I generally use holidays as an excuse to try out new ways of accessing the internet, and staying “connected”.
Initially this meant a laptop with a PCMCIA (or a serial) modem to dial-up. It was not all that different from accessing the internet at home considering the only real alternative at that time was ISDN which was not particularly cheap. Costs were the regular per minute call charges depending on the time of day, and you needed a phone line.
In 1999 a service called screaming.net came out (from telephone company Localtel, which then became World Online). This was a pretty big step as it gave people in the UK essentially un-metered internet access. However to use it you needed to switch over your line to their service, so anywhere else you still had the per minute charges.
If going to destinations without a regular phone line as happened in subsequent years, the only real choice was dial-up via a mobile phone. Needless to say this was expensive, slow, and unreliable. I used a Nokia 7110 connected to a Toshiba laptop via Infrared, and can remember first having to wander about the apartment we were staying in at the time to find a location with a GSM signal, then having to hold the phone at one angle to actually get the signal while at the same time positioning the laptop such that its Infrared port was aligned to that on the phone. This was not very convenient, however it was made more bearable by a script I wrote which allowed a list of sites to be specified and sent to a server which would zip them up in a single file that could be downloaded via “wget –c”. Thankfully since this time GSM coverage has improved quite a bit.
After the previous holidays to UK destinations, America turned out to be fairly straight forward, simply a case of finding a local ISPs dial-up number, and achieving from memory a ~45Kbps connection.
By the time of the next holiday, PAYG GPRS access was now readily available. I had a Bluetooth USB dongle, and a Sony Ericsson T610 which was certainly a welcome break over slow mobile dial-up, however at around £4 per MB it was not cheap.
After that for 2 years in a row I signed up for (and promptly cancelled a month later – there was 1 month contract period) a service from JJTEK Online which offered un-metered dial-up access for around £20.00 per month on an 0808 free phone number. This worked very well in Center Parcs.
This year it looks like we may be heading to Portugal, and while Wi-Fi, and in room network connections are now a lot more available you generally have to stay in a Hotel, pay a premium, or visit a Coffee Shop which has led me to look into the various mobile broadband options. If you are in the UK there are now a number of very affordable packages available from most providers, with reasonable usage limits available on PAYG. Only Vodafone from what I have seen however offer reasonable pricing when abroad (i.e. not £4.00 – £8.00 per MB roaming), however there is a catch as they do not offer this on the 30 days option, you need a 12 month contract which ruled it out for me. Some time later I came up with the idea of checking the Vodafone Portugal website (via the Google Translator) and found that GPRS access costs appear to be 10 Euro Cent per MB. Therefore it is just a case of purchasing a PAYG Portugal SIM on arrival or from eBay.
I also decided to purchased a Novatel Wireless XU870 ExpressCard on eBay – it was T-Mobile branded but after following the installation instructions I had it up and running in minutes, both on PAYG Orange GPRS (APN: orangeinternet) and PAYG T-Mobile UMTS 240Kbps (APN: general.t-mobile.uk Username: user, Password: wap). The XU870 ExpressCard is a fairly nice piece of hardware, well built and it came with a neat flip up antenna, plastic carry case and a socket to allow for an external antenna if needed. Along with OS X I also tested it in Windows via Parallels with the MobiLink Lite software (allows you to see the connection speed). With a T-Mobile SIM card it auto configured and connected straight away, on the Orange SIM card it did not work out of the box but likely would have if I had spend some time configuring it. There is also a handy little application that allows sending / receiving text messages from the desktop.