Blog Post

How to Deal With Slow Internet Connections When You Travel

836878_turtles_worldOne of the wonderful benefits of web working is that we can take our work with us when we travel. Unfortunately, the reliable Internet connection we have at home doesn’t usually follow us around,  especially if we’re traveling abroad. As someone who spends several weeks each year moving around a developing country, I’ve had to put up with slow, unstable connections while trying to keep up with my work. Through these experiences, I’ve realized that while slow connections can be a real pain, it’s possible to work around them.

So what can we do to make the most out of slow Internet connections?

Tune up your laptop before you leave. If you’ll be taking your laptop with you, make sure that it’s clean of spyware and adware. These programs tend to slow down your Internet connection since they use it to send data to third parties or load unwanted pop-up ads via your browser. I use Lavasoft Ad-Aware and Spybot Search & Destroy to make sute my laptop is clean of malware.

Also, it won’t hurt to de-clutter your hard drive and installed programs to ensure peak performance.

Make your Internet browser lean. Tweak your browser settings to automatically block ads, images, Flash, and JavaScript. In Firefox, you can do this by going to Tools > Options, then fiddling with the settings under Content. Uncheck Load images automatically and Enable JavaScript. As for blocking ads and flash, add-ons such as Adblock and Flashblock can handle that.


At this stage, you might be tempted to install speed enhancing add-on, such as Fasterfox. Remember that if you’re going to use such a third-party add-on or program to make your browsing speeds faster, make sure that you disable prefetching of web sites. Prefetching lets your browser automatically download and cache linked sites, unnecessarily consuming bandwidth.

Get rid of slow-loading add-ons. Browsers like Opera and Firefox allow you to use themes, extensions, and add-ons to customize your browsing experience. But these things can also consume memory and make your browser a little slower. Deactivate or disable any extensions that aren’t essential to your work.

Find a source of portable connectivity. One of the gadgets I bring with me on the road is a small 3G HSDPA modem with prepaid Internet access (which cost me around $40, including a prepaid card). This allows me to have access to 3G Internet where available or a much slower GPRS connection, which is available wherever there’s a cellphone signal.

Loading a WordPress Dashboard can take around 5 minutes on a GPRS connection, but as a blogger, the fact that I can access it at all is important. Most digital nomads (including myself) can sleep better at night knowing that they can access the web for basic work tasks, even if the connection is slow.

Know the rates you’ll be paying.
Unless you’re only planning to take advantage of free Wi-Fi, you need to know if your Internet providers will charge you based on bandwidth or time, otherwise you can end up with a nasty surprise when you get the bill.

Divide your tasks into bandwidth-heavy and bandwidth-light. Evaluate your routine web tasks and see which ones you can do with a slow connection, and which ones require a faster, more reliable one. This is especially important if your mobile Internet provider charges based on bandwidth usage instead of time. Aliza Sherman did something similar in a previous post, to help her work around bandwidth limits.

Obviously, the bandwidth-light tasks are the ones you can do on your slow connection. For the bandwidth-heavy tasks, you’ll have to wait until you get to an Internet cafe or an area with a reliable connection. Separating your tasks into these two lists will allow you to schedule and batch them according to what kind of connection you can access.

Have backup plans. Even if you think you’ve covered all the bases, it helps to have a backup plan in case you really can’t get a decent connection. Some tips include:

  • Having a friend or a virtual assistant do some web tasks for you (uploading and formatting blog posts, research, checking your email,etc.)
  • Doing as much work as you can in advance.
  • Researching your connectivity options (net cafes, Wi-Fi hotspots, etc.) before you arrive at your destination.

Slow Internet speeds might be a traveling web worker’s nightmare, but with a bit of research and planning, you can make it easier on yourself and the people who work with you.

Do you have any connectivity tips or techniques to share with traveling web workers?

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9 Responses to “How to Deal With Slow Internet Connections When You Travel”

  1. Great tips for us travelers who need to stay connected. I couldn’t agree more! To add to what you have already said you can also rent a 3G mobile broadband card through a new company I found called I travel a few times a year and need access to the internet while on the road but signing up for a 2year contract is just too much considering I already have wireless internet at home. As you said definately be aware of the rates for the data usage. With they allow 5GB per month limit with fair rates. I have used them and would recommend them. Hope this adds to your handy travel advice.

  2. @tobias Celine is based in the Philippines.

    @Scott Good tips, thanks. My first modem was 1200 baud, agree that we’re somewhat spoiled now – I love living in the future :) Then again, back in those days we weren’t trying to get anywhere near as much information down the pipe!

  3. Good tips, but:

    “One of the gadgets I bring with me on the road is a small 3G HSDPA modem with prepaid Internet access (which cost me around $40, including a prepaid card). This allows me to have access to 3G Internet where available or a much slower GPRS connection, which is available wherever there’s a cellphone signal.”

    Is that in Europe? How did you work this out, b/c I can’t find a pay-as-you-go system for a modem in the US. I’d kill to have that as a backup.

  4. I realize I’ll be dating myself by saying this, but my first computer had a 300 baud modem – that’s approximately 0.3kbps or 0.0003Mbps – glacial pace by today’s standards. By the time I had a modem running at a blazing 28.8kbps, I was in nerd heaven. So with today’s Mbps speeds, sometimes in the double-digits, and even single digit Mbps over 3G networks, I don’t think we realize how “spoiled” we are. Sure, it’s frustrating when a web page takes a minute or two to load, but it’s astonishing that we can even access the web from practically anywhere.

    As far as recommendations go, I suggest getting “Process Explorer” (free from Microsoft), “Autoruns” (ditto), and getting comfortable with “services.msc” on WinXP, WinVista, and Win7. Using Process Explorer and Autoruns will help you whittle down running processes to just the bare minimum. (Research any unfamiliar process before killing it!) And services.msc will do something similar for OS services, many of which are completely useless and unnecessary, and do nothing but suck up CPU, RAM, and other resources (not sure why Microsoft thinks I need “tablet pc” related services running on a machine that’s not a tablet pc, for example).

    For regular users of Google services (mail, calendar, docs, etc.) I recommending installing Gears, which lets you do some stuff while offline, then synchronizes with the cloud when you regain a connection.

  5. i moved to the country and had to go back to dialup for a while, and there are some fundamental changes that made it livable.

    first, if you use IMAP for email, switch back to POP. i was amazed at how often and how belligerently Mac OS Mail would gobble bandwidth to needlessly sync over IMAP.

    second, disable all automatic updates. OS, Browsers, Add-ons, Adobe products, everything. you can find yourself on a slow connection wondering “why is this *so* slow? i’m not *doing* anything?” then you discover Adobe Updater is hogging all your bandwidth while updating … itself.

    third, turn on url shorteners’ preview capability (if they have it – here’s a link to info about tinyurl’s preview). this will help you not waste time trying to load a youtube video that your friend/colleague sent/IM’d without any explanation.

    fourth, separate out your RSS feeds into low-bandwidth stuff that you need, and high-bandwidth things that are for entertainment. you can catch up on cheezburger when you get back to civilization.

    ultimately, these habits have stuck with me, even though i now enjoy a 40KB cable connection out here in the sticks (up to 7 times faster than my modem!). waste not, want not.

  6. Great tips, and I’m sure that cumulatively they help at least a little bit. I was on an unbearably slow (~90kbps) connection over the cellular network in Mexico recently. I found that many tasks just simply couldn’t be completed on the Internet and that I just had to cut out a lot of extra research. Then, I would just wait until I could visit a coffee shop or somewhere with a fast connection. I wonder how anything was accomplished before high-speed connections?