Trekking has changed a ton since I embarked on my first great back-packing adventure to Asia fresh out of school. For a start, smartphones weren’t around: the mobile or “cell” was a luxury item for the well-to-do businessman back then; it weighed more, did less and cost a packet – no camera or music store and defo no handy app to help you find your way off the mountain, check the next train or simply ask for a beer.
Nowadays, I don’t think there are more than half a dozen people in the world who don’t have at least a basic tri-band! But seriously, the phone has of course become an integral and essential part of your travel kit, along with a backup battery and charger and maybe a couple of spare memory cards.
But it needs something else to be fully functional: a network. And we all expect that network to be free wherever possible now – don’t we?
Here is your guide to the best wi-fi currently available around the world from Philip Tang at Lonely Planet.
Net connectivity and travel have become increasingly entwined. An online connection has become a crucial part of how we navigate, research, connect and even work on the go. Wi-fi – open to all devices and often free – is the lifeblood of this connectivity.
To celebrate it, we decided to take a look how it has changed the places we visit, and to find the world’s weirdest, fastest and best wi-fi.
Dream landmarks with wi-fi
Awesome – you finally made it to your bucket list destination! But the internet has demands: ‘Pics or it didn’t happen’. On top of that, sharing video of your trip as it happens is more popular than ever, thanks to real-time services like Snapchat Live Story and spread to Facebook Live, Instagram Stories and WhatsApp Status. If you’ve got no service when you’re ready to broadcast, you’re out of luck.
Don’t worry though. These top picks of picturesque architectural wonders have outdoor wi-fi for immediate sharing – the Eiffel Tower and Cathédrale Notre Dame in Paris; the Taj Mahal in India; the Sydney Opera House in Australia; and Petra, the city carved out of stone in Jordan.
Wi-fi from . . . phone booths
Now that most people use their own phone and wi-fi device, what to with the hundreds of public telephone booths? In New York, public phones have been upgraded with ‘LinkNYC’ tablets for maps, browsing the net, and travel information. Fast free wi-fi will be offered at 7500 converted payphones (‘Links’) across the city, creating the largest network of high-speed hotspots in the world.
Similarly, many of those iconic red telephone boxes in the UK have been converted to phone repair shops and charging stations and will offer (tiny) mobile work spaces to rent, complete with power, a printer and wi-fi. In Australia, wi-fi access at converted phone booths comes at a price and only to certain customers.
World’s highest hookup
Saying ‘Guess where I am?’ live from Mount Everest in Nepal must earn even more bragging rights. If you’re on your way up, you’re in luck – wi-fi is being trialled at the base camp of the highest mountain on Earth to share your adventure with the world. Two notable runners up are Japan’s iconic Mt Fuji (which has hotspots dotted around it) and the sacred mountain of Girnar Hill, a well travelled Jain and Hindu pilgrimage site in India that has wi-fi on its walking trails.
Widest wi-fi options
Travel-friendly Japan shares the bandwidth bounty with visitors like no other country. Whether you’re zipping on a bullet train, in a club, or crane spotting along an icy ravine, Tokyo has consistently ranked in the top three of many lists for fastest wi-fi cities in the world in recent years. Tokyoites were early adopters of consuming most of their media on mobile devices, and they naturally expect blazing speeds. They have the infrastructure to back it up.
Local trains often provide wi-fi with a quick email signup, and the usual wi-fi suspects are here with cafes, restaurants, thousands of convenience stores, hostels and tourist offices all giving away free access. Prepaid SIM cards for travellers with gigabytes of data are little surprise but having them available at the ubiquitous convenience stores makes for another easy way to get online. If that wasn’t enough, tourists can access free wi-fi from hundreds of thousands of hotspots across the country through two free apps: Travel Japan wi-fi and Japan Connected free wi-fi produced by mobile providers.
Tools like the ‘MiFi’ or ‘wi-fi egg’ (for its goose-egg dimensions) are rechargeable-battery operated devices that will give you (and your friends) wi-fi wherever you can get a mobile signal. That means internet on your laptop or tablet on a ferry ride, isolated ocean cliff or remote ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), if you really need it. You can pick up and drop off a wi-fi egg from international airports; and plenty of hosts of sharing economy accommodation, such as AirBnB, provide a wi-fi egg because they don’t have landline internet to offer.
These devices are also increasingly popular in Korea and China, and are now available in France, Canada and the USA. Plans can cover a whole region so, for example, you can rent the one device and never be without wi-fi for a big Europe trip.
The most innovative internet cafes
While internet cafes have edged into obscurity throughout much of the world (other than high-intensity gamer dens), Japan continues to find innovative ways to keep this category going. The country boasts large internet cafes that double as manga libraries where you can peruse the comic library by the hour while drinking unlimited free refreshments.
Another popular use is renting private computer booths to sleep in, lying on thin mats. There are even on-site showers for rent. You have to get in quick on weekends when revellers who miss the last train home crash in an internet booth.
Posting pics from planes and trains
A growing number of airlines offer free wi-fi on board, letting you plan last minute trip details and chat to neglected friends. Free wi-fi is available on flights by JAL, Emirates, JetBlue, Norwegian, Turkish Airlines, Philippine Airlines, Hong Kong Airlines and Nok Air. Some airlines such as Air China and Qantas only offer wi-fi on domestic flights, and China Air doesn’t allow phones to be used at all. If you need to continue online, there is a cheeky app, WiFox, that maps wi-fi passwords used in airport lounges around the world.
Wi-fi is getting added to public transport around the world. The London Underground, Toronto and New York subway systems have free wi-fi, but only at the stations. Cities like Buenos Aires and Hong Kong have wi-fi access from the comfort of your train seat.
Fastest public wi-fi in the USA and Europe
In 2016 it was pretty little Chattanooga that had faster public internet than anywhere from sea to shining sea, according to dospeedtest.com. The small city of old converted train depots and mountain roads has faster internet even than San Francisco or Washington DC! For visitors to Chattanooga, you get the benefits of mountain life with walkable sights and plenty of outdoor activities, but without having to give up GPS maps and other travel friendly benefits of world-class public wi-fi.
Similarly, Europe boasts a surprising winner in the wi-fi race – Riga, that Baltic country of Latvia‘s capital, whose population adds up to only about two million, has emerged as a dark horse internet powerhouse in a continent full of tech powerhouses like London, Stockholm and Berlin.
Fastest connection in the world
Finally, the stat you’ve been waiting for: Seoul, South Korea has the fastest internet speeds in the world, reaching nearly 1.5 Gbps (dospeedtest.com). That is nearly 50% faster than average speeds in the USA or Europe. Seoul’s internet is affordable too, meaning visitors will find abundant free wi-fi driven by the fast fiber optic connections.