05 Aug Best Pocket WIFI devices for travelers in 2018
- Overview table
- What is a pocket WIFI device?
- Benefits of a pocket WIFI device
- Use cases for a pocket WIFI device
- Should I get a pocket WIFI device?
- Best alternatives
I am often asked what’s the travel gear I always want to have with me. It’s a pocket WIFI device! Oh, that’s “exciting”, you may say. Well, it’s the one thing that removes multiple pain points at a time for me and as a result gives me a feeling of freedom, independence and peace of mind while out in the unknown.
So, why is such a mobile hotspot such an important tool for me? Because getting and staying connected is crucial for me and even more so when I am traveling.
As I am not familiar with local conditions when abroad I rely on my mobile companions in order to find my way, the best local restaurant, sites, an Uber, an Airbnb, or simply check if the weather holds for that super-expensive-don’t-screw-it-up family trip.
In this post we explain what a pocket WIFI device is, if you need one and which one is right for you. We explore the benefits, use cases and alternatives. Finally we put together a list of the best pocket WIFI devices in 2018 for different traveler profiles, the pros, cons and alternatives. Click here to jump right to the best pocket WIFI devices for travelers in 2018.
What is a pocket WIFI device and why is it important for travelers?
I found out the hard way how it feels to be disconnected when my family and I found ourselves in a serious emergency situation in Indonesia. The inability to manage a critical situation as quickly as I was used to, caused an enormous amount of fear and stress!
I realized that the use of my smart phone (connected to the internet!) is so much integrated in my daily life and routines and that I increasingly struggle without it. Whether I like it or not, it is the evolution of technology and society applying it – no judgement, just an observation.
It’s not a question of being an online addict or not
I very much enjoy disconnecting from time to time, but I prefer to be in control of “if” and “when” this happens. There are plenty of less dramatic daily situations, which are actually the 99% use-cases, that become suddenly quite annoying when you find yourself disconnected involuntarily.
Try it out and pull the plug on a random day, just one day – completely – NO INTERNET. Don’t cheat. See what happens. Then do the same exercise abroad.
Mobile hotspots help travelers connect to the internet while keeping cost under control
OK, now that I made the case for why it is important for me (to have the option) to connect to the internet at all times. Let’s see what the difference is between home and travel.
In my home country I am connected via WiFi at home and through my smart phone. It’s fast, reliable and comes at reasonable cost.
When I hit the road though, things can become very nasty. If I would use my SIM card from my provider at home and allow my phone to connect to the internet while outside my home country (i.e. switch on data roaming) my provider would charge me a fortune – literally. To be clear: Apart from gambling or getting divorced, if you don’t know what you are doing, using a phone abroad is one of the fastest ways to bankruptcy.
So, if using my home SIM is not an option I need to look into buying a local SIM card to keep cost under control. And, you’ve guessed it, put it into a pocket WIFI device.
Now, what the heck is a pocket WIFI device? Pocket WIFI devices are also known as mobile hotspot, mobile WIFI, portable WIFI hotspot, MiFI device or portable WIFI router. Leave me alone with this tech lingo!
OK, put simply – it’s like internet in your pocket. Think of a portable WIFI hotspot as a little box similar to the “internet box” at home (wireless-router and modem), only smaller and not connected to a wall socket.
Instead, a mobile hotspot connects to the internet via the mobile phone network, the same way as a smart phone does. Hence the SIM card, that I simply stash into the device.
The device opens up a WIFI network for all my devices to connect to, just like at home. Smaller than a smart phone and battery powered it fits into every pocket, handbag or backpack. How cool is that?!
Forget about public WIFI hotspots
Public WIFI hotspots suck. Period. They are often slow and not reliable. While traveling the world I was surprised how annoying that way of connecting to the internet can be.
Getting connected in the first place is already a challenge. Sign-up and authentication processes are just cumbersome and everything else but smooth.
And by the way, with a public WIFI hotspot I share the connection with other people which is a big security issue. This alone justifies the use of a personal mobile hotspot as the connection belongs to you only and only you decide who else may connect.
