Home based or store front, travel professionals need to travel. Whether it is to the local Starbucks to meet a client, or across the country for a tradeshow, we all face the issue of staying in touch once we leave the office.
One of the biggest challenges is Internet access. If you are meeting with a client, it is possible to arrange to meet where you can access free WiFi (like at Panera Bread). But what if you are going to their office or home? How do you access to the Internet there?
Or what about when you are sitting in an airport for hours because your plane is delayed, or when you are cooped up in your hotel room? If you are traveling to the next city, the next state, or across the country, finding reliable (preferably free) WiFi access can be a challenge. Some hotels offer free access, but coverage can be dodgy at best. Others charge fees of $9.99 per day (or more). In a convention center? You will definitely have to pay for access. At your parents’ house where dial-up is the best you’ll get (and your mom freaks about tying up the phone line for more than 5 minutes … someone may try calling while you are on the computer)?
For years I had an air access card from one of the major cellular carries. It cost me approximately $60 a month (even if I did not use it that month), and anywhere I could get a cell signal I could access the Internet. My most recent air access card could support up to 5 devices at once. Access was not unlimited however. If my monthly data usage exceeded 5GB I would be charged for any over usage. The closest I ever got was 3.1GB and we were supporting 3 laptops with the device for a full week (see the remark above about visiting parents that still live in the 1990s).
Recently I found myself in a position where I could consolidate my cellular bills. I had two cell phones through one company, and the air access card through another company. I wanted to get rid of one phone plus the air access card completely.
I had heard about the ability to “tether” smartphones to laptops, allowing you to use the cell phone’s data plan to provide WiFi service for your laptop. But I wasn’t really familiar with how it worked (or what it cost).
I’m not sure if kids play tetherball anymore these days, but that’s where my mind went when I first heard the term “tethering.” The standard definition of “tether” is “A rope, chain, or similar restraint for holding an animal in place, allowing a short radius in which it can move about,” “the dog was tethered to the fence” (or the ball was tethered to the pole). But in the technological age “tethering is the process of using a cell phone or smartphone as a modem for a personal computer… The term gets its name from how a phone is attached, or tethered, to the computer via a USB cable.”
That’s easy enough to understand. Take the phone, use a USB cable, plug it into the laptop, connect to the cell phone on your laptop, and you have Internet access.
The tricky part is figuring out how to do this without costing you a small fortune.
Every cellular company is different. They have different policies, and they have different billing plans. I only researched two companies, the ones that I was already using for my phones and air access device. You may want to check out other cellular companies.
What to look for
First, I found that smartphones (Droid, Blackberry, iPhone, etc.) seemed to be the best bet when it came to tethering. But even if tethering is one of your requirements, make sure to find a phone that meets ALL of your needs (Bluetooth compatibility, camera functions, etc.). I needed a phone that I could PIN or password protect. I wanted a slide keyboard (which is becoming harder to find these days). I needed certain camera functions. And I did not want an iPhone, no matter what.
Second, does the cellular company support tethering? Guess what? Most don’t. Both companies I researched don’t. But you know what? There’s an app for that! One of the cellular reps told me (in a whisper) that I could download one of many third party tethering apps which would allow me to tether my phone to my laptop FREE OF CHARGE. I decided on “EasyTether” for my Droid2 phone. Their lite version is free of charge but is limited (cannot access any secure websites, like eBay, Amazon, PayPal, etc.). But for a one-time charge of $9.99 you can purchase their full version app. It was easy to download the app to my phone, easy to install the drivers on my laptop, and easy to use.
Third, look at the data plans and fees charged by the cellular companies. They all have different policies and slightly different billing plans. The company I went with has a truly unlimited usage data plan and the charge is $30 per month. Other companies limit the usage and charge accordingly (one company has a 200MB monthly limit plan and a 5GB monthly limit plan).
Fourth, look at the coverage for the cellular company you are considering. If their coverage is spotty (or downright sucks), it won’t do you much good (no cell signal = no Internet access for your laptop).
The hardest thing for me to get used to has been that when my phone is tethered, it is non-functional as a phone (cannot receive or make phone calls or text messages, doing so disconnects the tethering option). So if you have to be on the phone to a client and on the Internet at the same time, you need to consider alternative options.
One option is to use Skype, Google Voice, RingCentral or other mechanism for making or receiving calls through your laptop. This frees up your cell phone then to provide the actual Internet access.
Also, when your phone is tethered to your laptop, your laptop is charging the phone (so the phone battery won’t die). This is good in that you won’t lose Internet access at a critical moment because the phone battery died. This is bad in that it will drain your laptop battery faster (if you are operating off battery and not plugged into an electrical outlet).
In the end I am happy with the decision to drop the old air access card (and $60 a month bill). My data plan charge on my cell phone went from $10 to $30 a month, but that is still a net savings of $40 on the air access card. And I don’t have to worry about exceeding any data usage limits, since I got an unlimited plan.
(Susan Schaefer is the owner of Ships ‘N’ Trips Travel (www.shipsntripstravel.com) located in Brentwood, Tennessee, and specializes in leisure travel with a focus on group travel and charity fundraisers. Through their division Kick Butt Vacations (www.kickbuttvaations.com) she focuses on travel for young adults under 35. Susan can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at (888) 221-1209).