These days we've come to expect internet connectivity wherever we are, whether at home or on the move. Our mobile phone tariffs include more megabytes of data than ever for just a few pounds per month. Indeed, you can have unlimited data and text messages for just £10 with some providers.
Dataroam pre-paid SIM avoids data roaming charges
Wi-Fi is also ubiquitous in major cities: it now extends to some stations in London's tube network so you can get online even when underground.
However, things are very different when you head off on a family holiday in the sun. Most hotels provide Wi-Fi coverage, but it tends to be confined to the lobby or communal areas. It's rarely included in the price of your stay, either, so you have to pay a daily or weekly rate.
Plus, hotel websites are typically bereft of information about Wi-Fi coverage and pricing, so you won't know what's available until you arrive.
You could use your smartphone's 3G connection, but steep data-roaming charges can result in a massive bill running to hundreds of pounds, even if you're just checking emails and the occasional website for sports results. See also: Taking the iPhone abroad? Avoid data roaming charges
An alternative is to buy a pre-paid data SIM card from a provider such as Dataroam. This way you know exactly what your costs are and you'll save money compared to using your UK SIM.
MiFi: portable Wi-Fi hotspot
If you'd like to share that data between friends or family travelling with you, a MiFi device (a portable Wi-Fi hotspot ) lets you do just that. You pop your pre-paid SIM into the device and connect to it just as you would your wireless router at home.
We took a pre-paid SIM and a ZTE MF60 from Dataroam to Porto Cristo in Majorca to test it out. Since everything is pre-configured, it was simply a case of turning the MF60 on and waiting for the small display to confirm that it had connected to Vodafone Spain.
Connecting an iPhone and iPad to the device was made all the easier thanks to a prominent sticker showing the network name and password. We could then check emails, upload photos to Facebook and browse the web at decent speeds. Running a quick test using the Spanish version of Speedtest.net revealed a respectable download speed of 2.1Mbps and an upload speed of 1Mbps. It was only when three people were surfing the internet at the same time that the bandwidth was saturated, and we noticed web pages taking longer to load.
The ZTE MF60 was small and light enough to carry in a pocket, so it's easy to take the hotspot everywhere with you and maintain an internet connection when we left the confines of the hotel.
One of the disadvantage of using a MiFi device, apart from the £90 price, is that apps don't realise they're actually using a metered 3G connection since they're connected via Wi-Fi. This can quickly use up your data allocation if they automatically download content via Wi-Fi such as newspapers, magazines or podcasts. In particular, most of the 1GB of data we used during the week was down to the Metro iPad app which offers no option to prevent downloading new issues when connected to the internet via Wi-Fi.
For most people, a plain pre-paid SIM will be adequate. You'll need to specify if you need a standard one or a microSIM, as used by the iPhone 4S and 3G versions of the iPad. We opted for a 30-day SIM with unlimited data for £59 as we didn't know how much we'd use in advance.
For light use, you can save money by opting for a pre-paid data SIM. You'll pay around £20-30 depending on the country, and you'll get a certain amount of credit included in the price. You can also buy SIMs for Europe or even a global SIM, but the data charges tend to be higher than country-specific SIMs. However, the advantage is that the SIM is yours to keep so you can use it again next time you travel.
As SIMs can be from different operators, you'll have to check the fine print to see how whether you'll be charged per MB, or if there's a standard charge for unlimited data. For example, the Spanish SIM costs £25 and has €9 of pre-loaded credit. That's enough for almost three weeks of unlimited data (there's a charge of €3.50 per week), but it's limited to 100MB per day at full speed, after which it drops to 64Kbps. If you used 100MB every day for a 10-day holiday, you'd be paying just 2.5p per MB.
Taking our hotel as an example, it charged €25 per week, €12 for three days' use and €6 for 24 hours. For the same 10-day holiday, it would have cost €37 (approx. £30) for unlimited Wi-Fi that we'd only have been able to use in the lobby - coverage didn't extend to guest rooms.
Had we decided to use our UK O2 SIM, we'd have been charged a whopping £3.07 per MB. Since there's a default cap of £40, you're prevented from running up an unaffordable bill, but O2 cuts off your data service automatically once you've downloaded 50MB - unlikely to be enough for a week's internet use.
If you do take your phone abroad, make sure you disable both 3G and mobile data to avoid roaming charges for calls, text messages and data.