Keeping up with my constant stream of email and social media while traveling internationally has been the bane of my semi-nomadic lifestyle. As a freelance writer with constant deadlines, I need to be able to answer questions from editors quickly, no matter what the time zone. I have yet to master the art of the unlocked smartphone, however, and would have little spare time to find SIM cards in the countries I visit.
So for my two-week trip to Japan, I investigated “MiFi,’ a personal wi-fi device that essentially turns you into a mobile hotspot. The device, which can fit in your pocket, accesses a wireless signal through cell towers. Several companies, including Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and Virgin Mobile, sell MiFi devices with data plans as alternatives to in home internet service.
I was more interested in how it performed on the road. While I’ve been successful in cutting my previously high data roaming fees by using Skype for most of my international calling, I had been burned by high hotel wi-fi fees in Egypt. I worried that Japan would be the same (and savvy travelers warned me that the country didn’t have the public wi-fi resources that you’d might expect).
Enter Xcom Global. The company rents country-specific MiFi devices for about $14.95 per day. That might seem steep, until you realize that some hotels charge up to $25 for wi-fi in different countries (see Egypt, above). And with an ambitious itinerary that put me in a different hotel every night, I knew that having wi-fi at my fingertips, no matter what we were doing, would be worth the money.
The MiFi arrived by FedEx a few days before my trip. It came in with a small soft-sided case that included three batteries, a charge cord with different plugs, an instruction booklet and the sleek device itself. It packed easily in my carry on bag.
After my 12-hour trip to Osaka, I pulled out the MiFi device eagerly so I could check my email. I pushed the on button and found the network on my phone. Yet it wouldn’t connect. I read the instruction book several times to figure out what I was doing wrong. Finally, I figured out that I would have to adjust the password on my cell phone every time I wanted to use the MiFi signal. It was an annoying extra step, but manageable.
Over the next two weeks, I used the MiFi as much as possible (as you can see in this New York 1 video). One of the batteries that came with the kit refused to work, no matter how long I charged it. Which was unfortunate because the batteries ran out quickly. One nice thing about the device is that it goes into sleep mode when you’re not using it which saves a little bit of energy.
About that $14.95 fee: While it can be steep for an individual, it can be surprisingly cost-effective if you’re traveling with friends or family. One MiFi device can support five ; on bus and train trips, all four of the writers in our group were able to use the MiFi signal at the same time.
Returning the device after the trip was easy. I slipped it in the Fed Ex envelope that the company provided and sent it back (just like a video rental, the company gives you a few days to return it; after that, you’ll have to pay a late fee).
So would I get a MiFi device again? Perhaps. It turned out that many of our hotels in Japan did have complimentary WiFi so I wouldn’t have racked up the bills that I thought I had. But it was remarkably convenient to be able to check my email wherever and whenever I wanted (although some may argue that takes the relaxation completely out of trip). Whether or not MiFi is for you completely depends on how tethered you need to be.
My Mifi device was provided by Xcom Global, but my opinions are my own.