Finding fast, reliable internet access while traveling is often harder than it should be—as you know if you’ve ever relocated to a coffee shop or spent hours bent over a knee-high table in a hotel lobby because the Wi-Fi connection in your room was lousy. Sure, you can use your phone’s cellular connection, but that can come with coverage outages or hefty roaming charges. Relief is now available in the form of mobile hotspot devices (often called MiFi).
How Does a Mobile Hotspot Work?
In the simplest terms, a mobile hotspot device is a modem, usually more or less pocket-sized, that connects to cellular towers and rebroadcasts the signal as a Wi-Fi network that you and fellow travelers can connect with at any time. When you use these devices, you are using a cellular data connection not unlike a cell phone data connection—but without piling up bytes against your cell phone data.
Most companies allow five to 10 devices to connect at one time, which is plenty for most travelers. Notably, the connection is secure, which spares you from connecting to unprotected public connections all the time. A few travelers I know skip hotel and cafe networks and rely almost entirely on mobile hotspots for this reason, especially when working on their laptops.
Most providers work in multiple countries out of the box, so if you are moving around there is no need to get new SIM cards, reset the device, or deal with other similar hassles.
How to Get a Mobile Hotspot Device
There are two main ways to obtain a mobile hotspot device: to buy your own or rent one for the duration of a trip. The former is a good option for folks who will need the coverage on several trips per year and don’t want to hassle with receiving and returning devices; there is usually a discount on the daily connection rate to help offset the cost. Renting is good for folks who don’t travel as frequently and don’t want to pay for the device, which typically costs anywhere from $49 to $99.
When purchasing a device, typically you buy it and then pay a set daily rate on days you connect to the service.
When renting, you’ll typically order a device via the company website for your travel dates. The company then ships a device to you by expedited delivery (or you can pick up at company and affiliate branches, or even at airport kiosks). The package you receive will include return mail instructions, packaging, and prepaid shipping and tracking labels, and at the end of your trip you ship it back (or take it to a provider office or kiosk if you prefer).
Reputable Mobile Hotspot Providers, with Pricing
I have used XCom Global in the past due to excellent coverage, service, and price point, but unfortunately they went out of business last month. Other providers include the following, with pricing for their unlimited data plans:
Tep Wireless: $8.95/day to rent; $99 for the device and $8/day when purchased; available in more than 100 countries
Skyroam: $9.95/day to rent; $149.99 for the device and $9/day when purchased; available in more than 110 countries
XOXO WiFi: 9.50 euros/day to rent; available in 110 countries
My Webspot: 9.90 euros/day to rent (with lower costs in select destinations), mostly Europe-based; delivers to your lodging and you return by prepaid post from the last country on your itinerary; available in more than 100 countries
For a longer trip, costs can start to pile up—but compared to the $14.95/day Wi-Fi cost I saw at a Boston hotel recently, which of course you could only use while in the building, it can pay off even for domestic trips.
Create-Your-Own Travel MiFi Option
You can also purchase an unlocked mobile hotspot device that is not tied to any specific service, and then purchase a SIM card in the country you are visiting—but for many travelers, the added hassle of finding, pricing out, and then visiting a SIM card provider upon arrival is not worth the trouble.
Mobile Hotspots Through Your Phone Company
Most cellular companies offer a hotspot option for your smartphone, which works great for many people. Your phone company’s plans may be cheaper than a mobile hotspot provider, too; for example, AT&T’s “Mobile Share” plans for up to 10 connecting devices range from $30 – $80/month for high-speed data up to 10 gigabytes a month, after which you get slower data speeds but still are not charged extra.
Remember, though, that cellular carriers have limited coverage areas, and their plans attach only to their own network, while most of the dedicated MiFi device companies establish relationships with multiple cellular carriers, which can greatly increase the effective coverage area.
This summer my family used a mobile hotspot device in the Lithuanian countryside, in Copenhagen, and in the Lofoten Islands in Norway, well above the Arctic Circle—and found coverage to be constant and most of the time faster than the Wi-Fi at our lodging.
Is the Connection Fast Enough?
Since you are using a cellular data connection, transfer speeds can slow down, especially when you connect multiple devices, but I have used these devices extensively and been satisfied in almost every situation. On my last two long trips, connection speeds were faster and more reliable on the MiFi device than the Wi-Fi at three of the four places I stayed. At one place, a rental house, the Wi-Fi was out for 36 hours due to a large Comcast outage, and the MiFi straight out salvaged the trip.
A sports photographer I know who has a monthly plan with his phone company told me that his connection is often better than hotels, and that it has been indispensable when shooting from hockey rinks—proof that you never know when or where you will need your own mobile hotspot.
Travel MiFi: What to Watch Out For
If you are renting a device temporarily, make sure you’re aware of the start and end dates of your contract. On a recent trip using XCom, for the start and end dates I was in airports in the United States, so I didn’t really need the MiFi those days but ended up paying for them nonetheless.
Understanding the coverage area is also critical. Some plans are cheaper than others but are available in fewer countries, so if you purchase based on price alone you may be disappointed.
Finally, all of the services above offer some version of unlimited data. If you are connecting more than one device and/or more than one person, the freedom and peace of mind that unlimited data offers is probably worth the few bucks you might save each day on a metered plan.
More from SmarterTravel:
- The 27 Best Apps for Solo Travelers
- These 20 Countries Have the Fastest Wi-Fi Speeds
- 12 Travel Apps You Need on Your Phone
Ed Hewitt is a seasoned globetrotter who brings you a biweekly glimpse into the latest travel news, views, and trends—and how they could affect your travel plans.