Xcom Global’s MiFi rental service: why you shouldn’t leave the US without one

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.

Weekending: Varna, Bulgaria

weekend bulgaria travel varna
Back in September, the end of the Muslim month of Ramadan offered locals and expats like me an excuse to go on holiday while our American friends were celebrating the end of summer and Labor Day. With more time to explore than a typical Weekending trip, I checked out Turkey’s most western neighbor, Bulgaria, and fell in love with modern and medieval captials Sofia and Veliko Tarnovo.

The place: Varna, Bulgaria

Varna is known as the summertime capital of Bulgaria, a Black Sea beach town that’s a destination unto itself with several notable museums, an active cultural scene, and the gateway to the coastal resort towns.

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  • Unlike many of the purpose-built, touristy resort towns that litter the coast, Varna manages to maintain a nice balance of beach town and actual city. Pedestrian streets Knyaz Boris and Slivnitsa are great for window shopping and people watching day and night, and Varna has a handful of quirky and interesting museums to visit. The Archaeology Museum is one of the country’s best, and my visit to the creepily-cool Medical History museum (with nice Bulgarian lady following me around turning lights on and off as in VT) was one of my favorite travel experiences. Strolling the Sea Garden is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, though the zoo is maybe the grimmest I’ve seen yet (I could have easily stuck my head into the lion’s cage with no interferrence) but with admission under $1, it’s hard to complain.
  • The variety of daytime diversions extends to nightlife too, with everything from sceney beach clubs to seedy casinos to dive bars. Indian Bar has an eclectic decor of Native American art and Italian soccer banners which manages to be more charming that offensive, while Saloon Bar is just the kind of place I’d love in my neighborhood: cheap drinks, good music, and a bartender that remembers you after one drink. Varna is also the birthplace to Happy Bar & Grill, a chain restaurant all over Bulgaria (and now in Spain too) that resembles a love child of Hooters and T.G.I. Friday’s, in the best sense. Happy has a vaguely nostalgic rock-and-roll Americana theme going on, a menu of Bulgarian food and pizza (they also have some sushi restaurants), and waitresses clad in miniskirts and nude pantyhose. There are several location including a tiki beach bar, and any of them are good spots to take advantage of free wi-fi, decent coffee, and as many ’80s music videos as you can handle. Varna is a bit pricier than other towns in Bulgaria but still a steal by Western standards.

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  • Lovely as Varna may be, the travel season is really limited to summer. While there is plenty to do in cool weather, there is greatly reduced transportation in and around town, many waterfront cafes will close in winter, and you’ll miss out on experiencing the summer scene. The Black Sea has been the hot weather refuge of many Europeans for decades and Varna retains some old-school (and Communist-era) flavor (see the above photo of the thermal pools frequented by the elder residences) while joining the modern world with boutique hotels and sushi restaurants popping up to serve a growing international clientele. If you visit Bulgaria in cold weather, your time would be better spent exploring the old towns and museums in central and western Bulgaria.
  • I’d be remiss in wrapping up a series on Bulgaria without pointing out the obvious obstacle: Cyrillic. Invented in Bulgaria and not Russia, the alphabet is less complicated than you think but takes some adjustment and practice to feel comfortable reading signs and maps. I was fortunate to travel with my Russian-speaking husband who could at least read the alphabet (though Russian and Bulgarian are as dissimilar as English and Spanish) but I got the hang of it quickly enough. Rather than trying to memorize the alphabet in advance, transcribe a few key and familiar words, such as your name, your hotel, and the towns you are visiting so you can begin to recognize the characters. Also, Bulgaria’s quirk is the reverse head nod: they nod horizontally for yes, vertically for no. This feels very foreign the first time you experience it but makes an odd sense after a few days.

Getting there

Most of the international flights to Varna are from Eastern Europe, though the great budget carrier Wizz Air flies from London and Sofia. Bus service is excellent throughout the country (about 7 hours from Sofia) or from Istanbul (10 hours) or Bucharest (7 hours), but train service is slower and less comfortable.

Make it a week

Rent a car or bus hop along the coast if the weather is good, taking note that if a town has a foreign name (like Golden Sands) it’s probably an overbuilt tourist town. You could also combine with other regions of Bulgaria. I fit in Sofia, Veliko Tarnavo, and Varna comfortably in an 8 day Saturday – Sunday trip, traveling between cities by bus and returning to Sofia for my international flight on Wizz Air.