Also bear in mind that public hotspots are by no means always free. And you are stuck to that very location. You want to move to a different café because you are melting away in the sun? Not without starting all over again. Too bad.
Real-world example from New Zealand
After having gone through a lengthy and frequently interrupted sign-up process I finally connected my smart phone to the hotspot of a local telecommunication provider.
“OK, now I also need my notebook connected”. Error message: “Sorry, only one connection at a time.” So, I went through process again creating a second account.
30 minutes later my laptop was finally online. But what’s that, phone disconnected? I was idle for too long so I got kicked out. Back to square one.
In that example it took me like 15 minutes after being connected, and several attempts to send an email with a 4mb attachment. And I was sitting in a car right below the hotspot. Excuse me?!
In the meantime, my wife already hated me, as she was waiting in a restaurant with two kids already deconstructing the location. “I thought you just check your mails!” “Well, that’s what I did, honey.” Of course, she immediately bought the story…
For sure this experience was extreme but whenever I connected to a public WIFI hotspot I had one or more issues, costing me time, money and nerves. And, we are talking about “first world” countries here.
Now, let’s look into some benefits of portable WIFI hotspot and how that compares to public WIFI hotspot:
Easy to use
Get a local SIM with a data plan that suits your needs, stash it into the mobile hotspot, set it up once and you are good to go. In comparison, connecting to public WIFI hotspots – and staying connected – is a hassle. Even more so if you are not traveling alone or have multiple devices.
Decent pre-payed data SIM cards are available in many countries at very affordable rates. It is often not worth it to hassle around with “free” public WIFI hotspots and roaming is waaaay too expensive.
A personal mobile hotspot provides you with a permanent connection (if you want). You do not have to manually connect and re-connect as it is often the case with public WIFI hotspots.
You enjoy full bandwidth of your own connection that you do not need to share with others – unless you want to share with family and friends for instance. On a shared public WIFI hotspot speed (bandwidth) is split accordingly.
More data volume
A local SIM allows you to choose data plans according to your personal needs. The amount of data you can use on a public WIFI hotspot is often limited.
A pocket WIFI devices provides you with your own connection that you could also take with you on a trip. Many people using the same public WIFI hotspot or range limitations may cause your connection to drop.
Mobile phone networks have greater coverage than public WIFI hotspots. Wherever there’s cell network coverage your mobile Hotspot will provide you with a connection.
Again, you own the connection, you are in control. On a public WIFI hotspot you share the connection with everybody else around. You neither control the security of the network nor do you know who else is connected, looking for loopholes in order to harm your privacy. It is no rocket science, unfortunately.
It is possible to buy unlocked pocket WIFI devices, that means devices that are not tied to a certain carrier. In fact, you must make sure to get an unlocked device. Otherwise you won’t be able to use a different SIM card and your device will be useless abroad. All personal mobile hotspots mentioned further down in this post are unlocked.
Here are some use cases for a mobile WIFI device being better than the primary offered solution to connect to the internet:
The usual issues of public WIFI hotspots apply. Being able to stream some YouTube clips when confronted with a delayed flight can make all of a difference for the rest of the trip especially when it’s getting late and the kids are all over the place. We also found ourselves in the situation that we had to change a connection flight at the check in desk last minute in order to check in at all. Impossible if we would have had to find and connect to a public WIFI first.
Traveling across New Zealand North Island, South Island and Australia in a Campervan we found that WIFI on campgrounds is often slow, unstable or expensive. Rather, all of it at the same time to be frank. When the receptionist informs you about their WIFI, just smile and nod. Don’t waste your time. Outside of campgrounds the only way to connect is the cellular network anyway. Note: If you are going to remote places where cellular network becomes weak, or to New Zealand (some irony added, sorry), an external antenna helps to get a stronger connection.
