As National Geographic’s Digital Nomad, it’s my job to be connected—all the time. While on assignment, I have tweeted from all seven continents, from the middle of the ocean, from the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, and from the of inside King Tut’s Tomb. How do I do it? It’s not always easy, but after a few years and a hundred odd countries, this is what I’ve learned:

Wi-Fi

  • Hotels: Before checking into any hotel room, I always open my phone or laptop settings and see if I can pick up a strong signal. If I foresee problems, I request a room with or next to a router. Though they are beautiful, old and elaborate European buildings made from stone are often the very worst for Wi-Fi connectivity. I have been known to check out of a hotel because the Wi-Fi is too slow or non-existent.
  • Airports: I believe in free Wi-Fi and hope that someday it will become the norm. Already in the United States and Europe, several major airports offer free Wi-Fi, though the quality of connection ranges from ok to exceptionally bad. That is why I have an account with Boingo, which I use in every airport I travel through. It’s always reliable and strong. When all else fails (often in farflung foreign airports), I find the business class lounge with the strongest connection, bum the password off someone, and then camp outside the doorway, blogging away.
  • Airplanes: More and more airlines are offering in-flight Wi-Fi, which is a trend I am highly in favor of. Unfortunately, having a present signal in the cabin does not equal high functionality. In my experience, I might be able to send out a few tweets and have a very stilted in-flight Facebook conversation, but forget trying to send or receive large images.
  • Cafés: Gone are the days of “internet cafés” per se—Now we just expect all cafés to have internet and lots of it. When I need to upload blog posts, images, or video, I will camp out at a (quiet) café and let the strong Wi-Fi pour right over me. But like hotels, I will open my laptop, log on to the network and try out their upload speed before placing my order.
  • Ask & Receive: The success of my job depends on being able to gain access to private Wi-Fi networks in restaurants, bars, offices, gas stations, and even peoples’ homes. “Please” works wonders.
  • These things change all the time, but for the record, these are a few countries where I’ve had good Wi-Fi experiences: Mexico, Russia, Iceland, Argentina, UK, Switzerland, Peru, South Africa, India. And Countries where I’ve had poor Wi-Fi Experiences: Australia, Germany, Tanzania, Tahiti, Ecuador, China, Senegal, Zimbabwe.

Mobile & Cellular

  • Tweeting from the ruins of Palenque in southern Mexico (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

    Tweeting from the ruins of Palenque in southern Mexico (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

    Up High & Down Low: Freestanding cell phone towers range in height from about 50 feet all the way up to 600—something to consider when you are testing the limits of connectivity. In spite of current FAA regulations, it is possible to transmit cellular message from an airplane, which I often do. I tend to lose service at around 1,500 feet above the ground, though you can pick up signals at much higher altitudes. If I am deep within a coalmine (or in a basement, or under a pyramid), I align my phone with a shaft of natural light, indicating a channel to the surface. Normally, if you hold your phone at the right angle, you can pick up a signal from above and tweet away. Some subway systems have access points in the tunnels, and nearly all will have service in the stations.

  • Dead Zones: Thank goodness some parts of the world are still untouched by communications technology, right? When I find myself off the grid, I enjoy it, but when I really need to connect, I simply hike to the closest road or up the nearest hill. Going “up” is good. In emergencies, I have climbed trees or gotten up on the roof and been able to transmit.
  • Service Providers: I do not advocate one cellular network over another. For example, even though I use AT&T, I find that Verizon works much better in remote parts of the United States and Canada—for me, I use whatever works best in the most places, which changes month by month.
  • International: When I’m outside of the United States, I activate my AT&T international roaming plan. Presently, the maximum data package they offer is 800 MB for $120, which is a lot of data, but not enough for conspicuous consumption. To conserve data, I switch off any apps and functions that I am not using (especially email or Facebook). Apps like Tumblr and Instagram can suck up huge amounts of your data. Often, when traveling internationally, I only use 3G to transmit to Twitter, and I reduce images to the minimal size.
  • Local Networks: I travel with a few unlocked backup last generation iPhones which I use with local chips in countries that are not covered by my international roaming plan (like South Africa of Zimbabwe). This is a much cheaper option and lets you pay as you go. (Surprising yet true, some less-developed countries often have much more comprehensive cellular networks than North America and Europe.)
  • Accessing Internet with 3G: In Africa and India, I often use cellular USB dongles that plug into my laptop and let me to use the internet via the local 3G network. These are miracle-workers that get me online in the remotest of places. How did I blog from the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro (At 19,300 ft)? With an AirTel dongle connecting through a faraway cell tower in neighboring Kenya.
  • Mobile Wi-Fi hotspots are terrific and growing in capacity. These are especially useful if you’re traveling in a car or changing camp from night to night.

