11 ways to speed up your internet connection when travelling

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Sick of dealing with painfully slow, unreliable internet when you’re on the road? You’re not the only one.

We’ve put together these eleven tips for making the most of that tiny trickle of data that’s flowing into your computer or smartphone. The faster you can get things done online, the sooner you can head out and enjoy the real reason you’re travelling in the first place…



Use an external wireless card

Alfa AWUS036HIf you’re a regular user of wifi on the road (and lets face it, most of us are), you’ll be all too familiar with weak connections and slow internet speeds. The wireless access point always seems to be placed as far from your room as humanly possible, leaving you to gaze forlornly at the signal strength icon as your connection drops out yet again.

Investing in an external wireless card can make all the difference. The better ones have powerful transmitters and better antennas that reach much further than the one in your laptop, giving stronger, more reliable connections. They can often let you use networks that you can’t even detect with your internal card.

Cheap ones can be picked up for around ten bucks, but we’d suggest spending a little more for best results. For around $25, something like the Alfa AWUS036H does the job nicely.


Move around the room

It might sound silly, but just moving around a bit can make a big difference. Interference from microwave ovens, cordless telephones and other electronic equipment can play havoc with your wireless signal, and certain materials (concrete in particular) block radio waves very effectively. Even moving a few feet to the other side of the room could be the difference between a working connection and a lot of frustration.

If you want to get all technical about it, download something like Netspot (Mac) or Heatmapper (Windows/Android) to map out the best place to park your laptop.


Switch from wireless to wired

RJ45 and powerUnder ideal conditions most modern wireless networks are still much faster than the internet connection at the end of them. The problem is that ideal conditions rarely exist, especially in crowded urban areas.

Every wireless network competes for space in a crowded radio spectrum, especially when most access points still use default settings. The more networks you can see and devices trying to connect to them, the bigger the issue.

Moving to a wired connection eliminates most of the problem. If you’re got an Ethernet port available (they look similar to phone ports, but a little larger), try to borrow a cable and connect it up. If you find yourself doing this regularly, pick up a short Ethernet cable and throw it in your bag when travelling. For a fancier option, devices like this one let you convert a wired connection to a wireless network that you can control.


Plug your laptop in

Probably the simplest tip of all – just plug your laptop into a power socket. Most computers will reduce the strength of their wireless card slightly when running on battery – great for giving you longer in front of the screen, bad for seeing that weak wi-fi network.

Connect your power cable and you might just be able to connect to the internet as well.



Use Dispatch to connect to multiple networks

Dispatch screenshotAfter a successful Kickstarter campaign last year, Connectify has developed and released Dispatch – an easy way to join multiple internet connections together. Wired, wifi, cellular – use the bandwidth of all of them simultaneously. Best of all, with that external wireless card you’re going to buy you can even use two wifi networks at the same time.

If you have a 3G/4G connection with plenty of data, or in areas with multiple free wireless networks, this is a great way of dramatically improving your connection speed. We use it all the time, and can vouch for its effectiveness. Combine it with the Hotspot product to turn your laptop into a wifi hotspot for extra geek cred.


Turn off background apps

Many of those handy apps that you’ve got installed are your worst enemy when battling with a slow connection. Your antivirus software, operating system and app updaters, Skype, Dropbox, Evernote, Crashplan, BitTorrent and many others will jump all over the limited amount of bandwidth that you have available, leaving virtually nothing for your browser or whatever you’re actually trying to use.

Shut down or suspend all of those background programs and you’ll finally be able to send that email or load that vital status update.


Use the mobile version of websites

Facebook mobileJust want some information without all of the bells and whistles that make pages take forever to load? Try using the mobile version of the site, even from your laptop. It’ll be stripped down and may not look particularly great (http://m.facebook.com, for instance), but on a slow connection it will often be the difference between a page that displays and one that doesn’t.

If the site insists on giving you the desktop version, you can trick it into thinking you’re using a mobile device by changing your user agent string. The least painful way to do this is via a browser plugin like User Agent Switcher for Chrome.


Use Opera for browsing

The Opera web browser has long sat far behind the “big boys” like Chrome or Internet Explorer, but it has at least one feature that makes it compelling for travellers – data compression. By default, “Turbo” mode  kicks in when the (desktop) browser detects a slow connection, compressing all non-secure data via the company’s servers. The net result? Less data being moved around, faster browsing speeds.for you.

Mini, the mobile version of Opera has this functionality enabled all the time, and it has been spotted in pre-release versions of Chrome for Android as well.


Install Onavo Extend on mobile devices

Onavo ExtendOn the subject of mobile data compression, Onavo takes the concept even further. Install the Extend app (Android / iOS) and all non-secure data will be compressed before being downloaded to your device – the company boasts data savings of up to 500%.

The downside is that this compression only works over cellular networks, not wifi – so it’s not a complete solution. Still, if you’re using a mobile connection that has speed or bandwidth limitations, Onavo is your friend.


Install ad-blocking software on your browser

Often the thing that uses the most bandwidth on a web page has nothing to do with the content you’re actually there for. It’s the big flashing advert in the top right corner, or the video that plays before you even get to read the page. Those things are annoying enough at the best of times, never mind when you’re on the world’s slowest internet connection.

Install something like Adblock Plus to selectively prevent that stuff from being downloaded, and you can speed up your surfing and reduce your frustration at the same time. Success!


Work offline

PocketSick of waiting for your favourite news site to load, or email to refresh when you hit reply? Switch to an offline version instead, and take that slow connection right out of the equation.

Gmail has an offline mode for just that purpose, and other webmail providers can be used with programs like Microsoft Outlook or Mac Mail. Worst-case scenario, just compose your new emails in a text editor and paste them in when your connection gets a little better.

Apps like Pocket can be used to save any web page for offline reading, while RSS readers like Byline or gReader can be set up to cache your favourite sites so you don’t need an internet connection while you’re reading them.


Have you got any tips for speeding up horrible internet connections? Share them in the comments…


Product and website images via their respective companies

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12 Responses

  1. Jacquie Whitt

    This is great info. Not just for traveling, but will share it with our staff in Cusco, Peru. We struggle with communicating with them when WIFI is weak. We will put these ideas to the test in S. America! Gracias

  2. Chris

    Despite being a bit of a computer geek I never considered plugging the laptop in to give the Wireless card more juice. I’ll have to remember that. 🙂

  3. Tobbe

    Depending on the country, and mobile coverage I’d bring along a usb 3g/4g dongle also. It came in very handy on my last trip to Russia

  4. Bob

    We live in an RV and travel throughout the US. Also, we cruise quite a lot. Will definitely look into the Alfa AWUS036H. In the RV we use a Wilson “trucker” antenna, which really brings in the 3G data signal. In really marginal areas the Wilson amplifier helps too. Of course that is cell data, not the WiFi signal. So, both in bad WiFi areas, and on cruise ships, a WiFi booster looks like a very good idea.

    Thanks for the helpful article.


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