Travel set up in Cape Town, South Africa, August 2018

Wifi on the Road - my experience

Wifi on the Road - my experience

Even if you take a cursory glance at my website it must be clear: I love travelling. And I cannot be without internet access. Some people may like completely switching off on holiday, or to travel with only a tablet and a mobile phone. I, however, like to travel with everything and the kitchen sink ;) Usually I have six devices that can be connected to the Internet: three mobile phones (for various purposes), a tablet, a laptop and an E-reader.

Yes, it may be too much, and no, I don’t carry them all with me on the plane (some of it is in the hold), but I still like to have them. Particularly on holiday I enjoy taking a bit of time for tinkering. Tinkering that often does not happen when I am at home and my regular routine keeps me very busy. When travelling, I usually have more time for reading documentation for products.

Having your own network is also very practical for transferring data between computers, sharing a single VPN connection and it’s not uncommon for hotels to let only three devices access the internet. A router (whether hardware or software) can overcome these challenges.

Of course, if you share WiFi through a router, it means that you have to log in to the hotel’s network only once: all other devices will just follow the same connection. So if you set SSID + password the same as at home, you will have very little work setting up your mobile devices. They will just work™️!

This article will discuss of the approaches that I have tried for having Wifi on the road and will arrive at the solution I am currently using most, and that has proven itself to be very reliable. So much so that I rely on it for most of my travelling.

The devices discussed in this article

Internet at hotels

Almost always I stay at hotels, and I cannot remember the last time I encountered a hotel where internet was not included. Whereas a couple of years ago it was not unusual to find a wired connection, these have now disappeared for the large part. Wireless internet is now the standard. It is getting more common now to have properly managed installations, that is to say channels 1, 6 and 11 for 2.4GHz (so they don’t overlap eachother) and a similar setup for 5Ghz. Bigger rooms or suites often have their own access point in the room, neatly tucked away somewhere (with the LEDs turned off).

Usually, you need to access a captive portal before you can access the internet. In this case, often an access code or name and room number is needed. Occasionally, only an ‘agree to these conditions’ is necessary. Fortunately this type of connection is getting more frequent, especially in Germany.

(Almost) all wifi devices can be a host and a receiver at the same time. It means that 50% of the time, they will be listening, and the other 50% they will be transmitting information. They will do this very quickly, without the user noticing. It’s the same principle as a repeater. And yes, that’s loss of half the speed, but I still find it fast enough.

OpenWrt devices

For a while, I used TP-Link routers like the TP-Link TL-WR703N and its siblings (TL-WR710N and TL-WR720N). I liked them, and they worked well, although of course their CPUs are not too powerful and running an OpenVPN connection quite quickly maxed out the weakish internal CPU, not to mention the lack of memory to install all packages that your wanted. A few times I gave my routers away so I could buy the latest and greatest.

The routers in the beginning could in principle only be used for sharing the internet. Later routers also had the horsepower and storage space to run extra packages. A VPN connection was easy to set up, and features like adfiltering, an ad-hoc file server or even an audioplayer were not difficult at all.

You can read more about OpenWrt on this website. Think of OpenWrt as a special Linux distribution, for routers only.

GL-iNet

A couple of years ago, the Chinese company GL-iNet came on the market with a whole range of small routers, intended for travelling and embedded applications. I have had quite a few, and currently I still have two models. They come with their own modifications to the OpenWrt firmware, which I found useful when travelling. It’s trivial to install vanilla OpenWrt or another flavour. Let me discuss the hardware first though.

GL-AR150

Very small in size, the GL-AR150 is a capable small router. Of course, the SOC is not that powerful, so I often see the CPU max out when I set up a VPN connection back to my home network or my VPS in Germany. Due to the external antenna, the range is quite good, and it’s useful to connecting my laptop by cable, so the WiFi is freed up for either an external connection or for maximum speed when transferring files between my laptop and a mobile devices. It’s a useful addition to my arsenal.

GL-iNet AR150 router

GL-AR750

The most current router that I use is the GL-AR750. As you can see, it has three LAN-connections and the antennas are built-in. It is also dual band and has effectively two radios. Therefore it can connect to a network on say 2.4 GHz and then share it out on 5 GHz. In this case you don’t have the (theoretical) loss in speed I discussed earlier. It’s also a little neater from a network point of view.

GL-iNet AR750 router

This router does about 20MBps on a OpenVPN connection, which is fast enough (although I have seen quicker connections at hotels). I hoping (as the topic for another write up) to try Wireguard as a connection sometime, because it promises to be lighter on resources.

I have run the standard Gl-iNet firmware, vanilla OpenWrt, but my preferred firmware is Gargoyle.