Read about more Weekending trips here.

Q & A with Grantourismo round-the-world slow travel bloggers

Lara Dunston Grantourismo travel round the world bloggersWith all the holiday travel madness just beginning, sometimes it’s nice to take a breath and think about taking travel more slowly. I recently had a chance to meet up with blogger Lara Dunston and her photographer-writer husband, Terence Carter, of the round-the-world travel project and blog, Grantourismo while they were traveling through Istanbul. Lara and Terence hosted me at their fabulous terraced apartment with glasses of Turkish wine, travel chat, and views of nearby Taksim Square and the nostalgic tram.

Grantourismo is a yearlong grand tour of the globe to explore more enriching and ‘authentic’ (and they get how those words have been debated and abused by travel bloggers!) ways of traveling, which began in Dubai this February and will wrap up in Scotland in January. In order to slow down and immerse themselves in each place, they are staying in vacation rentals (rather than hotels) in one place for two weeks at a time.

Read on for more about their slow travel philosophy, tips about renting a holiday apartment, and how they found Austin’s best tacos.

What’s the essence of Grantourismo?
We’re attempting to get beneath the skin of the places we’re visiting and to inspire other travelers to do the same. We’re doing very little sightseeing and if we’re taking tours, we’re doing small group tours with expert local guides ran by sustainable companies, such as Context. Mostly we’re experiencing places through their food, markets, music, culture, fashion, street art, sport, etc, and doing things that locals do in their own towns rather than things tourists travel to their towns to do. We’re trying and buying local produce and products, and seeking out artisanal practices we can promote. We’re also highlighting ways in which travellers can give something back to the places they’re visiting, from planting trees in Costa Rica to kicking a football with kids in a favela in Rio. And we’re blogging about this every day at Grantourismo!

How did you make it a reality?
Our initial idea was 12 places around the world in 12 months, learning things like the original grand tourists did. Terence, who is a great musician and a terrific cook, wanted to work in a restaurant kitchen and learn a musical instrument while I was going to enroll in language classes and learn something different in each place. But we couldn’t figure out how to fund such a project. We were lucky in that I saw an ad from HomeAway Holiday-Rentals (the UK arm of HomeAway) looking for a travel journalist-photographer team to stay in their vacation rentals and blog about their experiences for a year. I presented Grantourismo to them, they loved it, and here we are! We’re in the 10th month of our yearlong trip, we’ve stayed in 27 properties in 18 countries, and we have a ski town and five cities to go! We’ve written 369 stories on our website – and only 27 of those have been about the properties, the rest have been about everything from winetasting to walking – and we’ve done loads of interviews with locals we’ve met, from musicians and chefs to fashion designers and bookbinders.

Terence Carter Grantourismo travel round the world bloggersWhat’s the biggest difference about staying in an apartment vs. a hotel?
The biggest difference and best thing is that when you’re staying in a vacation rental you’re generally living in an everyday neighbourhood rather than a tourist area, which means you can meet people other than hotel cleaners and waiters. You can pop downstairs or down the road to a local café or pub that’s full of locals rather than other tourists. You can shop in local markets or supermarkets that are significantly cheaper. Sure if you’re staying in a hotel you can go and look at the markets, but your hotel mini-bar probably won’t hold much, whereas we go with a shopping list or we simply watch what the locals are buying, and we go home and cook.

You can generally get off the beaten track far easier than you can when you stay in a hotel. If you’re relying on the concierge for tips, you’re going to see other hotel guests eating at the restaurant he recommended. Then there’s the beauty of having lots of space, your own kitchen so you don’t have to eat out every meal, and a refrigerator you can fill that doesn’t have sensors going off when you open it. There might be shelves filled with books or a DVD library – in Cape Town we even had a piano, which Terence played every day! The privacy – we got tired of housekeeping ignoring DND signs, people coming to check the outrageously-priced mini-bar, and the phone always ringing with staff asking, when were we checking out, did we want a wake-up call, could they send a porter up. It became so tedious, especially as we were spending around 300 days a year in hotels on average. There are downsides to holiday rentals too of course. If something goes wrong the property owner/manager isn’t always around to fix it, whereas in a hotel, you phone the front desk to let them know the Internet isn’t working and they’ll send someone up.

