Staying connected on the road – when too much wifi is scarcely enough

There’s an old travel adage which suggests that the less one pays for a meal while on the road, the better it is likely to be; that a meal bought and eaten for a dollar or two at a roadside stall is likely to have more flavour than one costing many times as much at a starred restaurant or hotel.

A similar story often holds true for wifi – the less one pays for it, the better/faster/more reliable it is likely to be. Starred hotels charge still a fortune for what hostels and cafes (and, as I observed during my travels, massage places, tattoo parlours, juice bars, travel agents and pretty much every other spot one was likely to spend more than a few moments) offer free, while you’re using whatever their primary service is. Providing wifi has become just a cost of doing business, like providing toilet facilities or water, and this seems to feed into the modern obsession with constantly checking one’s mobile device.

The historic Royal waiting room at Hua Hin Railway Station
The historic Royal waiting room at Hua Hin Railway Station

What this does for the experience of travel is debateable, as is what the same screen-fever is doing for attention spans / youth / society (insert tabloid-like headline of choice), whether at home or abroad. But there is no doubting the ease with which the connected explorer is able to stay in touch with family and friends, even at the most distant remove, at least while in well-populated and touristed areas. The internet café, that constant of travel just a few years ago, has entirely vanished, another victim of the mobile revolution.

A key selection criterion for the budget hotels I selected was provision of free (included in the tariff) wifi, and most obliged. The only one that didn’t was the most upmarket place I stayed, a faded four-star establishment in Bangkok, which fooled me somewhat by ‘gaming’ the criteria in the app, indicating that wifi was ‘available’ – at a price, as it turned out. It’s also worth checking that wifi is available in the rooms, and not just in the foyer – another subtlety I noticed a few times.

The wifi in some establishments turned out to be a bit flakey or occasionally dropped out entirely. On these occasions, a quick visit or call to reception generally resulted in the router being restarted and wifi returning. In one budget Thai property, where the router was located up a wall adjacent to my room, but out of reach of most of the staff, I was given carte blanche to climb up on a chair and reboot it myself as necessary (about once a day), an advantage of being 188cms tall.

With wifi in my hotel, I could do all my forward bookings, planning, uploading of photos, keeping in touch, social media posts, skype calls and anything else I needed to do in the comfort of my room, without needing to be too reliant on the offerings available on the streets.

And the streets of Singapore were ones with which I was familiar. In Malaysia, I knew Malacca and George Town; they are not big towns and it’s hard to get very lost, so I didn’t even consider acquiring a local SIM card for mobile data.

A reclining buddha at Wat Suwan Khuha in Phang Nga. I know that because I tagged the location in Google Maps.
A reclining buddha at Wat Suwan Khuha in Phang Nga. I know that because I tagged the location in Google Maps.

On arrival at Krabi International Airport, a stall in the arrivals hall offered SIM cards for visitors with a month of unlimited data and 4G access where available, for 350 baht (about AUD$14). Given that I would be in Thailand for 3 weeks, it seemed churlish not to take up the offer. Not only did the young lady at the stall sell it to me, she installed and activated it as well; when she handed my phone back to me it was online and ready to go – no dialling strange numbers or entering PIN codes required, let alone translation of the Thai instructions on the package. Within an hour of arriving in Thailand, I was checking my email while sitting on the beach. I’m sure my Facebook and Instagram feeds probably took on something of a real-time flavour, at least until the novelty wore off.

The feature that did cause me to appreciate my mobile data – it alone was worth the 350baht – was being able to access maps. Bangkok is a huge and disorienting city, and my one previous visit had only left me with the vaguest impression of how to get about. With maps on my phone, I was able to check – and on more than one occasion, correct – my direction of travel and get to where I wanted to go.

A further benefit was being able to tag places visited for later reference. It’s hard, especially on a tour, to know exactly where one has been, but with Google maps I was able to mark locations visited and reference them later. I later collated these, creating a map of every significant place I visited on the trip, and of course, I’m happy to share it with you. You’re welcome:)

At first, you’ll see the big picture of my trip; zoom in and you’ll see detailed locations of specific places I visited – restaurants, markets, temples, hotels. If you zoom in around Chiang Mai, you’ll see that I was even able to pinpoint the location of the Baan Mai kampong homestay, a favourite experience of the trip (see my other blog for a report on that), but one which I would have been able to locate by other means, as it was a disorienting 45 minute drive in the back of a siong thiew to get there.

Silk spinning demonstration at Jim Thompson's House, Bangkok. Although I'd been here before, the streetscape has changed and the museum is located a long way down an unpreposessing alley. I found it again with the help of Google Maps on my smartphone.
Silk spinning demonstration at Jim Thompson’s House, Bangkok. Although I’d been here before, the streetscape has changed and the museum is located a long way down an unpreposessing alley. I found it again with the help of Google Maps on my smartphone.

Another old travel adage suggests that one should never look at a map while walking the streets of a foreign city as it will mark one as a clueless tourist. Unlike my previous visit, when I would have had my nose pressed into a chunky guidebook trying to find my way around, having my gaze glued to my phone made me look just like everyone else.

How do you stay connected while travelling? Do you need to be connected every minute of every day, or do you grab free wifi when and as available? Please leave your thoughts and comments, I’d love to hear from you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s