Satellite

  • Satellite technology is rapidly advancing to the point of being very accessible to everyday users. The downside of data transmission by satellite is that a split-second disconnection may cause you to lose everything and have to start over again. On occasion I have uploaded a video by satellite only after 3 or 4 attempts at 6 hours apiece.
  • Getting a Strong Signal: Lean which satellites you’re most likely to connect with. Equatorial satellites are tricky when you are traveling in the polar regions because you are connecting at a very sharp angle. If you’re behind any mountains (even if you can’t see them), it can block your signal. Flat, open spaces are best for satellites, which is why I love deserts and prairies. Weather is also critical—the clearer the better.
  • Portable Systems: If I am traveling to extremely remote places (Australian Outback, Sahara Desert, Siberia), I might take a portable satellite system with me. These are most effective in good weather and can transmit at speeds up to 500 kb/s, although I remember one time it took me 4 hours to upload a single image from a sailboat over the Great Barrier Reef.
  • Satellite Phones: Every few months (it seems), a smaller, stronger, and more affordable satellite phone is released onto the market. These are great for emergency voice calls, and still improving when it comes to data functionality. For conventional satellite phones, I set up Twitter’s “text-to-tweet” function which allows me to send text messages from the sat phone that automatically publish as text-only tweets on Twitter.
  • Access Points: To use Twitter at full capacity, I use satellite phone access points (like this one by Iridium) which creates a Wi-Fi hotspot from which I can tweet and upload photos (and sometimes blog) from my iPhone. This is not as easy as it might sound and I have found it to be a complex process. It can also become rather expensive when you start counting the minutes it takes.
  • On Ships: Shipboard Satellite Internet comes with a fixed bandwidth, which means that it is limited. Whenever I upload videos or images from aboard the National Geographic Explorer, I wait until well-past midnight when all other passengers are asleep. Having maximum bandwidth to myself is imperative when sending anything over a few megabytes. Some of my one or two minute YouTube videos can take an entire night to upload when I’m out at sea.

There Is Always A Way

  • Above all, never give up hope. I have spent up to 4 hours trying to send a single tweet from the field—and finally made it. When a tweet doesn’t go through, I keep sending it, over and over, until it does. Sometimes Twitter posts the tweet but doesn’t show you (which explains my repeat tweets).
  • Be persistent and innovative. When it comes to connectivity, never accept the status quo. Whenever someone tells me “there really is no signal out here”, I take it as a challenge to find a way to transmit—and I always do. At the same time, never let the ongoing search for a signal compete with enjoying the place where you’re traveling. Telling the story is always secondary to living the story.
Blogging by satellite in Mahale National Park, Tanzania (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Blogging by satellite in Mahale National Park, Tanzania (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Comments

  1. Lisa @MsBoice
    Today, in St. Paul, MN
    August 16, 2013, 11:41 am

    Love this, Andrew! Not having WiFi gets me grumpy so fast when I’m traveling. Just last Spring when I was in the Amazon at a world-famous lodge in Ecuador I asked for the password to the WiFi and the guide looked at me and said, “You’re in the Amazon. There is no WiFi here.” So word to the wise: Don’t confuse “Internet available” with “WiFi” available on a lodge’s website. Their Internet was a shared computer that they only unlocked the door to betwee 3pm and 5pm. Rats! (And just for the record, I did get great WiFi in the jungles of Belize and Panama, so I don’t buy the “you’re in the jungle so you can’t get WiFi” argument. I’m sure that lodge in the Amazon will one day get it. And my comment card emphasized the need for them to get it. (What better way to advertise for them, no?) Thanks again for this post. I’m totally bookmarking this. Love the suggestion to take a last-gen iPhone out of country with me. Safe travels!

    • Andrew Evans
      August 17, 2013, 5:57 am

      Thanks Lisa! I can totally relate. Ecuador is a tough one, and so often, throughout the world, people confuse my wanting Wi-Fi with me wanting to check my email. I don’t need to check email, I need to post photographs! Big pictures! Anyway, I’m sure that someday we’ll look back at this era and laugh because the world will be wired completely with Wi-Fi and every other ounce of connectivity. Safe travels to you and may you always find the bird you’re looking for! AE

  2. Kirsten Alana
    NYC
    August 16, 2013, 2:47 pm

    Really the most important point: “At the same time, never let the ongoing search for a signal compete with enjoying the place where you’re traveling. Telling the story is always secondary to living the story.”

    Thanks for all the tips though. Some here I really didn’t know and will absolutely come in handy in the future.