What should travelers consider when renting a holiday apartment?
Location first. What kind of neighbourhood do you want to live in, how off the beaten track do you want to get, do you want to walk into the centre or are you happy to catch public transport or drive, what kind of facilities are in the area if you’re not hiring a car, and is there a supermarket, shops, restaurants, café, bars in walking distance? After that, the quality of accommodation – in the same way that people decide whether to opt for a budget hotel if they just want somewhere to lay their head, or a five-star if they want creature comforts, they need to think about how much time they intend spending at the property and the level of comfort they want. We stayed in a budget apartment in Manhattan, which was fine as we were out a lot. In Ceret, France and Sardinia, Italy we had big charming houses with terrific kitchens, which was perfect as we stayed in and cooked a lot. If it’s a family reunion or group of friends going away together and they want to enjoy meals in, then it’s important to ask detailed questions about the kitchen and facilities, as we’ve had some places that only had the bare basics, while others like our properties in Austin and Cape Town had dream kitchens.

Favorite destination/apartment?
We’ve been to some amazing places but my favourites have been Tokyo and Austin. We’d only visited Tokyo once before on a stopover, stayed in a cramped hotel and just did the tourist sights. This time we really saw how people lived by staying in an apartment, we discovered different corners of the city we didn’t know existed, and we made new friends. In Austin, it was all about the people, who must be the USA’s friendliest and coolest. We spent a lot of time seeing live music and met lots of musicians, and we also got into the food scene – locals take their food very seriously in Austin! We even hosted a dinner party there with Terence cooking up a multi-course tasting menu for our new friends. In terms of properties, I’m torn between the rustic traditional white trullo set amongst olive groves that we stayed at in Puglia where we had our own pizza oven and bikes to ride in the countryside, the penthouse in the historic centre of Mexico City, and the two houses in Costa Rica, one set in the jungle and the other on the beach, literally within splashing distance of the sea!

Funny story about one of your stays?
The funniest moments weren’t funny at the time but we look back at them and laugh now. At our the Puglia trullo we had terrible internet access. It barely worked in the house because the walls were so thick, yet internet is crucial to what we’re doing so we had to work outside, which wasn’t much fun in the rain. Terence discovered that he could get the best access in the middle of the olive grove next door; you can see him working here! The monkeys that visited us everyday in our houses in Costa Rica were also hilarious. One morning I was enjoying a rare moment reading in the sun when I saw a rare red-backed squirrel monkey run across the fence, and then another leapfrog that one, and then another join them! I quickly got up and raced into the kitchen to make sure there was no food left on the bench, turned around and there was a family of 30-40 monkeys trooping through the house. These guys are endangered, but it didn’t look like it from where I was standing in the kitchen in my bikinis and towel, trying to protect our food as the property manager had warned us that they know how to open the cupboards! The manager also told us to leave the lights on at night, because otherwise the bats will think the house is a cave. She wasn’t kidding.

How is social media playing a role in your travels?
We decided not to use guidebooks this Lara Dunston Grantourismo travel round the world bloggersyear and rely on advice from locals, many of which we come in contact with through social media. We’ve met many locals via their blogs or Twitter. We use Twitter every day, as a research and networking tool, to make contacts ahead of our visit and get tips from people when we’re there. We’ve had some amazing advice from our followers, from restaurant recommendations to suggestions on things we should do. When we were in Cape Town, loads of tweeps said we had to do the Township Tour offered by Cape Capers and we did and they were right, it was life-changing.

Terence learns how to make the quintessential dish of each place we visit and often asks tweeps what he should make. We’ve had great tips from food bloggers who use Twitter such as Eating Asia and Eat Mexico. We’ve ended up meeting loads of tweeps, including a bunch of New Yorkers – bloggers, writers and travelers – we met for drinks one night, including Gadling’s own Mike Barish and David Farley, while in Austin we had lunch with ‘the Taco Mafia‘ from the Taco Journalism blog and got the lowdown on Austin’s best tacos. We also use Twitter to share our own travel experiences and let people know when we have new stories on the site and we run a monthly travel blogging competition which we promote on Twitter (with very generous prizes donated by HomeAway Holiday Rentals, AFAR, Viator, Context, Trourist, and Our Explorer); the aim of that is to get other travelers to help spread our messages about the kind of traveling we’re doing.

