“Travel router” may not be on your vacation packing list, but after reading this article, you might be. Here’s why we always pack a router with us when we go to a hotel.
What is a travel router?
A travel router is a small network router that emphasizes portability and field use. While in theory you can use a travel router as your home internet router, that’s not what it’s meant to do.
Instead, travel routers must connect a small number of devices together. Your laptop and phone, your kids’ tablets, and maybe even a streaming stick in the hotel room — all of these are computers scattered throughout your home, not just smart devices.
They typically have a very small form factor, about the size of a portable battery pack or smaller. Speaking of which, many of them are portable battery packs, so you can use them to charge your phone while you travel in addition to their router function.
Also, unlike your router at home, travel routers have UI elements and even physical toggles that make it easy to quickly switch them between router mode, hotspot mode, repeater mode, and more.
That last part is important. You need a travel router that can easily connect to the hotel’s Internet in different and reliable ways. In some hotels, you can plug the travel router directly into the courtesy Ethernet connection in your room, which is easy.
In other hotels, there is no internet connection and you have to connect the travel router to the hotel’s wifi and use it in hotspot mode, where it grabs the wifi connection and then all your local devices connect to the travel. A router instead of the hotel’s Wi-Fi system.
Why use a travel router in a hotel?
You might be thinking, “That’s pretty tempting, but I don’t know why I’d go to the trouble?” If you’ve never considered packing a router (no matter how small it is) with your toiletries and phone charger, it’s definitely a fair question on your mind.
Historically, one of the best reasons to pack a travel router was that many hotels didn’t have Wi-Fi (business travelers only had an Ethernet port in the room to plug into their laptops).
Later, when hotels started getting Wi-Fi, they had frustrating policies like only one or two devices per guest/room being allowed on the network. Even today, some hotel Wi-Fi systems still have such rules.
When you use a travel router, you can “log in” the travel router to the hotel’s system, so as far as they’re concerned, there’s only one device in the room. All traffic from other devices goes through the travel router.
Speaking of device traffic, you can also use a travel router to increase your privacy. Most travel routers support basic VPN protocols like PPTP or L2TP, and advanced ones support OpenVPN and WireGuard.
This makes it easy to navigate from your room to a third-party VPN or to your corporate or home VPN server. It also makes it easy to securely transfer files between your devices as file transfer takes place over the micro network you set up, and files never pass through the hotel’s infrastructure in any way.
It makes it much easier to use your devices in the style you’re used to. For example, you can set your travel router’s Wi-Fi credentials to match your home network’s Wi-Fi credentials. Not only does it make it easier to log in when you get to the hotel (since your phone and laptop already know the way “home”), but you can throw your Chromecast or favorite streaming stick in your bag and use it. Your hotel room. Forget the silly “smart” TV interface in hotels and enjoy your streaming services the way you want without lag.
Which Travel Router Should You Get?
After all, when you’re shopping for a travel router (whether you choose one of our recommendations or do some research yourself), you need this feature: a captive portal connection.
You know how when you first connect to a hotel’s Wi-Fi, you get the pop-up page that asks you to accept the terms and conditions and/or sign in with your name and room number? That is the portal. You need a router that “captures” your initial login device (like your iPhone) by transmitting and mirroring it.
All of our picks below support easy captive portal transfers that will trigger setup when you first arrive in your hotel room. Without that feature, you’re left with manually cloning the MAC address of your original login device, which usually works but can be hit or miss.
One of the most popular options on the market is the TP-Link N300 Nano Router. It’s a steal at around $30, but it’s starting to show its age.
It only supports 802.11n (Wi-Fi 4) in the 2.4 GHz band. But for ten bucks more, you can go from the N300 Nano Router to the TP-Link AC750 Nano Router.
TP-Link TL-WR902AC AC750
It’s small, cheap, and our top pick for the best travel router. For most people, this is an easy solution.
The upgraded model has dual-band Wi-Fi, 802.11AC (Wi-Fi 5) and a very convenient switch on the side, which makes it easy to change modes without logging into the router.
While we love the TP-Link Nano line, especially the newer models, and think they’re the perfect fit for everyone, there are a few other options to consider.
If you want more advanced VPN solutions, you should look beyond TP-Link’s offerings and consider the GL.iNet GLMT300N—which is similar to the TP-Link N300 Nano Router, but runs the popular OpenWRT router firmware and supports. Both OpenVPN and WireGuard.
If you’re looking to upgrade the TP-Link AC750 Nano Router, consider the GL.iNet GL-A1300.
For power users who want passthrough connectivity to Ethernet devices and advanced VPN services like Wired, this travel router offers.
It also runs OpenWRT firmware and the same robust VPN support as its smaller sibling, but includes two additional Ethernet ports, support for multiple Wi-Fi devices, and more.
But whichever of our picks you go with, you’ll be the master of your Wi-Fi destiny when you’re on the road. Forget bad hotel Wi-Fi or frustrating Wi-Fi rules. Plug in your own router. Hey, if you’re in the mood to upgrade, here are some other travel gadget upgrades worth checking out.