Top tips for using the internet on the move

Unless the Mayan-predicted apocalypse actually does happen this year, 2012 will be remembered for two things: the London 2012 Olympic Games and the Diamond Jubilee. What it probably won’t be remembered for is the London Underground getting wi-fi.


The wi-fi switch-on at underground stations starts this month – in ticket offices, escalators and platforms but not in the tunnels themselves – and will extend to 80 stations by the end of July and 120 by the end of the year, doomsday prophecies notwithstanding.

Virgin Media is behind the network, and will be offering free wi-fi to all customers until after the Olympic Games have ended, at which point Virgin customers will continue to get free wi-fi and non-Virgin customers can connect on a pay-as-you-go basis.

So, with Tube stations now offering web access, it’s yet another location where you need to think about how you’re going to connect to the web.

With that in mind, here’s a look at the best ways to connect when you’re on trains, planes and automobiles – and everywhere in between.

On the street

Let’s say you’re out and about exploring a new city and want restaurant recommendations and a map to get you to the one you select – what’s the best way to connect to the web and find out?

If you don’t want to go indoors and you have a smartphone or tablet with a 3G connection, you can use that to surf the web.

If you’re going to use your 3G connection, though, you’ll be at the mercy of your signal strength, which varies from place to place. If your 3G signal isn’t great, web pages and maps will load slowly – which could make what should be a simple task a real chore and lead to an intensification of your hunger pangs.

You should also be aware that you’ll pay for any data you download over 3G. If you have a smartphone on a pay-monthly contract, for example, the data obtained will be deducted from your monthly data allowance.

If you’re on a high street, however, you may find that your phone’s wi-fi connection will pick up the signal from any local establishments with wireless routers. Depending on their setup you might be able to open your browser and Google away – but often these connections are password protected and you’d have to go in and ask for password.

In transit

If you’re on a train you’ll have two options for connecting. You can use your phone’s 3G connection, but moving at high speed often means moving through areas of varying signal strength.

As a result your connection probably won’t be very stable and could cut out frequently. Again, if you do manage to connect, any data you download in the form of emails, web pages and apps will be deducted from your data allowance or credit.

Your train may offer wi-fi access, but in many cases you’ll have to pay for it unless you’re in First Class.

In this case you would open your browser and be redirected to a landing page where you would be offered to pre-pay for a set amount of time online. For example, on Virgin trains you can pay £4 for an hour’s access.

Once you enter your payment details you’ll be sent an access code for the session, input that on the landing page and you’ll be away.

But if you resent being shunted onto the train operator’s wi-fi, you can close down the wi-fi facility on your device (via the settings options) and throw yourself on the mercy of whatever 3G signals are available as you travel along the track.

When travelling by car you’re not going to be able to get a wi-fi connection, so you’ll have to use 3G. In a car, 3G tends to be less patchy than on a train, so you may be able to browse with relative ease – but the weaker your 3G signal is, the slower pages will load.

Some airlines have started offering wi-fi on their planes. For example, Emirates will be providing wi-fi on all its Airbus A380s from this month, but on-board wifi is often expensive and not as fast as you’ll be used to on the ground.

Many airlines ban the use of mobile phones, and those that do ask they are switched off during take-off and landing. If you are allowed to use your phone in between, your 3G signal probably won’t be good enough to browse the web anyway.

In hotels

Some hotels still charge for wi-fi access, which means you’ll need to contact reception and ask for access. Your bill will be charged at whatever their going rate is and you’ll get an access code in return.

You’ll probably have to enter that code in some sort of landing page which your browser will redirect you to once opened.

Other hotels give you complimentary wi-fi and if it’s an open network you won’t need to enter any passwords. All you’ll need to do is open your list of available networks and connect to the one with the name of the hotel or hotel group.

For security reasons, some hotels will offer free wi-fi that is still password protected. This is to protect your laptop or tablet from unwanted digital eavesdroppers – again, you’ll just need to ask at the front desk for a key.

If you don’t want to pay for wi-fi or you’d prefer not to use an open network because of security concerns, you’ll almost certainly be able to get a good enough 3G signal to use that. Once again, remember you’ll be using up your data allowance.

In cafes, restaurants and shops

Much like hotels, cafes, restaurants and shops have their own policies on wi-fi. You’ll either have to pay or it will be free and you’ll either connect with one click or have to enter a pass key.

Many coffee shops have an open network, which is great for connecting without a fuss, but there are security implications. Open networks don’t use WEP or WPA encryption, which means if someone was to intercept your data as it was sent wirelessly from your computer to the shop’s router, they could see exactly what you were doing.

If you’re using an open public network then it’s best not to use any websites which involve inputting a password or any personal or financial details. With a password protected router your data is encrypted before being sent, so even if someone intercepted it they’d have to crack the encryption.

As a rule of thumb, WPA is harder to crack than WEP, but both are more secure than an open network.


If your hotel doesn’t offer wi-fi, you don’t want to pay for it or you’re uncomfortable using an open network, then you can use your 3G connection – but be aware that it will cost you more than it does back home.

Three recently launched a deal allowing their customers to download as much data as they like in its supported countries for £5 a day.

T-Mobile’s more complicated deals range from £1 for 3MB of data (around 15 minutes of browsing) to £10 for 50MB, which would see you through a day’s worth of browsing and social networking.

O2, Orange, Vodafone and the other major networks all have their own ways of billing data abroad, so ask your mobile provider about their data charges before you go and whether you can buy any bolt-ons for your tariff.

Please note: Any rates or deals mentioned in this article were available at the time of writing. Click on a highlighted product and apply direct 

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