What’s next?
As far as Grantourismo goes, we just left Istanbul (where we were delighted to meet another fascinating Gadling contributor!) and are in Budapest. After this it’s Austria for some fun in the snow, then Krakov for Christmas, Berlin for New Year’s Eve, and our last stop is Edinburgh end of January. After that? We’ve been invited to speak at an international wine tourism conference in Porto, Portugal, about Grantourismo and wine, as we’ve explored places through their wine as much as their food, doing wine courses, wine tastings, wine walks, and wine tours, and really trying to inspire people to drink local rather than imported wine. Then we’re going to write a book about Grantourismo and our year on the road, and later in the year – after we’re rested and energised – we’re going to take Grantourismo into a slightly different direction.

All photos courtesy of Terence Carter.

New York short-term apartment rentals to become illegal

Traveling to New York on a budget? Well, you just lost an option. Governor David Paterson just put his signature on a bill banning short-term vacation apartment rentals in New York City. Unless you’re renting an apartment for 30 days or longer, you’re out of luck. Originally, he said he’d veto the measure.

According USA Today, Paterson says the new law:

“… fixes problems caused by illegal hotels and improves quality of life in traditional residential apartment buildings, while also meeting the needs of visitors. By removing a legal gray area and replacing it with a clear definition of permanent occupancy, the law will allow enforcement efforts that help New Yorkers who live in SRO units and other types of affordable housing preserve their homes.”

Mayor Michael Bloomberg came out in support of the law, USA Today continues:

“When housing designated for permanent occupancy is illegally converted into a hotel, unsafe conditions are created, the residential character of City neighborhoods is harmed and the supply of much-needed units of housing is depleted,” added New York Mayor Michael A. Bloomberg. “The bill provides a clear definition of what constitutes transient and permanent occupancy, which will allow City agencies to issue summonses and initiate other enforcement actions against illegal hotels.”

The law is ostensibly designed to protect New Yorkers, but could have an effect on the lower end of the tourism industry here. It takes effect May 1, 2011.

What about everyone else, the tourists coming to visit and looking for cheap digs? You can always find bargain in New York … well, almost. Your best bet is to read Melanie Nayer’s stuff: she always has some great tips.

[photo by Randy Lemoine via Flickr]

TripAdvisor picks the top ten most expensive vacation rentals in North America

You think finding a sub-$200 hotel in the summer is a challenge? Consider the challenges for the rich and famous – do you go with a 12 bedroom mansion, or can you settle for a mere 10? Will the kitchen be large enough to feed all 250 guests at your poolside soirée?

And then there is the pool itself – is one pool going to be enough, and will the fitness room be large enough? Yes – the world of luxury vacation rentals provides a level of luxury not found at many hotels, which is why their rates are as high as $150,000 for a single week.

Our friends at TripAdvisor put together a list of the most expensive rentals in North America – but if they seem to be a little above your budget, check out their entire list, with many more affordable options.

  1. Aguajito Rd – Carmel, California Weekly Peak Season Rate: $150,000
  2. MIT PED – Punta de Mita, Mexico Weekly Peak Season Rate: $112,000
  3. 17 Mile Drive at the Lodge – Pebble Beach, California Weekly Peak Season Rate: $100,000
  4. Casa Fryzer – Cabo San Lucas, Mexico Weekly Peak Season Rate: $70,000
  5. Over the Edge – Steamboat Springs, Colorado Weekly Peak Season Rate: $50,365
  6. Highlands Manor – Telluride, Colorado Weekly Peak Season Rate: $52,500
  7. Camelback Vista – Phoenix, Arizona Weekly Peak Season Rate: $21,000
  8. Admiral’s Treasure – Key West, FloridaWeekly Peak Season Rate: $11,760
  9. The Bellagio – Myrtle Beach, South Carolina Weekly Peak Season Rate: $9,320
  10. Kona Shangrila – Kailua, HawaiiWeekly Peak Season Rate: $7,700

[Images and property descriptions courtesy of TripAdvisor]

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