Sick of dealing with painfully slow, unreliable internet when you’re on the road? You’re not the only one.
It often feels like an endless battle, waiting for pages to load or apps to respond, spending your precious vacation time looking at a blank screen rather than a beautiful beach.
So, we’ve put together a whole bunch of tips for making the most of that tiny trickle of data that’s flowing into your computer or smartphone. Some of them speed up that terrible connection, while some of them help you make better use of the small amount of bandwidth you’ve got.
Either way, they’re definitely useful. Let’s face it, the faster you can get things done online, the sooner you can head out and enjoy the real reason you’re traveling in the first place.
Use an External Wireless Card
If you regularly use Wi-Fi on the road (and let’s face it, most of us do), you’ll be all too familiar with weak connections and slow speeds. The wireless access point always seems to be as far from your room as possible, leaving you to gaze sadly at a blank page as your connection drops out yet again.
For laptop owners, investing in an external wireless card makes all the difference. The good 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 you can’t even otherwise even detect, never mind connect to.
They all work much the same way, plugging into your computer via USB, and giving you a second, typically larger set of wireless networks to choose from in your settings.
The Netgear AC1900 is our current pick in this category. It’s slim and lightweight, but provides a significant Wi-Fi range boost. Supporting both 2.4 and 5Ghz networks, it’s a highly-effective way of speeding up your Wi-Fi while traveling.
Travel Routers Also Work Well
For those not traveling with a laptop, a travel router brings strong Wi-Fi to phones, tablets, and other devices. The better ones have a whole range of features, including boosting the signal from an existing Wi-Fi network to give better speeds on whatever device you’re using.
You typically set it up from your web browser, then put it wherever you can find the best Wi-Fi signal and let it do its thing.
One of the better multi-purpose devices out there is the RavPower FileHub. Relatively light and compact, not only does it give stronger Wi-Fi, it’s also a portable battery for charging up USB-powered gadgets, an SD card reader, and more.
If you only care about boosting your Wi-Fi, check out the Netgear EX6120 instead. It plugs directly into a power socket, and provides greater range than the FileHub or USB-powered versions.
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 plays havoc with your wireless signal, while building material like concrete blocks 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, and takes just a few seconds to check out.
If you want to get all technical about it, download something like Netspot (Mac) or Heatmapper (Windows) to map out the best place to park your laptop. They’re both free, and give you a visual indication of the best spots in your room to stream your favourite show.
Switch from Wireless to Wired
Under ideal conditions, most wireless networks are still much faster than the internet connection at the end of them. Sadly though, those conditions rarely exist, especially in busy urban areas.
Every wireless network competes for space in a crowded radio spectrum. The more networks you can see, the more interference there is, and the worse everyone’s connection gets. If you can see a dozen or more wireless networks besides the one you want to use, that’s not a good thing.
Moving to a wired network gets rid of that problem. If your laptop has a network socket and there’s an Ethernet port in your room (they look similar to phone sockets, 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 suitcase.
If your laptop doesn’t have a network socket (many non-business laptops don’t these days), don’t despair — you can add one with a little USB accessory like this. Some travel routers, including the RavPower FileHub mentioned above, can also turn a wired connection into a private wireless one that works with phones and tablets as well.
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. That’s great for giving you longer in front of the screen, bad for seeing that weak Wi-Fi network down the hall.
Connect your power cable, and you might just be able to connect to the Internet as well.
Use Several Networks at Once
Speedify is an easy way to join multiple internet connections together. Wired, Wi-Fi, or cellular, you can combine them, and use all their bandwidth at the same time. Best of all, with that external wireless card you’re going to buy, you can even use two Wi-Fi networks at the same time.
If you have a 3G or LTE connection with plenty of data, or you’re somewhere you can connect to several Wi-Fi networks, this can dramatically improve your Internet speed. I’ve used it a fair amount over the years, and can vouch for its effectiveness.
When one network drops out, the others automatically take over. It’s also a VPN to help keep your browsing secure, and works on Mac, Windows, Android, and iOS. There’s even a free trial to get you started.
You can even combine it with the company’s Hotspot product, to turn your Windows laptop into a Wi-Fi hotspot and share that speedy connection with all your other devices.
Turn Off Background Apps
Many of those handy apps you’ve got installed are your worst enemy when battling a slow connection. Your operating system and app updaters, cloud backup software, Dropbox, OneDrive, Google Photos, iCloud, BitTorrent and many others will jump all over your limited bandwidth, especially if you haven’t connected for a while.
