Once you hop on a plane to Europe, turn off your smartphone and don’t turn it back on until you land safely in the States. That’s good advice to any tourist not looking to incur a three- or four-figure bill on account of the U.S. carriers’ ludicrously high data roaming rates.
But how can one stay connected? The thought of work email piling up and tweets going unchecked while away seems so stressful! Many find it impossible to unplug and relax; preferring instead to stay plugged in and ignoring at will, because that’s what vacation is all about!
The folks at Tep Wireless offer a potential solution in the form of a portable Wi-Fi hotspot rental called “the tep” that works across country borders. The cost varies depending on the length of the rental and destination. For those traveling across Europe to multiple countries — perhaps the most popular option — prices range from $9.99 a day for five days ($49.95) and 500MB of data to $5 a day for 30 days ($150) and 3GB of data. Tep also has a 1GB plan for $5 per day for as long as the user needs it. Once the 1GB is up, users can add another 1.4GB for $55 or 4GB for $99.95. Tep Wireless will ship the unit to a customer’s home or destination, and they are also available for pickup at Heathrow airport and Paddington station in the UK.
By contrast, AT&T charges customers $120 a month for 800MB of data while overseas under its “affordable world package,” and Verizon charges $25 per month per 100MB for the same. Both of which make tep an attractive and less expensive alternative, albeit one that includes the slight hassle of another device once must carry around.
“Slight” is the operative word here. The tep hotspot I tested was no bigger than a small feature flip phone. It was made by ZTE, the same folks behind the excellent Verizon Jetpack LTE MiFi, and had a nice rugged feel. I certainly had no qualms about turning it on, tossing it in my bag, and going about my day. It featured a small monochrome LCD screen with battery, signal, and user information, as well as an email icon indicating I had 39 messages waiting for me (they were actually just text messages hidden away in the hotspot admin area). According to Tep Wireless, it’s also supposed to display data usage, but that info never came up for me. Battery life was not very good, and tourists will struggle to get a full day on a single charge. It shipped with a USB charging cable and the appropriate wall adapter, as well as a carrying case and return envelope.
I can’t speak on its abilities overseas, but here in the US, it worked well on T-Mobile’s relatively zippy HSPA+ network. As for Europe, HSPA+ is available and Tep Wireless claims the tep hotspot is “powered by the most reliable and fastest 3G networks.” The average speed is about 5.6Mbps, more than enough for a quick Skype video chat (but watch those data limits!), with a max of 10Mbps, according to Tep Wireless. Up to five devices can connect.
The tep hotspot isn’t the only game in town, or continent. Xcom Global offers a similar service for $14.95 per day and unlimited data and access in 40 European countries, with speeds up to 7.2Mbps. Unlimited data sounds great, but is it really necessary? Remember that Netflix and HBO Go aren’t available in many European countries.
Of course, the experienced European traveler knows that a cheaper way by far to stay connected overseas is to simply snap up SIM cards in each country and swap as needed. For example, Vodafone in the UK offers 500MB of data for £10 (about $15 at the time of this review), but that only works with compatible phones. It can be a hassle keeping track of it all, but that’s ultimately what I recommend over the tep or Xcom hotspot for a lengthy stay overseas. The savings are just too substantial. Check out this Pay as You Go Sim with Data Wiki for your basic info.
For those only going away for a few days or a week, skip the SIM, tep, and Xcom all together and look to the Golden Arches. Most McDonald’s restaurants in Europe have free Wi-Fi!