Now that we’ve taken a look at the basics of pre-paid GSM and the different pre-paid voice offerings when travelling in Italy it’s time to consider mobile data. Mobile data when you’re travelling is a great idea. Can you really rely on finding a wireless hotspot or getting hotel Internet? Yes, from time to time you might luck out but most of the time you are either out of luck, pushing data through the world’s thinnest straw, or paying $40 per day.
So if you’re going to be picking up a SIM card for voice anyways, why not look into whether or not you can use it for data? You can quickly access information on your smartphone while you are exploring, and if you have the right phone you might even be able to tether your phone to your notebook at the hotel.
As with the post on voice plans, PrePaidGSM was my primary source of information on the various data plans available in Italy. According to their Prepaid Data in Italy post the major mobile providers that we discussed previously all have pretty good coverage across Italy:
Generally speaking, TIM is supposed to have the most reliable and biggest network, Wind the smallest but quite fast (due to less customers), Vodafone a big network but usually slow, 3 ITA a big network, cheap offers but quite slow too.
There are also some differences in access and speed depending on where you are in Italy. Each major carrier also provides coverage maps on their websites, although all are in Italian. If you know where you will be travelling in Italy you should check to see if any of the providers have any relevant gaps in coverage.
The next thing that you have to think about how you plan to use the data. In Italy you can get time based plans as well as data consumption based plans. Reading through many online forums it seems people have generally had positive experiences with the time based plans such as Vodafone’s Internet Small plan where you get 30 hours of Internet in a month for €15. Volume based plans also seem fairly reasonable with 1 GB of data going for anywhere from €13-25 including setup fees.
Time based plans tend to be billed in 15 minute blocks. My concern about time based plans would be that if you try to quickly jump online in a low reception area you might be forced to give up on waiting for your information to load and be out 15 mins of time. Also, I anticipate using my phone for many quick Internet queries, so being billed per kb is what I’m looking for.
Update: I ended up finding a great deal through TIM. See my Advanced Travel Tips for Italy post for the details.
But why do you want to be online while on vacation? Isn’t vacation about getting unplugged? Okay, sure. Sometimes. Like when you’re lying on the beach or eating breakfast on a terrace looking down from some Mediterranean cliffside. Some of the time some of us like to be spontaneous but also well informed about where we are going. We don’t like leaving things to luck. Where are the best restaurants in this town that we happened to stop in? When do the trains leave if we take a new route? What if we decide to stay at a different hotel? What was the score of the hockey game?!
Some people are good at anticipating what information they’ll need on a trip and bring it all with them. I am not one of those people. I like to know where I can go to get the information I need when I need it, and to do that I need my interweb. Now to do this properly you have to be disciplined. Once I foolishly checked my work email after a week in Hong Kong and got dragged into the idiocy afresh. Never again. In terms of staying connected I like to jump on Facebook once in awhile to let my family and friends know that I’m alive and, let’s face it, to rub it into the faces of those stuck at home.
True, unless you are in a major city you probably aren’t going to be able to stream live sporting events via your phone (which you might want to do if you happen to be out of Canada during the Stanley Cup Playoffs), but you probably don’t really need that much speed if you’re just doing quick info lookups and FaceBragging. If you do find yourself with a need for speed you should also look at what kind of mobile data each carrier offers in the areas you will be visiting. Thanks to Plemix.com for the following typical real world speed information:
GPRS: 54 kbit/s
EDGE: 180 kbit/s
UMTS: 384 kbit/s
HSDPA: 400-700 kbit/s
What does that mean in English? GPRS is about the speed of a good dial-up connection while HSDPA is like the high-speed Internet you would see at home in North America.