ZURICH, Switzerland--I've never had this nightmare, but I can easily imagine how it goes: My deadline is fast approaching, and I haven't uploaded my story yet. The only way to do so is to get online, but I have no Internet. All the Wi-Fi is slow, or doesn't work, and the clock is ticking away. I wake up screaming.
This could easily have been my real-life nightmare anytime this summer as I traveled throughout Europe on Road Trip 2011, filing stories and photo galleries nearly every day on the wide range of places I visited--tunnel projects, air shows, manufacturing plants, great bridges, and so much more. But I never had to worry. I was fully covered.
A few months ago, my colleague Kent German traveled to Spain for a conference. When he returned, I mentioned I was going to be all over Europe this summer, and was trying to figure out how I'd get good Internet access. I was dreading the idea of trying to navigate the workings of carriers in more than a half dozen countries, and the potential fees for large amounts of daily broadband could have been ruinous.
German said he had the answer: MiFi from Xcom Global. Just like MiFi--little mobile hot spots--from U.S. carriers like Verizon and Sprint, Xcom Global's cards put out a Wi-Fi signal that can connect up to five devices. But these do the job in foreign countries.
After reaching out to Xcom Global, I was in business. Though the company's MiFi can only handle one country per SIM card, Xcom Global agreed to provide me with review units for each country I would be visiting, except Denmark. And off I flew to Europe, seven of the little cards stuffed in my suitcase. Too bad the trip started in early June. This week, Xcom announced its new, a card that covers nearly all of Western Europe, including all the countries I visited--even Denmark.
The reality, though, was that I had no idea how they'd actually work. I admit that I was a bit nervous that the actual performance would be weak: that I'd be able to get online, but in name only. I fretted that uploading 25 photos at one time might prove to be the kind of banging-your-head-against-the-wall experience I'd had so many times on previous Road Trips in hotels in the U.S.
I needn't have worried. With just a few exceptions, the MiFi was just what I needed. Time and again, I turned one on, opened my MacBook Air, and jumped straight onto the Internet. I could even open a browser and see how strong the signal was, and how much battery was left.
Xcom Global charges customers $15 a day for unlimited connectivity abroad, and when you rent one of their devices, you have to pay that rate for the duration of your trip. That means that I'd have had to fork over more than $900 if I hadn't been road-testing MiFi. But most business travelers aren't gone for two months, so their fees would be substantially lower.
To be sure, there are plenty of other ways to get online when traveling. Hotels--and sometimes cities--offer Wi-Fi, you can buy SIM cards for your smartphone, and there's always Internet cafes. But I've gone that route, and it can be incredibly frustrating. You can never count on the quality (or the existence) of the signal, prices can vary, and it can be difficult to navigate instructions in languages you may not understand.
Then there's opening your bag, pulling out your MiFi device, powering it up, and jumping straight online. I chose that option. Producing daily content for Road Trip can be all-consuming, and learning quickly that I could depend on the devices (which means, of course, the national carriers serving up the connectivity) as I worked my way through Switzerland, Germany, The Netherlands, France, England, and Italy was a huge relief. Once I found that they were doing the job, even in small towns, I rarely found myself having to solve the problem in other ways.
Using MiFi wasn't the solution for everything, of course. When out and about in cities all over Europe, needing to do a quick e-mail or map check, it would usually have been too unwieldy to pull out the MiFi, and even if I'd wanted to, the batteries may not have cooperated. For that kind of job, I relied on an iPhone that had service all over Europe (more on that in my review of the Apple products I tested). But more times than I could count, during a lunch break, over dinner, in the evening, or whenever, I found that MiFi was absolutely the way to go.
So would I recommend the service to fellow travelers? Easily. I might counsel them to consider how much they truly need to get online, and whether the $15 per day fee is something they want to pay over an extended period of time, but for a short trip, or for someone traveling longer who simply could not afford to be without Internet connectivity, it's a no-brainer.