Preferred version of OpenWrt - Gargoyle

My preferred version of OpenWRT whilst travelling is Gargoyle. I find it less complicated to set up, it’s available for a wide range of devices, including the Gl-iNet routers I discussed above. Don’t forget that in the forums you can often find development versions that work quite well.

One thing that needs to be noted is that often the DNS-servers need tweaking on Gargoyle, in order to actually reach the captive portals. The best result are usually had by adding the router, a DNS-server of the hotel and an external DNS-server. Well-known free servers such as 1.1.1.1 (Cloudflare), 8.8.8.8 (Google) and 9.9.9.9 (Quad9) are good options. Of course, you need this on one device only (in my case my laptop usually) to sign in once.

A few screenshots of Gargoyle:

General Gargoyle startup page overview

WiFi configuration Gargoyle

DNS selection for DHCP-server

All in all routing is as stable with Gargoyle as it is with OpenWrt, just easier to manage. It’s an easy install to try, and another software version is installed in minutes, so no reason no to try it out I guess.

The Gl-iNet routers are now easily bought through Amazon (they are listed on every country’s Amazon site) and the biggest disadvantage I’d say is that they take up some extra space, which is a sacrifice that can be made in most cases. I found that you don’t need a version with an external antenna, internal antennae are just fine for providing WiFi to a hotel room, even a suite. They are very low on power, the routers can easily be run from a USB-port on your laptop if you so desire. The price, by the way, is about € 50, so not very expensive.

Oblique’s create_ap script

And of course, the small routers are great, but it’s frustrating to hear that Windows 10 can share it’s own WiFi connection again. This needed a Linux solution, too, and soon I found oblique’s create_ap script. It’s one of those great open source products that deserves more attention. What is does is that (with some magic of software that come pre-installed on most Linux distibutions or can be easily installed) that the shared built-in WiFi connection is shared out again, in my case over an extra dongle.

My experience with this has been stellar. In one case last summer, it worked for 10 days straight without fail. I have a small extra WiFi dongle, labelled Edimax EW-7811Un that’s 2.4 GHz only, but is very small and works quite well. It has a Realtek chipset, and is supported out-of-the-box by most Linux distributions. It’s less than € 10 on-line. That small dongle covers an entire hotel room without difficulty.

Front and back side Edimax EW-7811Un - small piece of plastic snapped off while travelling

It means that I use the laptop’s built-in WiFi to connect to the hotel’s network and that the dongle in fact is my access point for the room. It’s also possible to share out the laptop’s WiFi or to receive on 2.4 GHz and use 5 GHz with the oblique script.

All in all, typical installation would look like this on a Linux Mint installation:

apt-get install hostapd git

(these two packages are usually not installed)

git clone https://github.com/oblique/create_ap
cd create_ap
make install

After that, setting up a simple AP for internet sharing is as such:

create_ap wlx74da382e09f1 wlp4s0 MyAccessPoint MyPassPhrase

Replace the names of the interfaces as they are in your laptop and of course the name of the access point and passphrase too. Remember to put straight double quotes around the password in case it contains special characters. You can find the names of the interface through ifconfig from the command line, or through your network manager in the graphical desktop.

You need to all this as root, for be sure to either become root through sudo -i or prefix the command above by sudo.

Besides actual physical interfaces, you can also use a virtual interfaces, such as a VPN connection.

As I said, I have found this to be very reliable solution. On shorter trips, paricuarly inside the EU, I no longer bother to bring one of the travel routers, which does save a little space and weight in the suitcase. If you set up a VPN connection on your laptop, then it will be shared through the access point.

Generic travel tips

In order to save more space and weight, I recommend getting one or two USB-chargers with multiple outlets. It’s getting more common to have USB-outlets in hotels (see my hotel reviews). Where possible, I use USB-C connectors, and a have a few cable that have dual USB-C/micro-USB connectors. The latest laptops have USB-C connectors that can also be used for charging.

Furthermore, if you want to bring ethernet cables (two is really enough), do get two very flexible cables like these, easy to manage and less weight, too. See a picture of my travel kit for intercontinental travel:

Some of the gear that I take with me

These flexible cables are available very cheaply on-line.

Conclusion

WiFi on the road is not just a nice to have, but an indispensable companion on travelling. Travel routers offer a great solution. They are easy to set up, very small, and they are very reliable. It’s quite special to hold an entire Linux server in the palm of your hand!

However, I have found that with the assistance of oblique’s create_ap script discussed in this article, it is is not always necessary to bring a travel router. Indeed, connections have held for more than a week without fail.

This article covered an IT topic. From time to time I publish articles on ICT on my website. If you want to read more, then follow this link.

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Wian Stienstra
ICT, Strategy, Marketing and More

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