The goal here was to utilize Xcom Global’s MiFi rental service to stay connected and work while traveling. The trip? Four days in England, followed by three in France. I was scheduled to shoot my first international wedding in Paris, and was spending a few days in England beforehand — partly to enjoy the country, and partly to ensure that no weather problems in the US delayed my flight over. Xcom Global provides a service that every US-based international traveler should consider: they rent MiFi devices for a host of nations (a list that seems to grow each month), and if you aren’t familiar with a MiFi, the concept is pretty simple: it’s a battery-powered pebble with a country-specific SIM card in it. Just press a button, and within a few seconds, you’ll have a WiFi signal that connects up to five devices to a country’s 3G network.
For example, a French MiFi gives you unlimited 3G data with Orange. So long as you keep a charged battery in there, you can leave your smartphone in airplane mode and still use Google Maps to get around a foreign city — just connect your phone to the MiFi over Wi-Fi. If you aren’t familiar with what it costs to use data internationally, it’s around $5 per megabyte. What does that mean? Downloading the emails you missed on the flight over could easily cost $20, and if you maintained that connection for a whole day? It’s easy to rack up $300 or more in data roaming charges. No US carrier offers a decent international plan (at least not anymore), so you’re really left with two options: struggle to find Wi-Fi, or use Xcom Global. These guys will rent you a MiFi for under $20 per day, with return shipping included. That means unlimited Wi-Fi for around $17 a day in a foreign country, and it’s a connection that multiple people can use at once. If your hotel wants to ding you 10 Euros per day for Internet, just use this — problem solved. It’s an awesome way to stay connected while abroad, but honestly, it’s more than that. For mobile professionals, it’s a necessity.
I love my husband very much, I really do. But even he was kicking himself when we took off from the US and realized our MiFis were still in their shipping bag in our vehicle, safely parked at the airport, slipping further and further from Manchester. This piece was slated to be a review of Xcom’s services; instead, it has morphed into a thesis on just how frustrating it is to visit a foreign country without their services. You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone — isn’t that what they say? Read on for more.Both my husband and I were scheduled to continue working while in England. The plan was to use Xcom’s MiFi in our hotel rooms to check up on emails nightly, return any missed calls via Skype and then use the Internet on-the-go. We’d never been to Manchester, and we were banking on using Google Maps Navigation to get us from our train stop to our hotel. Needless to say, we spent nearly 10 Pounds on a taxi ride that we could’ve easily walked if we had the Internet to guide us. And that’s just the beginning. We arrived at our first hotel, a Holiday Inn. It’s a fine place, but they wanted 15 Pounds for 24 hours of Internet usage. Internet that we couldn’t take with us when exploring the streets of Manchester.
At this point, the only reasonable alternative was to find an O2 store, which sells a pay-as-you-go SIM for 15 Pounds that includes 500MB of data. But alas, it’s hard to locate an O2 store when there’s no Internet to find a store locator. We run downstairs and spend a solid ten minutes attempting to take directions from the front desk, and then another 15 minutes wandering aimlessly to a bus station. And then another 30 walking to a mall, and then another 30 waiting for the SIM to be activated. After our entire first morning in England was shot, we finally had data — on one phone, and we could only use around 100MB per day. After that, it forced us to wait until midnight for the next block of data to become usable.
This was obviously far from ideal. We were fortunate enough to own an unlocked smartphone (a standard Apple iPhone from AT&T would never accept another carrier’s SIM, for example). Plus, the Nexus One has a Mobile Hotspot function that pipes 3G data out over Wi-Fi. This enabled us to check our emails on our laptops, but O2 badly compresses all images that are uploaded, so obviously I was unable to create any photo blogs using this solution. To say that this wasn’t the perfect solution would be a tremendous understatement. Had we been in possession of Xcom’s MiFi, we would’ve had unlimited data to use as we saw fit, without any image compression or daily usage limits. Even if you aren’t interested in working while overseas, having the ability to use Google Maps to search for eateries and monuments (and get directions) is a total godsend. Without a MiFi, the only way to do it is to pay absurd roaming charges or to rent a SIM card — provided you own an unlocked device.
Eventually, we took a train to London. There, our hotel also wanted 15 Pounds per day for Internet access, which just so happened to go down for a critical five hour period where my husband was scheduled to make an important Skype call back to the United States. We had already used up the 100MB daily allotment through O2, so it was off to the streets in a frantic attempt to find an open Wi-Fi hotspot. Considering that we had no mobile Internet to guide us, we were forced to remain on streets we had visited the day before and knew were well-lit. It was closing in on 9PM, and we had already spent an hour on Regent Street — one of London’s most popular roads — with no luck whatsoever. The Starbucks closed at 8:30PM, and the only coffee shop that we could find with later hours wanted to charge us 5 Pounds for using their Wi-Fi for just 1.5 hours.
In the end, we ended up standing outside of a locked Apple Store door, borrowing their free Wi-Fi long enough to complete a 20 minute phone call. Something that would’ve taken 20 minutes if we had Xcom’s MiFi in our hotel room ended up taking around two hours, and rather than being able to have a private call, everyone on Regent Street could pass by and have a listen.
In France, it was even worse. Hardly any of the signage is in English, which left us with little choice but to Google Map something in our room and then write down instructions before heading out. We were also unable to make Skype calls on the go, as we weren’t able to procure a local SIM here. Unlike the UK, there’s no carrier in France that openly sells prepaid SIM cards with data; it’s possible to get one from SFR, but it takes over a day to activate and it requires fluency in French to sort through a phone menu to have the data feature added.
In the end, I found it interesting that going a week overseas without Xcom’s Global MiFi rental service is the best possible advertisement for the service. It may be easy to assume that “you’ll be fine” without Internet access, but consider the life that most of us lead today. We’re perpetually connected. We rely on Google Maps to get us anywhere. We lose connections with people if email sits around for two days. And as for ponying up for Internet at the hotel? That’s a frustration that no traveler should have to face. Looking back, I would have gladly paid Xcom Global $17 per day to have unlimited access to the Internet both in my hotel and everywhere I traveled to while overseas. Suffice it to say, this has taught me to never leave home without one when traveling abroad — in my mind, it’s just as essential as a passport. If you still have your doubts, you could head overseas for a week and do your best to find the Internet. I wouldn’t recommend it, though.