26 February 2011

Mobile internet in Italy

Being able to get connected while you're travelling is very useful – you can check Italy Heaven for holiday ideas, for a start.

Previously I've always used my laptop computer for internet access, but I've just acquired a couple of smartphones and did some research into accessing the internet in Italy, which I'll share here.

Hotels and public places

Most hotels offer some kind of internet access, and a wi-fi network is reasonably common. If this is important to you, check hotel details when you are booking. The more expensive the hotel, the more likely you are to have to pay extra for internet. Hotels in Italy don't all seem to have grasped that many travellers base their choices around connectivity. Choosing your hotel carefully, you should be able to find accommodation with free wi-fi internet access.

Some cities, including Rome and Florence, have public wi-fi hotspots, though these won't always be practical to use.

Internet on your computer / buying and charging up an Italian SIM card
You can use your phone as a modem, but it is more efficient to use a USB 'dongle'. I bought one some time ago from O2 in the UK, removed the O2 SIM card and replaced it with an Italian SIM card from Tim. Ever since I originally moved to Italy I've used a Tim card for phone calls and their pay-as-you-go services are quite efficient and easy to use. First you'll need to find a Tim shop – there are lots scattered around cities – and purchase a pay-as-you-go (ricaricabile) SIM card (Tim Card) – take your passport as ID. Then you add some credit if it doesn't already come with credit. Do this when you're buying the card. Ask if the shop assistant can help you set up the line to provide English-language automated messages and responses. I managed to set this up on my phone years ago, and it's very useful. It's easiest to stick the card in your mobile phone to sort out credit and internet subscriptions, then transfer it to your dongle when you're ready to go.

Future credits can be added at most lottery points, tabacchi and other businesses with the Tim sticker in the window. Sometimes this is done using a scratch card, sometimes the shopkeeper will operate a device in the shop to credit your phone. Ask for una ricarica Tim [ or other network] da [amount= dieci, venti, trenta] euro. You can also use some cashpoints to add credit to your phone, but as your card providers will probably add charges to your transactions, this can work out more expensive.

Check the Tim (or other provider) website for their offers for internet on your PC. Currently Tim do packages of 40 or 100 hours a month at €9 and €19, which you activate by sending the appropriate code in a text message to their customer service number. The first activation costs €5 and the offer is renewed each month if you have enough credit on your phone. Follow the instructions on their website if your computer does not connect automatically.

If, like me, you are going to be in Italy a lot of the time, these packages may not give you enough online hours. I have also subscribed to Vodafone Italia, which offers a monthly contract (no need for Italian documents, just a credit card) with a generous amount of usage. The only trouble is that where I live in Venice, the Vodafone signal is so weak that I have immense problems even getting online. I would recommend Tim as a more reliable option.

On your mobile phone
If you travel abroad often, and want to use your smartphone for internet access, the best deal for UK customers currently seems to be Vodafone, which includes a 'data traveller' package with many of its monthly contracts. This allows you to use 25MB per day of data in most countries including Italy. (They also have a service called Passport, which is good value if you want to make long phone calls home).

My experience with Vodafone in my first days with them has been mixed, however. Customer service is confused and mostly outsourced to India. I have had many different messages about my contract, and after happily using my phone for emails, Twitter etc. I received a message telling me I was being charged per MB. After an irate email to customer services I got a message back telling me I shouldn't be charged and I should 'avoid' the message (I assume they meant 'ignore'). So although the contract terms are excellent for travellers, and after 24hours glitch when I ported in my old number from a different network, the Vodafone service is working well, my recommendation is rather cautious.

If you don't mind swapping SIM cards around, your best bet is to get an Italian SIM card, as detailed above. Check that your mobile phone is unlocked first – some networks will do this free, others will charge you, and iphones are a particular problem. I bought a pay-as-you-go smartphone from Phones4U which came unlocked and free from network branding and software. I've now stuck my old Tim SIM card in it. At the moment Tim offer a couple of different pay-as-you-go packages for mobile internet. You can check the latest on their website. I'm currently paying €2 per week for a package called TIMXSMARTPHONE which provides up to 250MB per week.

Just make sure you have enough credit on your phone (sometimes their offers require you to have the requisite amount, plus an extra 2 euros credit). Then send an activation text message (e.g. for my chosen package it was TIMSMART ON) to 40916, and wait. I was online around 2-3 hours after sending my SMS.

Why is it so great?
I'm still getting the hang of this smartphone business, but I've already found many advantages. I'll write another article soon, listing my top travel apps and tips. The biggest advantage is simply access to information and to emails while you're on the move.