It’s 45 degrees outside with a light rain and 40 mph winds and my wife is sitting in a doorway, huddled by her computer, teeth chattering, using a sketchy Wi-Fi signal a block from the Adriatic Sea in Polignano-A-Mare, Italy. My fingers are already numb from typing in the biting cold for two hours before she assumed command of our makeshift office, located right underneath a modem.
If you have the luxury of disconnecting from work while traveling and all you need to do is send and receive the occasional email, you’ll be just fine in Italy. But if you’re like us, and have to work while there and need a good, relatively fast Internet connection, you’re probably in for some of the same adventures we encountered.
Over the course of a five-week trip, mostly in small to medium sized cities all over Italy, staying in hotels and vacation rental apartments, we spent countless hours trying to make the most of tepid or non-existent connections. In unseasonably chilly Polignano-A-Mare, we realized the only true hotspot we had access to was in the doorway of the reception area for an apartment we rented; in Spoleto we had to sit literally in our windowsill to get a connection; in Parma I had to set up shop right on the front desk of the hotel; and in Lecce, we used an outdoor courtyard behind our apartment. What follows are some of the lessons we learned trying to get online in Italy.
Before you book a hotel or apartment rental, make your Internet needs abundantly clear. Many establishments offer what they call “Wi-Fi” but all they have is one modem somewhere in or near their establishment to service a number of rooms or apartments. Their “Wi-Fi” will allow you to check email but little else. When searching for places, make it very clear that you’re on a business trip – even if you aren’t – and tell them you need a place with consistent Wi-Fi.
Plenty of places will claim their Wi-Fi is just fine but some will be honest and tell you it’s fairly useless. I had one hotel manager in Parma respond to my inquiry about high-speed Internet with the following bluntly honest comment: “High-speed Internet?” he wrote. “There is no such thing in Italy.” I didn’t book with him, but I appreciated his honesty.
Don’t unpack until you check the signal. If Wi-Fi is important to you, check it in a few different spots in your room or apartment before you unpack. Speed varies wildly from one room to the next depending on the distance from the modem, thickness of the walls and other variables. Old, thick walls are a problem everywhere in Italy. Ask for a different room or apartment and see if the connection is better there.
If you’re traveling outside of the high season and think you’ll be spoiled for choice where you’re going, you might consider testing connections in person before committing to a place. But note that just because it’s working at the moment you try it, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll work in ten minutes, two days or a week later. My normal M.O. if I’m staying in a place for more than a week is to book the first night or two in a hotel, then relocate to a rental apartment. It’s one thing to be disconnected for a day or two, but quite another to have no access for a week or more.
When I went out to look for apartments, I’d bring my laptop with me and test the connection. In a few cases, I ended up renting apartments with sketchy Internet anyway, because there were no better options, but at least I knew what I was getting into.
Accept that there is no magic stick that works all over the country. I did a lot of research on this topic and tried a few sticks in different parts of Italy to no avail. I wish I could tell you to buy a stick from TIM or WIND or one of the other providers you’ll see at mobile phone shops all over the country, but the truth is that these sticks aren’t any better than finding random Wi-Fi connections in cafés, hotels and other hotspots.
There is also no way to tell you which sticks work best in which parts of the country, unfortunately. One stick might work in one place, but right across the street it’ll have no signal. What I can tell you is that most mobile phone shops will allow you to experiment with these sticks, and if they don’t work, you can bring them back. I tried them a couple times in different places and had no luck at all, but your luck might be different depending on where you are. Some shops will rent them on a daily basis for as little as 4 euros per day – which, if they work, is a bargain. Give them the address you’ll be staying at, and ask them which one works best in that area.
Move about the cabin. This probably goes without saying, but it’s especially true in Italy. Grab your laptop or mobile device and just move around with it, you’ll be amazed how the signal can improve just by moving a few feet.
Hope your laptop battery is good. I spent a ton of time using Wi-Fi outdoors, away from power outlets in Italy. If you have an older battery that has lost a lot of its mojo, this might be an issue for you. If you don’t want to get a new one, consider bringing a long extension cord – it might come in handy for you.
Bring your own Ethernet cable. I stayed in lots of different places, but none offered cables. Your speed will improve dramatically if you can plug into a modem. Obviously, this isn’t always going to be possible, depending on the setup, but in some cases it is. Bring a long cord because you never know what the situation will be.
Wi-Fi awards. I stayed in lots of different places all over the country but encountered just two places that had commendable Internet connections. Three cheers for the beautiful, brand new Santa Croce hotel in Lecce, and the Residence Perugia Chocolate in Perugia.
Don’t forget your sense of humor. You’ll find all kinds of businesses offering Wi-Fi in Italy, but very few have unsecured connections. Ask them for their password and keep track of which establishment has the most ridiculous one. I don’t know why, but nearly everyone in Italy has an absurdly long, complex password. I had a wine bar in Spoleto hand me a Wi-Fi password that had more than 30 characters! I didn’t bother using it, but I had a good laugh.
[Photo and video by Dave Seminara]