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.
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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.
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!