One of the biggest challenges for travellers is staying connected in Australia. Surprisingly for a developed nation, Australia has abysmally slow Internet speeds and some archaic telecommunications practices still in place, especially in hotels.
Staying connected in Australia can be tricky at the best of times and hotels don’t make things any easier. Even at the best five star hotels it’s not unusual to find excruciatingly slow Internet, complex processes for logging on, and some of the most expensive phone and Internet charges in the world. $25 a day is typical.
The colossal size of the country and lack of population in vast areas of Australia means it’s impossible to get a mobile phone signal in many parts of the country and Internet cafés simply don’t exist outside of tourist hubs.
In cities and towns, the problem isn’t the ability to get connected but the high costs, and then, depending on the quality of service, staying online — staying connected in Australia isn’t inexpensive or hassle-free.
We recently stayed at a Melbourne hotel where Terence and I wasted an hour talking to technicians at an external Internet trouble-shooting service to try to figure out why we could not get the Internet to work on our laptops. The hotel then had the hide to add the telephone calls incurred to try to get their Internet to work to our room bill.
That particular ‘service’ provider, which is truly appalling, is bafflingly very popular with many of the hotels, which for the most part seem to have out-sourced their Internet services. In one case, where the service was unable to determine the problem and help us get online, we called the manager to complain.
Minutes later, as the hotel no longer had any IT staff, the manager appeared in our room with a replacement cable and got us connected. While we appreciated the personal attention to the problem, is that really the best use of a manager’s time?
At other hotels and serviced apartments, we’ve been given access details and passwords and followed instructions to get connected, only to find the service so slow or Wi-Fi router so far away that it was impossible to actually do anything — in some cases we couldn’t even send emails let alone upload blog posts or send photos to publishers. And the last thing an editor wants to hear the day after a deadline is “I couldn’t get online”. Regardless of how true it may have been, it still sounds very much like “the dog ate my homework”.
After many years of returning periodically to Australia to see family and struggling to stay connected on trips we’ve done to update guidebooks or do stories, we finally think we have it figured out. If you want reliable mobile phone communication and fast, consistent Internet access on your travels in Australia, then this is what you need to do:
Our Tips for Staying Connected in Australia
TO ACCESS THE INTERNET ON A LAPTOP: BUY A TELSTRA USB 4G MODEM
Over the years, we’ve tried an array of modems, from Optus to Vodaphone (both of which are cheaper), but the Telstra 4G modem (pictured above, plugged into the USB drive on my laptop) is Australia’s fastest mobile broadband USB. For the techies, it has download speeds of 2-40Mbps.
In fact, it’s some of the fastest Internet we’ve found in Australia. There have been many times in recent months that we’ve realised it’s even faster than the high-speed wi-fi in hotel rooms, and we’ve chosen to use our Telstra USBs instead so we could get work done faster.
Foreign travellers will need to buy the Pre-Paid USB 4G wireless modem, and they’re not cheap. They cost $129, which is twice the price of some of the others, however, they come with 3GB of data. And you do get what you pay for. We’ve wasted so much time trying to get connected and stay online with other modems, whereas the Telstra USB has not only been faster, but has had better coverage, so it hasn’t dropped out — something that’s important, say, when you’re uploading photos to an online gallery.
You can buy the USBs from a Telstra or other phone shop. Look in the main street or nearest mall. And take your passport. When you need to recharge, buy a pre-paid voucher from the same place, supermarket, newsagent or online at www.telstra.com.au.
When you run out and want to recharge, you’ll need to choose how much data to buy. How much you’ll need depends on what you’re doing and how long you’re travelling. Prices range from $20 for 250MB of data to $150 for 10GB. If you’re blogging and uploading pics every day you will probably want to go for the higher plan.
TO MAKE CALLS OR USE THE INTERNET ON YOUR MOBILE PHONE: BUY A PRE-PAID TELSTRA SIM STARTER KIT
Since we’ve been back in Australia I’ve been using an Optus SIM and Terence has been using a Telstra SIM in our unlocked iPhones, so we’ve been able to compare the two services.
I’ve had ‘SOS only’ on my Optus at times when Terence’s Telstra has continued to have a good signal — everywhere from islands such as Kangaroo Island in South Australia to the Southern Spirit train journey we did from Brisbane to Adelaide that took us through remote rural areas. Even in Melbourne, my Optus service has been occasionally dodgy in city streets and seems to have a problem on high floors of hotels.
You’ll need an unlocked phone to pop the pre-paid SIM card in. The Telstra Starter Kit is $2 (again, take your passport with you) and you’ll need to choose a plan to suit you. There are various combinations of ‘talk & text’ and ‘text & data’, while something called the Telstra Pre-Paid Cap Encore does the lot. They cost $30 to recharge, which again gets you various amounts of calls and data. It’s pretty complex, so chat to the sales guys about how you’ll be using your phone.
I’ve had conversations with some of you on Twitter who have said you never use your phones to make calls, that you’ll phone family and friends back home on Skype. I hear you, but I’ve found the ability to make calls to be essential in Australia, especially for setting up meetings, interviews and photo shoots, making restaurant bookings, and phoning restaurants if we’re running late.
Aside from the fact many Aussies still prefer to use the phone over email, if you’re on a road trip and need to call ahead to book a motel or hostel in the next town (a town that has few accommodation options) or let them know you’re running late (many close their offices at 6pm), then you’re going to need a phone. Many won’t even be on email. Most still use fax!
Our Verdict on Telstra for Visitors
The Telstra options are expensive for foreign travellers not earning strong Aussie dollars, but through trial and error over the years we’ve learned that these are the best solutions for travellers getting out of the cities who want to stay connected.
If you’re only sticking to urban areas, then the Optus or Vodaphone SIM might be fine for you, but once you’re out of the big cities, you’ll be wishing (as I have) that you had a Telstra SIM. For accessing the net, and especially uploading our work, the Telstra 4G USB has provided us with some of the fastest Internet we’ve had in Australia and best coverage hands-down.