    • Andrew Evans
      August 17, 2013, 5:53 am

      Thanks Kirsten. I think it’s very easy to forget and get sucked into our digital sharing, so it’s good to catch ourselves periodically and make sure we’re not missing the world around us. Thanks for reading (and retweeting!) and happy travels to you! AE

  3. Jonny Blair
    August 16, 2013, 8:06 pm

    Nice post with some good tips but did you forget about scheduling stuff in advance though? Its what myself and a lot of bloggers do. Saves having to bother using internet when youre off exploring!

    • Andrew Evans
      August 17, 2013, 5:26 am

      Thanks for your comment Jonny, but I personally tweet in real time & always from the actual location. Using Hootsuite & Social Flow are fine for sharing links, but when sharing my experiences from the road, I like to use the present tense.

  4. Sam W.
    Canada
    August 17, 2013, 7:53 am

    Love – LOVE this article. I’ve found myself turning to many of the same techniques, although not from destinations quite so exotic or remote.

    Are there any utilities/apps you favor in particular for finding good wifi signals?

    Lastly, if you haven’t yet heard of it, keep an eye on Google’s “Project Loon”, might open up new possibilities for connectivity in the future!

  5. travelwithkevinandruth.com
    Saskatchewan, Canada
    August 17, 2013, 9:49 am

    Unfortunately, mobile satellite internet isn’t economically realistic for most people, nor is international roaming by cell phone.

    We once did a facebook post from the top of the Teotihuacan pyramid outside Mexico City!

  6. Jennifer James
    August 17, 2013, 2:54 pm

    This is one of the best pieces I have read all year! Bookmarked! Like you, I will go to all lengths to get wifi or Net service. My challenge is to stay positive when things look bleak and I cannot connect. I like the idea of bumming a password off the business class lounge.

  7. Karlene
    Virginia
    August 18, 2013, 2:13 pm

    My curiosity got the better of me when a colleague from Nicaragua retweeted about this post. I had 10 minutes to kill before leaving for an appointment, so I clicked … and 15 minutes later was rushing out the door. This was the first time I have read any of your work, but it will not be the last. Not because of the creative extremes you’ve undertaken to remain wired, but because of your closing comments: “… never let the ongoing search for a signal compete with enjoying the place where you’re traveling. Telling the story is always secondary to living the story.” I clicked to see your other blog post topics, and with only a quick skim of the topics and photos, joined your 28,849 followers. Looking forward to your next post, whenever it is and wherever you are. Happy trails!

  8. Andi
    Soon to be Fiji
    August 21, 2013, 2:08 am

    This piece has inspired me to figure out how to get cell service while I am abroad volunteering for the Peace Corps. I will be in Fiji for my service and was wondering if you had any specific tips.

  9. Sri
    India
    August 21, 2013, 2:24 am

    Thanks a lot for sharing. And i wonder what that specific tweet was about? the one you spent 4 hours to send.

  10. Sue Graham
    Ireland
    August 21, 2013, 2:41 am

    I’m not in your league at all with regard to travelling. However, I found your article so interesting to read, and will be putting you tips to use here in the remote countryside of Ireland, from where I may as well be in the middle of the Amazon as far as Internet reception goes.

    I really enjoyed the read and will be following you. Love the way you write.

  11. Eve Javier
    Manila, Philippines
    August 21, 2013, 3:47 am

    thanks for this post, very useful and helpful! just thinking maybe you could also use something like IvittaMobile, the company i worked for partnered with them recently to launch a sim that could connect seafarers easily with their loved ones?

  12. anitha
    Bangalore, India
    August 21, 2013, 10:40 am

    …great to have read this. So many options to get connected with the world. LOVE the way you have put this… and the I too love to tweet/share/ express in present tense.

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  19. Ian Faulds
    September 11, 2013, 1:15 am

    Great post with a tonne of useful information. I don’t have (or want) a smartphone, but it seem like they are becoming an inevitable part of the blogging world and I will soon have to give in in order to keep up with everyone else. Thanks for sharing.

    Ian Faulds
    ianfaulds.com

  20. ThelmandLouise.com
    UK
    October 2, 2013, 3:25 am

    Some great trips Andrew! We also believe that sharing the emotions of a sunset in Venice, the feeling of climbing Kili, the joy of talking to the locals in a market in Morocco and many other wonderful moments, need to be shared in that moment, because that’s when the feeling is most intense.
    Besides, for our members wifi connection wherever they are is important to keep in touch with others, to see what’s next and try to hop onto their next adventure.

  21. Marilil Troulan
    Barbados
    May 9, 11:15 am

    As my business depends on being able to answer emails quickly and efficiently I need to have wifi. I love cruising and this is where I find it most difficult – the fees are outrageous and once on board it seems that no other signal can be picked up even when in port! Anyway, it does allow me some down time so all is not bad! Great article!

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