We used Google Maps for the entire three months road trip through New Zealand and Australia. Google Maps is way better than built-in navigation systems and also got us to those jaw dropping places where you work with coordinates rather than street names. We found that keeping kids entertained on long drives over months is – let’s say – “a bit of a challenge”. On the back seat we could play, sing and read stories only so much (if at all). Without the ability of playing, listening to radio plays, and watching movies on a tablet we would not have gotten far. And yes, we feel bad about the screen time.
What applies to public WIFI hotspots often applies in a similar fashion to hotel WIFIs as well. On average I found that hotel WIFIs may be a bit better than public ones but still not great. Especially at the end of the day when all other guests are in their rooms, catching up with mails, news and stuff.
Sight-seeing, trips and hiking
A battery powered mobile hotspot devices equipped with a local SIM card is internet in your pocket while traveling foreign countries. Google maps is probably the app we used the most in order to find our way and navigate the public transportation networks: “Next kids-friendly restaurant with good reviews within 5 minutes walking distance?” Check. “Next supermarket?” Here we go. “Kids are all over the place?” Get an Uber.
Multiple devices to connect
OK, we may be slightly above average when it comes to travel electronics. But still, for a family of four 3 smart phones (1 spare), 2 laptops (managing a digital lifestyle), 1 tablet (mainly for the kids), 1 e-reader, 1 drone and 1 action camera does not sound too far away for me. Anyway. Depending on how and with whom you travel your list may look somewhat similar. Some devices connect frequently, others just occasionally. Changing WIFI settings on a cam can be quite annoying. Good for you if you always connect to the same WIFI – your pocket WIFI device – and do not need to change settings.
Cutting the cord at home
Some households could even use a mobile hotspot to cut the cord, replace the wired internet infrastructure and potentially save some money. The two-bedroom apartment in an urban area would be a common use case. A mobile hotspot isn’t enough for bigger homes with a complex infrastructure and high data throughput of course. It may however still serve as a backup in case of downtimes.
The use case for business people probably does not require lots of explanation. As a business user you do not necessarily need to travel abroad for a pocket WIFI devices to make sense. Whether you run a mobile office, visit clients or business partners you need your devices connected in the best possible way. Period.
In case you need guidance for your decision making whether you should get a portable WIFI hotspot or not, look at the lists of benefits and use cases above first. If that’s not enough. Go through the questions below. If you answer yes to at least two of the below questions, you may likely find a pocket WIFI device a very helpful travel companion.
Consider all, devices and people traveling with you.
- Do you travel frequently or for more than 3 weeks in a row to foreign countries?
- Do you connect several times a day to the internet?
- Do you spend 30 minutes or more a day on the internet?
- Do you have high data throughput (backup, photos, video/music streaming etc.)?
- Do you work while traveling?
- Do you travel with family or friends or with multiple devices?
- Do you value convenience and ease of use higher than a one-off investment?
- Do you own a locked smartphone and cannot swap SIM cards?
- Are you security conscious?
A pocket WIFI device is not for you? Check out some alternatives at the end of this post.
Review of the best pocket WIFI devices for travelers in 2018
There are so many devices out there and finding the right one is a challenge. We did the exercise and summarized the result of our findings. Since there are several types of travelers with different needs we cut through the clutter by first of all dividing the crowd into three categories:
- Professional – best for everyday and heavy usage
- Budget – high value at a reasonable prices or for lightweight travelers and minimalists
- Convenience – best for the set it and forget it folks out there
- Devices must be unlocked
- Devices must be able to connect to fast 4G (LTE) networks
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- Connects world-wide
- Fast and reliable
- Portable (battery)
- Connects up to 15 devices at a time
- Manage settings via touch screen
- External antenna connector
The Netgear Aircard AC790 is right for you if you are a frequent, worldwide or long term traveler seeking a fast and reliable internet connection. You are traveling with other people or carry a lot of devices. You do not like compromises or limitations.
This device solved our connectivity issues while traveling. It never let us down and has a very broad range of supported network bands. It’s a fast and rock solid piece of technology that may also be suitable for business users. Equipped with an external antenna it even helps in remote areas or in times of weaker cell coverage. The display could be more reactive sometimes. But then again, I do not have to touch it often anyways – it just works.
