Renting Wireless Internet for International Travel: I first learned about XCOM Global from this Milepoint thread which is a good discussion of getting wireless internet access while traveling abroad.
XCOM Global offers pocket-sized wireless internet routers (“MiFi”) that will work in most any of the destinations you’ll be traveling to, and they give you unlimited data for a fixed per-day price.
My Usual Solution
On most of my trips I just turn my phone into airplane mode so that I don’t eat any roaming charges, and log into the hotel’s wireless internet. If I want to make calls I use the Skype app and I’m only paying about 3 cents a minute to talk to the U.S.
And this works well for me because (1) just about anywhere I stay, I get free internet — usually because of hotel status, and (2) I don’t usually really need internet on my phone, off the hotel property. I might be in an office with my laptop, with access to someone else’s network. Or I’m actually fine not being online for a few hours while out and about.
For cell phone calls when not online I have an unlocked phone. And while the cheapest solution will pretty much always be buying a local sim card for the location, if I’m not going to use all the money I put on the card, or won’t be calling enough to get the fixed cost of the sim (in some countries) back out in savings, then my best bet really is just a ‘global sim card’ — a SIM which offers low rates most places in the world.
The way those work is usually that you will dial a number, the call is intercepted, the network calls you back and connects you to the number you’re dialing (so that it’s effectively an incoming call).
The card I use most is from OneSimCard. They give me an Estonian number that gets me cheap calling rates not just in Europe but also in much of Asia. Although dialing out last week in Grand Cayman would have cost me a whopping 95 cents a minute — so it’s not perfect everywhere.
My Decision to Try XCOM Global’s Wireless Internet
But the XCOM folks have been spamming me quite a bit trying to get me to try their service and review it. They promised a free rental in exchange for a review.
That’s a deal that doesn’t work for me:
- I won’t promise to review something in exchange for a free trial (I will write what I will write and won’t make promises)
- I don’t actually take free stuff. If you give me something free, I may give it away on the blog or return it after I’ve tried it (though that’s kind of a pain) or if I keep it I will make a charitable donation in the amount of the retail price of the item.
But I was headed to Paris. I knew I would be out and about, I could use my Google Maps app especially on my phone and that would be much more reliable with internet. I’d want to stay in touch, I was finishing a construction project at work overseeing the final stages of buildout of a new office — that would literally have days between planned completion and move-in due to expiration of another lease. So it seemed like as good a time as any to try the international pocket wireless router service.
Ordering was easy at XCOMGlobal.com. Ordering rental tech devices could be a complicated task, but the process was pretty easy. You say where you’re going, and the dates of your trip. And then choose what you want — a MiFi device (router you carry around, multiple people can use, can use wirelessly for multiple devices) or USB (plug into your laptop) or MiFi plus Nexus 7 access.
I picked the MiFi device.
They offer ‘insurance’ for $3.95 per day, which covers loss or damage after a $160 deductible so I declined that.
They also offer extra batteries for rent — a big external battery that’ll power the device for a whole bunch of hours, or an extra battery you can swap out for the one that comes with the MiFi devicein case you run out of power.
Normally I wouldn’t get an extra battery but I figured I would be walking around Paris for 6-8 hours at a time sometimes, so I would want an extra battery. In fact I only turned the device on when I wanted to use it, turned it off when I was done, so never ran through a battery.
You choose your shipping preference, but as long as it’s not a last minute order you don’t need to expedite — they will ship so that your device arrives at least a day prior to your trip but probably even a bit earlier.
The cost was $14.95 per day for unlimited internet plus $1 a day for the extra battery.
The XCOM Global Wireless Router Arrives
The package arrived several days before my trip (although I was only going to be charged for the dates I told them I was gone). Here’s what was inside:
It was a black leather pouch with small and light wireless router, a plug for charging at the end of which was an adapter for a French (European) outlet, two batteries, an instruction booklet, and there was a slot in front of the batteries where there was a paperclip (which I will discuss below).
