In This Post: How to travel without phone service and rely only on free wi-fi. From how to deal with getting dropped off on the site of a road with no service, to the best places to squat for a signal, to ways to casually collect coffee shop passwords without a purchase, this guide has got you covered (although the wi-fi network may not).
I get a lot of questions about the ever-concerning safety. I also get a lot of questions about how I manage to work from the remote and not-so-touristy places I venture off to. The questions only intensify when I reveal that until 2020, I never bought a SIM card nor had phone service when I traveled.
It’s a combination of planning ahead, using critical thinking (just “figuring it out”), and not panicking if/when the wi-fi situation is not as expected.
How To Survive On Free Wi-Fi While Traveling, Without Buying Data Or A SIM
Maybe you’re really cheap. Maybe you like being disconnected. Maybe you don’t want to deal with the hassle of changing your number. For whatever reason, you don’t want to buy a SIM card. I get it. I traveled for years and years before I finally got phone service, which I only did because I needed it for my work.
When you don’t have service, it means your access to the Internet and essential services like travel bookings, letting your family know you’re alive, directions/navigation, communication, is solely dependent on wi-fi. Yikes!
Wi-fi is pretty ubiquitous these days, but it’s not necessarily reliable and is certainly not a sure thing, especially when you stray from the tourist path. This means planning ahead is key.
Take Lots Of Screenshots
If I know I’ll be on a bus all night, for example, I never, ever assume I will have wi-fi in the station or on the bus. This means I prepare many things in advance, including:
- Screenshot the hostel address
- Screenshot the booking confirmation code and other necessary info
- Download offline maps
- Communicate with my family or anyone who needs communicating
The same goes for times when I’ll be out and about all day. Or anytime really — who knows when wi-fi will appear!
Use Offline Maps
Many people like Maps.me, but it’s led me astray so many times and I prefer Google Maps. Either way, you can download them in advance and use it on your phone without any sort of connection. EXTREMELY useful when you step of a 12-hour bus in a new city, at night, on the side of a random road. (This is a good tip if you simply want to save data, too).
Do NOT Assume You’ll Have Wi-Fi
Never assume there wil be wi-fi. Probably there won’t be. If there is, treat it as an unexpected luxury or surprise. With this in mind, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is to think, Oh, I will do this thing that requires the internet later and put it off. If you are in good Wi-Fi and are preparing to leave for unknown Wi-Fi, it’s best to do whatever you need while the connection is known. This will save you from stressing, spending loads of time searching for wi-fi later, or experiencing varying levels of regret and casual self-loathing for your procrastination.
Casually Save Passwords As You Go
If wi-fi is bad in my accommodation, and also just in general to be prepared, I casually collect wi-fi networks as I go about my day — especially if I plan to stay in a town for a while. I simply pop into a few coffee shops in passing, pretend to browse, state I will “come back later,” all the while casually glancing at the password. I then save it in my phone when I step outside. Usually, the signal reaches the street so if I need wi-fi in passing later I can then use it. If I legitimately patronize anywhere, I ensure I get the wi-fi info and save it, even if I do not need it. If I enter a hotel for directions, I glance around for the password and add that one into my phone inconspicuously, too. It never hurts to have options. Which brings me to the next point!
Scope Out Backup Locations
If I have to conduct a work call or essential assignment, I always scope out backup locations in advance in case my lodging wi-fi is bad, or something goes wrong. In Penang, Malaysia, for example, my wi-fi was questionable. Throughout the day I checked out passing coffee shops, popped into a few and saved them into my phone. Thank god, too. I wound up standing outside one of them later that night to take a call as the hostel router was, naturally, not working (and the shop was closed).
What To Do When Things Don’t Go According To Plan
Sometimes. Many times. Almost every time while traveling, you plan ahead and things still go wrong….
- I read the hotel reviews to ensure the wi-fi would be good, but upon arrival find it’s shitty…or doesn’t work at all
- There’s an unexplained power outage…that lasts for days
- There just isn’t wi-fi anywhere
- There is allegedly wi-fi. My phone says it’s connected to wi-fi, but it doesn’t work
- I forgot to charge my phone, again
In these and any other situations, there are two main things to do.
#1. Don’t Panic
If you’re lost/alone/have an impending freelance work deadline/need to make a call, panic can seem the first natural response. But, it’s essential to stay calm. First of all it’s just wi-fi so keep it in perspective. Second of all, to move into no-SIM-card survival tip #2 you need a clear head.
#2. Use Critical Thinking
Once you stop and assess the situation, you can go ahead and use some critical thinking skills to figure out how to find wi-fi…I suggest the following:
- I’m on the bus, waking up from a terrible semi-sleep. I left in such haste I totally forgot to take a screenshot of my hostel address. Shoot. I hope for wi-fi in the station, but am instead dropped off on the side of the road wi-fi-less.
- If it’s a smaller town, just wander around. Likely you’ll find what you are looking for. This can even work in huge cities, assuming you’re in the main tourist/backpacker area.
When in doubt, ask for help. Ask another traveler who is less cheap and has data to borrow their phone. Walk into a hostel and ask for help. Ask a local. Go into a hotel where people maybe speak english. genrally people are nice and will help you.
Squat In Front of McDonald’s Or [insert coffee shop name here]
I can’t count the number of times I’ve squatted outside McDonald’s to steal free wi-fi on one hand. I cannot count it on 2 hands. I’ve done this in the day to quickly check the map. I’ve done this at 1am to take a call. It’s not ideal, but McDonald’s wi-fi is pretty sold and generally password-free. KFC is also a good bet.
Find A Shopping Mall
For whatever reasons, many malls seem to have stellar free wi-fi. I have found this especially useful in random countries, such as while staying in a crumbling 1960s hotel with non-existent wi-fi in Malaysia. The mall, however, was brand spanking new with fast wi-fi.
Hangout In The Lobby Of A Nice Hotel
Sometimes I go into lobbies to rest/enjoy AC/use the bathroom. I feign I am a a guest, and as a clear foreign person it usually works (moral implications of this statement aside). Usually the wi-fi in hotels is password protected, but you can always ask another guest and/or take your fake guest act quite far and approach the desk.
Go To A Bigger City
Sometimes, especially on islands or in remote towns, wi-fi is just insufficient or simply doesn’t exist. In very rare instances, if I have a call or major assignment or really need to make an important booking, I just bite the bullet and travel back to a city for a few hours. It’s a pain, but if you did’t buy the SIM card for whatever reason, sometimes it must be done.