Traveling with a Roku: Everything you need to know
Streaming Netflix is probably not on your mind when you think of vacation. But you’d be surprised how useful a Roku Streaming Stick or Roku Express can be when you’re traveling.
After spending 10 days in Aruba, I’ve come back with some important intel about traveling with a Roku on hand. Not all streaming services work outside of the U.S. Most of them don’t. But I’ve found plenty you’ll want to know about before taking your next vacation.
I’m giving you a rundown of all the Roku apps that worked well for me in Aruba.
The success you’ll have with using these same apps outside of the United States may vary. My goal here is to cut down on the time you’ll have to spend on figuring out what works so you can enjoy more sun, and less time searching through Roku’s thousands of apps.
I brought along a Roku Streaming Stick for the trip, but the newer Roku Express would be just as effective for travel purposes.
If you’re streaming a Roku from a hotel room, then you may need to set up your own WiFi with a portable router like a HooToo. I’ll get back to that in a moment. You might scoff at the idea of watching TV while in a sunny locale.
Here’s the truth: there’s some nights where you’ll be inside. And if you’re traveling with kids, bringing along some entertainment from home can make your trip a lot more enjoyable for everyone.
YouTube: the best app for vacation
YouTube was the most useful app during the trip for its overall versatility. There was PBS Kids shows like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood for my nephews and daughter to watch. Once the kids were in bed, there were plenty of free concerts, stand-up comedy and documentaries for the adults. Even when you’re home, you can find hours of free documentaries and independent movies up for grabs. The same is true when you’re traveling.
Liner notes: The PBS Kids app restricts streaming outside of the U.S. so YouTube really came through big. Adding the YouTube Kids app to your Roku before you hit the road is also a good idea.
Netflix: Diverse content from other countries
After reading a piece in The New York Times about Chris Rock, I definitely wanted to check out his new comedy special on Netflix. It was great to see a new special from Rock, especially while relaxing and catching up with family. We watched Lucky Logan another night, which came to Netflix in the U.S. this month.
My brother-in-law scrolled through Netflix’s menus and soon realized that there were a number of shows and movies available in Aruba that you couldn’t get in the U.S. There were Showtime produced series like Billions. And movies like The Empire Strikes Back. The movie’s scrolling opening narrative was in Spanish, but the rest was in English like the U.S. version of the film.
CBS News: Live news while on vacation
Having the CBS News app gives you live around-the-clock news coverage so you can keep up on breaking news. This is great for anyone who wants to keep up on what’s happening in politics, oddball weather around the U.S. or breaking news.
In between its comprehensive news coverage, you’ll find segments from 60 Minutes and CBS Sunday Morning. CBS News is one of the best news apps out there, and being able to stream it outside of the U.S. makes it even more valuable. I was surprised the CNNgo app didn’t work, especially because one of its better features is the live streams of CNN, CNN International and HLN.
tubiTV: for movies and TV shows
I admit that I don’t use tubiTV much at home, but I gave it a whirl while on vacation. You may not find the latest top grossing films on TubiTV. The on-demand platform had about 4,100 movies and TV shows available to stream. That’s a lot of content.
The best way to figure out what’s worth watching is by heading over to the site JustWatch using a tablet, smartphone or laptop that you brought along on your trip. JustWatch will quickly show you the most popular movies to watch across a number of genres, and it does it in a much faster way than TubiTV’s current interface. TubiTV recently began using AI software and deep learning to customize recommendations. So you may already be seeing movies and TV shows that you want to watch.
While I was away, “True Grit”, “The Hurt Locker” and “The Manchurian Candidate” were among the most popular titles available to stream on TubiTV.
PLEX: worked great for local media on laptop
You’ll likely be taking along a camera or using your smartphone to capture the memories from your vacation. I brought along a GoPro Hero Session to capture some video and still photos of my daughter and nephews during our day trips around the island. Being able to stream video and photos to the TV in the living room using the Roku and Plex app was really neat. My in-laws could easily check out all the neat video footage I shot from a butterfly farm that we visited earlier in the day. Nobody had to wait to see what the GoPro had captured during our adventures.
Plex also had its news feed available to watch while we were away, so that was an extra news option on top of the CBS News app. I don’t have any movies on my latop, but if I did, I would have been able to stream them over WiFi to the Roku as well.
Popcornflix: best app for thrillers
Popcornflix proved to be useful while I was traveling. The best movies were in the Thriller section. Shudder Island, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (and its two sequels) and the Mesrine films were available for streaming and worthwhile to watch. The Mesrine films has been called the French version of Scarface.
Dead Shows: Grateful Dead shows on tap
For Grateful Dead fans like my father in law, having all your live shows on hand are essential for travel. He had a couple of options for listening to his favorite band live. If your TV setup at your travel destination has a soundbar, you can stream the Dead Shows app. The collectioin of live shows from the Grateful Dead, The Dead and Dead & Company goes back decades. He also streamed from SiriusXM on his smartphone. I didn’t have a chance to fire up the SiriusXM app on Roku. (I was on vacation, after all.) But I am going to assume that the SiriusXM app worked on Roku as well. Drop a note in the comments section if you found otherwise.
What Roku apps didn’t work outside the United States?
Just about every so-called TV Everywhere app restricted viewing, particularly for live streaming, outside of the U.S. Amazon Prime Video didn’t work for me.
Other free apps like Pluto TV didn’t work either, which was a surprise and too bad because it’s one of my favorite platforms for free television. FilmStruck was also a no-go outside the U.S.
Can I use Hulu outside of the United States?
No. There are exceptions for U.S. Military bases, and Japan. Hulu suggests that may change eventually.
What to bring when traveling with a Roku
Bringing along a Roku Streaming Stick was so useful on vacation I won’t travel again without one. Here’s what I also learned: Bringing along some portable hardware to improve the WiFi signal is a good call.
If you’re streaming from a hotel, you may need to bring along a WiFi router. A portable WiFi router like a HooToo Travel Router is probably your best bet. The HooToo also doubles as a charger for your smartphone, and can function like a NAS, so you can bring along a hard drive or flash drive that you use to store videos or movies.
The house that I rented with my family was using what looked to be a dated modem-and-router combo unit. It worked surprisingly well, but could have provided better range at times.
Even though everyone’s smartphone was set to Airplane mode, our entire family was using them to read news or look up local attractions. My nephews also used their iPad and Amazon tablet to watch a few shows.
I could have also brought along part of my Nova mesh network to easily create a bridge network. You can easily connect a Nova unit to any router, and significantly expand your WiFi range in one click from the app on your smartphone. Have you ever traveled with your Roku? What’s your favorite app to stream when you’re on the road? Tell fellow readers in the comments below.
MENTIONED IN THIS ARTICLE
Founder and Editor of The Cord Cutting Report. Before launching the site in 2016, he worked for more than two decades as a staff writer or correspondent for a number of daily newspapers, including The Boston Globe. His enthusiasm for tech began with the Atari 2600. Follow @james_kimble