In addition to the instruction booklet was a slip of paper with important additional information:
It made clear you needed to have the device turned off in order to charge the battery.
And that if you were using the device plugged in, such as for internet at your hotel, it was important to take the battery out when doing so otherwise the battery would drain.
On the outside of the package was a shipping label and plastic pouch to use when returning the device. It’s FedEx, so you need to drop the package off with Federal Express the day after returning from your trip.
Using the XCOM Global MiFi Abroad
I arrived in Paris, turned on the device, and the MiFi worked great. In fact, the first day I was at the Park Hyatt I was happy to have it because the hotel’s wireless internet just wasn’t connecting well or staying connected so I used it at the hotel. The stated network name “MiFI_2372_France” and password xcomglobal worked perfectly. I connected without difficulty.
I shut the device down and when I restarted it, the network name changes, which was confusing to me. It became “Mifi__2372 6EE2″
The flashing light on the device indicated service was available. But I connected to the device and wasn’t prompted for a password. system said it was connected, had internet access, but I couldn’t reach a website. Boy, this was frustrating.
I started flipping through the instruction book. I connected directly to the router itself rather than the internet (typing http://192.168.1.1 into the URL bar of my browser) to troubleshoot. It said I as disconnected. The instructions say to enter ‘xcom’ in the upper right field but I get an error that password is incorrect. I got the same error for ‘xcomglobal’.
I took out the paperclip, stuck it into the MiFI device to ‘reset it’. And then the password ‘Admin’ worked. Then I could click connect. Then I was connected to the internet.
Each time I turned on the device I had to log in via browser, enter the Admin password, and then connect before I’d be online. But this was easy enough even on my phone and didn’t present anymore challenges. It just killed about 15 minutes at the hotel before I went out with the device.
But it’s small, it’s light, it fit in my jacket pocket and wasn’t really noticeable. And the signal worked fine both with my phone and device in pocket, and from the hotel room desk with me elsewhere in the room on my laptop.
Returning the Device
When I came back to the US I just pulled out the plastic shipping pouch, stuck the mailing label on it, and slipped the black leather case with the router into it. Then I went into my office and stuck the package in the outgoing FedEx pickup box.
So I did what I was supposed to do, returned it the day after my trip. A week later I got a ‘device not returned’ email, which said
ATTENTION: If you have already shipped your device(s) back please disregard this email.
This is a reminder regarding order# ____________. Please make sure your device is returned the next business day after you arrive back from your trip.
This is just a friendly reminder. Please do not reply to these automated Emails.
Uhhh. Well, I did already ship back the device so I disregarded.
And I got one the next day. And the next day. So I emailed their customer service, ” I returned the device the day after I came back to the U.S. It seems like there is a problem with the shipment.”
They then wrote back,
This is just an automated email. It is in no way automatically connected to our billing systems so you are not being automatically charged. We will also not charge you for any mistakes the shipper makes. Thank you for bringing this to our attention. You should not receive any more of these once the package arrives. Please disregard them.
Ok, great. Except it’s been over a week since I sent the package via FedEx. So I wrote that I thought there was a problem. And they replied,
We will also not charge you for any mistakes the shipper makes.
Well, I keep getting emails from them. And I keep deleting them. And I haven’t been charged for a non-returned device (and I didn’t take their ‘insurance’).
So Is it Worth It?
$14.95 a day for unlimited internet is cheaper than many European hotels will charge for access if you don’t get it free via status. So if you have to pay for internet anyway, and would pay for internet, then this is a pretty great deal — and the internet is portable, carry it in your pocket and use it on your phone while walking around or use it at the airport.
But if you are going to have free internet anyway, and you are just looking for a way to have internet on your phone while walking around, it’s a fairly expensive solution — possibly better than paying your U.S. service provider for data, but still expensive.
For a major European city where I’m walking around, I’d use them again. For a trip where I don’t get free internet, I’d use them again. For a beach vacation? Not so much, but that has to do with how I use internet.