When traveling, take your Wi-Fi with you

It seems that every time I take a trip, I find a new piece of electronic gear I absolutely must bring along. On my most recent trip, that new piece of gear was a mobile hot spot.

I obtained the device, called a MiFi for Mobile Wi-Fi, from Cellhire USA, a company that rents such devices along with “sanitized” smartphones that travelers can rent to reduce their risk of losing valuable date – or even considerable amounts of money – if their own smartphones were lost or stolen. Cellhire loaned me the MiFi unit for my recent trip to Poland so that I could use it, evaluate it, and review it.

The MiFi unit, made by a Chinese company called Huawei, is no bigger than a cell phone and comes with a case that can clip to one’s belt or purse, briefcase or backpack. Powered up, the MiFi searches for an available cell signal over which to transmit the data, has access to multiple carriers world-wide and offers connectivity for up to 10 devices at a time.

I first used the device, the Huawei M5786, on the train between Warsaw and Kraków. Once I put the pass code, located on the back of the device in really small numbers, into my tablet, I was connected automatically.

In all, the device worked fairly well. Considering that I was on a moving vehicle which, at times, passed through rural areas where there was no cell coverage, the connectivity was fairly consistent and surprisingly fast.

Connection speeds were actually better than some of the Wi-Fi I’ve measured at hotels were I’ve stayed. Download speeds, as measured by Speakeasy.net/speedtest, were about 1.78 Mbps with upload speeds about 0.75 Mbps - more than adequate for checking email and even voice chat via Skype, though the instruction materials included with it recommended against using it for video chats or other high-bandwidth applications.

MiFi mobile hot spot

When I returned to Warsaw, I decided to see how the unit would function in an urban environment. I clipped the MiFi to my belt, grabbed my iPad, and headed to the street where I would catch a tram to a restaurant for breakfast. Pointing the iPad to the Google Maps app and connecting through the MiFi, I essentially had my very own GPS unit. I followed the arrow on the app, which stayed pretty current thanks to the MiFi, and got to my breakfast spot quickly. After breakfast, I put in the address to a nearby museum and, once again, the combination of Google Maps and the MiFi’s connectivity got me directly to my destination.

The cost of this convenience can actually represent a savings over other connectivity options. Cellhire's package rate for a "European 1 GB solution" that includes 1 gigabyte of data is $59.00, plus shipping, which can save travelers money in a number of ways.

Using a U.S. device overseas will almost always incur roaming charges, which can be considerable. Even purchasing a European travel package from your U.S. carrier can be more expensive than a MiFi. For example AT&T's "Passport Pro" international roaming package includes 800 MB of data at a cost of $120. Phone calls overseas are at an additional $0.35 per minute on that particular plan.

It is also clearly more economical than paying piecemeal. An email sent to the MiFi device by Vodafone, the cellular system to which the device had connected, advised that, “As you’re in our Europe Zone 1 it costs 19.8p/MB … to use data.”At those rates, using 1 GB of data would cost more than £200, or almost US$300. Those rates don't apply to the rental MiFi, as data is included in the monthly rate.

Using a MiFi device can also save the cost of connecting to hotels' Wi-Fi networks. While some hotels offer free Wi-Fi to some or all of their guests, many hotels levy a daily charge for the service. A MiFi can allow travelers to avoid those charges.

Then there is the convenience. A hotel's Wi-Fi signal is only available when on the hotel property. Occasionally, guests must reconnect to a different network when moving from their rooms to a common area like the lobby, a meeting room or an on-site restaurant. A MiFi device allows travelers to stay connected seamlessly.

That said, while it is definitely convenient to use the MiFi exclusively, it is hardly necessary in today's urban environments. Even in Poland, so many establishments offer free Wi-Fi that it was a simple matter to take what I thought would be the prudent approach: I used free services when they were available and the MiFi when they were not.

As it turned out, I has used my MiFi device quite conservatively indeed. As I started to write this post, aboard the express train from Kraków to Warsaw, I had used a bit over 11 MB of data. By the end of the trip, I had used about 25 MB. Considering that 1 GB of data is 1,024 MB, I could have made considerably more use of the device and probably not even come close to the data allowance included with the package.

However, the growing number of establishments offering free Wi-Fi caused me to wonder about the future for the device.

Do you remember digital audio tape? A fine technology that produced an audio signal far superior that analog cassette tape, but one that didn’t last long because the state of the art quickly advanced to the point where digital sound recordings were stored on memory cards and chips, turning digital tape into a dinosaur.

With places from individual businesses like restaurants to larger areas like whole shopping malls to roadside rest areas in some regions of the country offering free Wi-Fi and cable providers like Comcast working to create “millions of hot spots,” I wonder how long it will be before MiFi devices are rendered obsolete.

But honestly, that probably doesn’t matter in the short run. For now, if you want to be sure you’ll be able to connect to the Internet when you want and on your terms, perhaps a MiFi unit should be your new traveling companion.

Visit my main page at TheTravelPro.us for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.

Photo by Carl Dombek
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