That leaves virtually nothing for your browser, email, or whatever you’re actually trying to use right now. Shut down or suspend all those background programs, and you’ll finally be able to load that map or send that vital status update.
Use the Mobile Version of Websites
Just want the information, without all the bells and whistles that make websites take forever to load? Try using the mobile version of the site, even from your laptop. It’ll have less information and may not look particularly great (https://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.
Enable Browser Data Compression
Even your choice of web browser makes a difference. Both Opera (all versions) and Chrome (only the Android version) have a built-in system that can compress text and images before they get sent down to your device. The end result? A lot less data has to make its way over that slow connection, so web pages load noticeably faster.
“Lite Mode” is built right into Chrome for Android, but you need to enable it. It’s likewise available in Opera mobile and desktop, under the names “data savings” and “turbo mode.”
Sick 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 programs like Microsoft Outlook and Mac Mail let you use your email offline with other webmail providers. Worst-case scenario, just compose your new emails in a text editor or word processor, and paste them in when your connection gets a little better.
Google Maps lets you download map data for cities and regions ahead of time, while the company’s Translate app does the same thing with language packs. In both cases, the app will then download much less (or no) data whenever you go to use it.
I also use apps like Pocket to save any web page for offline reading, and RSS readers like Flym News Reader to sync my favorite sites so I don’t need an internet connection while reading them. We covered a whole bunch of other great offline apps here.
Got any other tips for speeding up horrible internet connections? Share them in the comments!
Product images via Amazon, their respective companies, hotel room via davidlee770924, network cables via wantec, plugs via lan Levine
Fabulous post, thanks! Will be implementing some of these right away and sharing with my nomadic peeps.
Thanks Amy, much appreciated!
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
Some great tips. Thanks!
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. 🙂
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
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.
What is your best recommendation for a wifi booster for a Macbook Pro? I bought an Alfa a few years ago that was supposed to work (even on password protected hot spots) . After purchase, I found out that it completely stopped compatibility 3 OS upgrades before I even bought it. I currently run Yosemite on my 5 year old MBP and will probably never upgrade the OS again. Thanks, and btw, great post!
Yep, some of the older Alfa cards (like the one I’m using, in fact) don’t support recent versions of MacOS. I mentioned a Panda wireless card in the post that gets excellent reviews and works with Yosemite (and later). It’s inexpensive, too.
Dave I want to LinkedIn this stuff man. Get a LinkedIn share.
Hah, I used to have a LinkedIn button on the site, back in the day… it never got used, so I took it off!
ASUS WL-330NUL is also a great travel WiFi router. It needs external power from USB port or USB power adapter, but it’s super small and light.
It gets very bad reviews from tech sites and customers — what appeals about it for you?
Some of these might prove helpful, but I landed here while trying to research the existence of a service and/or hardware device that would allow me download and upload speeds as high as possible, portably while remote. Something I could purchase, rent or sign up for a service temporarily to get office – level internet speeds while working remotely for a short time, not at my home office, but instead in a rental cabin in the country where their existing internet is the basic, entry level plan.
You don’t say which country you’re in, which is likely relevant in terms of what’s available and at what price. I’d suggest starting with this piece (unlocked devices to which you add your own SIM) and this piece (devices with prepaid service plans), but you’ll also need to check data service coverage and speeds for wherever you’re renting a cabin on the website of whichever cell provider(s) you’ll be using.
You may also be able to rent a hotspot with a data plan from a cell company — again, before signing up, you’ll need to check that there’s high-speed service available from that company in the area where you’re renting the cabin. It’s a more expensive option longer term, but may make sense for a short stay.
I have a question, we don’t have WiFi in our home, and my kids usually use the hotspots on our phones for internet access. The problem is when my son wants to play Minecraft online w his friends, it doesn’t work really well. Would it work better if my phone was plugged into the laptop? I just don’t want to pay 26.00 for the game and then we see that it still doesn’t work. Thank you so much!
It probably wouldn’t make much difference, unfortunately. The issue is likely to be the phone data, either the speed and/or latency (basically, how long it takes for data to go from the phone to the cell tower and back.) Plugging the phone into the laptop might give a small improvement, if anything at all, but is unlikely to solve the problem.