How to Minimise Internet Data Use While Travelling

Internet data use pie chart

Companies offering mobile data seem to have fixed their bandwidth limits sometime around the year 2000. 2 or 3 GB may sound a lot but you could use all of that on updates alone! Here are some tips for minimising the amount of internet data you use.

Switch off all data connections whenever possible. This means turning off wifi and mobile data (you should still be able to receive calls and texts). Even when you’re not browsing the web there are likely to be programs working in the background consuming bandwidth. When not using the device for long periods it's best to switch it off completely so you also save the battery.

Make use of free wifi. You will most likely encounter many places offering this. When it's available you should use it for high-bandwidth activities like uploading photos and downloading updates. Be aware that free wifi networks are highly insecure and any unencrypted communications will be open to interception by anyone else on the network. I'll be covering internet security for travellers in a future post.

Only allow updates when connected to wifi. Some devices have this as a setting. If not you can usually set the device to prompt before downloading updates or switch them off entirely. Windows 10, however, has caused controversy by giving users no control over downloading updates so this OS may not be ideal for travellers. It's tempting to abandon downloading updates completely but not advisable due to the security risks.

Switch off background programs as far as possible. Unfortunately this is becoming increasingly difficult on devices, particularly mobile ones that often come loaded with bloatware that can’t be removed. For Android devices it’s worth investigating how to ‘root’ the device but be very careful as this could make the device unusable and invalidate the warranty.

Don't use virtual assistants like Siri or Cortana. These tend to work in the cloud so could use a lot of data.

Turn off images, flash and javascript in browsers or use plugins to control them, e.g. noScript and uBlock.

Use an adblocker to stop data-heavy advertising on websites.

Uninstall Flash or use a browser plugin that allows you to enable it on a per-instance basis.

Use a browser like Opera Mini that compresses websites before sending them. This can be downloaded from app stores if you're using a mobile device. If using a laptop an emulator is required.

Utilise browser caching so you don't download the same stuff over and over again. This will be generally be enabled by default but you should check your settings and use a low delete/refresh cache frequency.

Consider paying a little extra for a premium version of an app rather than be served bandwidth-consuming ads. If those ads push you above your data-limit they might end up costing you more.

If using a desktop OS try surfing the web through the command-line, e.g. using Lynx or surfraw.

Use local rather than cloud storage (though it’s a good idea to back up important stuff when you can).

Avoid high bandwidth activities like streaming videos.

Use local programs rather than cloud-based ones. If keeping a blog there are offline blogging programs for most operating systems. You can compose blog posts offline then upload when ready.

If you use a local email program, e.g. Outlook, set email to download only headers (the email content will download when you open it). You may also want to adjust how often the program checks for emails, perhaps setting it do so only when connected to wifi, or only allow it to open manually. Another option is to use webmail.

Similarly, adjust or turn off automatic updates for any other programs that update in real time, like ones for weather and social networking. Better still, disable these programs from running automatically as they will also drain the battery.

Use offline maps. Google Maps now has the ability to load maps for offline use. Nokia maps, now called HERE maps, can also be used offline and have relatively small file sizes for the amount of information displayed. There are many other mapping apps which allow you to download maps to the device for offline use. If travelling by motor-vehicle or bicycle it may be worth investing in a dedicated navigation device rather than relying on a smartphone.

If blogging or using social media utilise aggregators and automators to repost content automatically rather than logging in to each site. There are online services like dlvr.it which allow you to do this or you could use a plugin like NextScripts: Social Networks Auto-Poster for Wordpress. Doing this can take a bit of work to setup but should save time in the long run as well as bandwidth. You should also try to compose blog posts and other content offline and post it when you are connected. Most platforms have programs which allow you to do this.

Don’t use Skype or any other sort of internet conferencing unless absolutely necessary. Use voice conferencing rather than video.

Use an RSS reader like Thunderbird or Vienna rather than going to a full website for things you check regularly like news.

Compress everything before uploading - if uploading multiple files zip them into a single compressed folder. Resize images before uploading. Be aware that data providers usually have smaller bandwidth allowances for uploading content than for downloading it.

In general try to use textual content rather than images or video as it uses far less data. If you really want to upload images and video do it when you have access to free wifi.

Make local copies of frequently used reference sites where the information doesn't change that often. There are tools to help you do this. You can download the whole of Wikipedia and read it offline. Aard Dictionary can be used to read Wikipedia and other reference sites offline.

To get an idea of how much data you use try downloading a bandwidth monitor or use the one installed in your OS. In Windows this is called the Task Manager and in OSx the Activity Monitor - if you’re using Linux you’ll probably know how to find it. These operating system monitors generally only tell you how much network data is sent for a particular session but it still gives you some idea of how much you’re likely to use over longer time frames. You will probably be surprised at how much data you use. Much of it is overhead and can be minimised by following the tips above.