- Small and lightweight
- Combines mobile hotspot and LTE surf stick
- Micro SD card slot
- No battery, requires power supply
- WiFi signal range
The Huawei E8372 is right for you if you are the minimalist, lightweight traveler or looking for a budget solution. Power supply or power bank is always with you anyway.
The form factor is just unbeatable. It even comes with an external antenna connector which helps in areas with weak coverage. Plugged into your car’s USB outlet it turns your vehicle into a hotspot on wheels.
- Convenient – no need to buy local SIM
- Instant connection in 100+ countries and regions possible
- Flexible pay-as-you-go – daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, per country, global
- Two SIM slots allow usage as unlocked mobile hotspot apart from GlocalMe price plans
- Comes with 1 GB global data included
- GlocalMe price plans are more expensive than local SIM
- GlocalMe data packages may be used up quickly if connected devices are not restricted from auto updates and synchronisation jobs
- Relatively slow hardware
The GlocalMe G3 is right for you, if convenience and instant connection upon arrival is most important. You are not a heavy user and are willing to pay a bit more in exchange for convenience.
The amount of options the GlocalMe G3 provides are unbeatable. Once the hardware receives an update it may kick the Netgear Aircard AC790 out of my luggage.
Overview – best pocket WIFI devices for travelers in 2018
|Device||Netgear Aircard AC790||Huawei E8372||GlocalMe G3|
|Category||Best pocket WIFI device in 2018 for professional users||Best budget pocket WIFI device in 2018||Most convenient pocket WIFI device in 2018|
|Right for you, if…||…you are a frequent, worldwide or long term traveler seeking a fast and reliable internet connection. You are traveling with other people or carry a lot of devices. You do not like compromises or limitations.||…you are the minimalist, lightweight traveler or looking for a budget solution. Power supply or power bank is always with you anyway.||…convenience and instant connection upon arrival is most important. You are not a heavy user and are willing to pay a bit more in exchange for convenience.|
|View on Amazon||View on Amazon||View on Amazon|
|Network bands||4G, 3G||4G, 3G, 2G||4G, 3G, 2G|
|WiFi type||802.11ac/b/g/n, Dual-Band WiFi 2.4/5 GHz||802.11b/g/n||802.11b/g/n, WiFi 2.4 GHz|
|Connected devices||Up to 15||Up to 10||Up to 5|
|Active battery||up to 11 hrs., standby time up to 300 hrs.||–||15 hrs.|
|Power connector||USB (micro, mini)||USB||USB (micro)|
|Display||Yes, 2.4″ touchscreen||No, LEDs only, access via browser or app||4″ touchscreen|
|SIM||Micro-SIM||Micro-SIM||2 x NaNo SIM, CloudSIM|
|External antenna connector||Yes||Yes||No|
|SD card slot||No||Yes||No|
|Dimensions||6.8 x 11 x 1.5 cm||9.4 x 3.0 x 1.4 cm||12.65 x 6.5 x 1.9 cm|
Disadvantages: First of all, it drains the battery. Secondly, after some idle time devices lose connection to the iPad and require manual reconnection. While this may be acceptable for the occasional use it’s likely to be annoying for the more frequent use or if you have devices that require to remain connected.
Mobile phone as pocket WIFI alternative
a) Reachability: family, friends, business. It may not be practical to update everybody with your recent number, especially if you are hopping from country to country. Forwarding calls to your local SIM is an option but be aware that the same high roaming cost like with receiving/making phone calls may apply. You also should not forget to amend the forwarding when going to a new country/buying a new SIM card.
b) You may have two-factor authentication in place that uses text messages being sent to your phone. This may be required for accessing certain services online.
Second mobile phone for your home SIM
You could also get one of those Nokia feature phones, newly manufactured of course. Those devices are still the best-selling mobile phones world-wide. They only cost a couple of bugs, are small and durable – plus the vintage feeling may put a smile on your face too, if you grew up with that stuff as well.