a heavy price tag. If you’re the type of person where the lack of a good internet connection is imperative to earning a living or will send you into a deep spiral of depression, then be prepared to spend £3,500, including professional fitting for one of these systems.
Ongoing costs are likely to be in the region of £60 per month for a twelve-month contract and will normally secure you about 10Gb of data per month.
However, the upshot of this investment is that you will always have a very stable WiFi connection, which will enable you to watch TV through on-demand services like Netflix and iPlayer.
Oyster internet and satellite TV system is one of the most popular systems available.
During our travels, we used a mixture of our own mobile data and the WiFi connections available on campsites and aires.
We spent £289 on paid for Wifi connections over 12 months.
The table below sets out the ANNUAL costs involved with each of the options above, compared to our own arrangements.
*The above table assumes a full year of Wifi coverage for comparison to be fair between satellite internet and the other option. In reality, we had at least 80 days on our travels where we went without internet; which reduced our costs significantly, as did the free Wifi we accessed on 30% of the campsites and aires. Our true costs for the year was £1,215.
** The Mifi costs for the year do not include your own mobile phone contract charges which would need to be included for comparison with the Cotter Family. If we assumed 2 mobiles at a cost of £50 per month, the comparative cost would be £1,025.99 or £1,095.98.
The MiFi option, coupled with the use of local pay-as-you-go mobile data packages, is the cheapest option for 12 months full coverage of internet connection. However, there is no opportunity to reduce your overall costs by taking advantage of free internet services available at numerous campsites, aires, public spaces and commercial businesses.
That said, cost, is subjective. If you cannot live without 100% Internet access and high-speed WiFi connection, you may consider £4,220 to be a reasonable investment for reliable satellite data!