Why Rentable MiFi Hotspots are a Huge Waste of Money in Europe
A fraction of the service for an exponent of the price, compared to local providers
Dec. 20, 2017
Oct. 15, 2018
This post makes the following assumptions: You are a digital nomad who works online while traveling internationally, you change countries frequently (every other month or more), and you need large amounts of data (more than 10 Gbs per month). If these assumptions do not apply to you, this advice may not, either.
May contain affiliate links.
Rentable international wifi devices like Tep, Skyroam, and MyWebSpot, are such a waste of money for trips longer than 3 days—or for people who already have an unlocked GSM device—it makes me sad to read positive reviews from people who can't possibly know they just paid so much more than they need to.
All three make claims such as, "Unlimited Internet all over the World", "The Smartest Way to Travel", and promise to be, "Your Smart Travel Companion". I strongly disagree—it's not smart at all, and in this case it's not even a matter of the devil being in the details, it's a pretty simple, straightforward, cost calculation.
- "Unlimited" internet all over the world
- Cost of between $8.95/day (Tep) $9.95/day (SkyRoam), or $11/day (MyWebSpot), every day when rented.
- Can pay only by days internet is used if device is purchased for $99 (Tep) or $75/$149.99 (Skyroam).
The Devil (ie the troublesome details)
All of the devices have some kind of a "Daily Fair Usage Policy", which means that they throttle after 1 Gb or 500 Mb per day. MyWebSpot will throttle to 256 kbps after 1 Gb in Europe, or after only 500 Mb anywhere else. Tep by default throttles you to 256 kbs after 500 Mb, even in Europe, unless you have the extra 4G upgrade, which costs an additional $1.95 a day extra to push your throttle threshold to 1 Gb per day. They do not advertise this clearly on the site, I had to ask customer service about their "Fair Use" policy to find out. Skyroam is the same, I could not find information on their site about Daily Fair Use throttling, but after chatting with a customer service representative I was told:
For the Skyroam Hotspot which is our 3G unit, once you reach 500MB it will throttle down to 2G for the rest of the day. For the Solis which is our 4G/LTE unit, once you reach 1GB it will throttle down to 3G for the rest of the day...The daypasses or one day data access costs $8 for Skyroam hotspot and $9 for Solis....Our Skyroam Hotspot is currently out of stock but it costs $75. While our Solis costs $149.9.
It seems that the most powerful rentable mifi is the Skyroam Solis, but let's see how the price of renting one for a one week trip to Europe compares to buying a generic dongle or mifi and a local sim card.
Comparison: One Week in Europe with SkyRoam, vs Generic Device & Local Sim
I wanted to rent a Solis in this example but apparently those are only available for sale, at $149.99 apiece (plus $9/day use fee), so I got a price quote to rent a hotspot for 7 days in Europe, at a price of $69.65 (not including VAT, shipping, and any other taxes or fees that I don't know about, not having actually completed my order). Recall that since this is the hotspot, the effective amount of data I am buying is 3.5 Gbs (500 Mbs per day before throttle to the barely-usable 2G). That's about $20 per Gb. If I were to buy a Solis I would get more data, functionally around 7 Gbs for the week, but at a total price of $212, or $30 per Gb.
A simple Amazon search will show you that the price range for an unlocked mifi device ranges in price from $20-$75, and an unlocked USB wifi dongle like the simple device I've been using for years, cost between $15-$60. You could also just pop a sim card into your regular mobile device, if it is unlocked, as well as GSM (in other words, not Sprint or Verizon) .
Obviously local sim cards will vary depending on where you go and when you're looking, and anything I write at this moment may not be true by the time you're reading this. For example, last week I was quite excited about a Vodafone UK 50 Gbs for $30 deal, which ended up being a temporary, seasonal promotion that was no longer available by the time I returned to the site to verify before writing about it. However, no matter where you're going, spending a little bit of time getting acquainted with the local providers via a sim wiki will show you that in general, it's pretty common to find prices like 3 Gbs for less than $20.
At this moment it appears that Másmóvil in Spain is offering data sims at 20 Gbs for €39.90 or 50 Gbs for €89.90, which comes out to less than $2.50 per Gb. Vodafone in Italy is offering 10 Gbs for €10 or up to 60 Gbs for €20, provided that half those Gbs are used in late-night hours. All of these plans are subject to EU Roam Like at Home laws, which means that you are allowed to use them in any other EU country without roaming fees, but you might be capped or throttled after a certain point (generally between 5-15 Gbs).
Comparing the price difference of $2 per Gb with local deals to $20-$30/Gb with Skyroam, if you were to buy a new sim card every time you crossed a border and the pile them up and swim in them like Scrooge McDuck at the end of your trip, you'd still be much better off than if you were to rent a single overpriced mifi device.
But what about the total cost after one week? Well, if you're a small, basic, internet user that doesn't want to be bothered with complex thingamajigs, you could get a basic dongle for about $25, and a small 3 Gb local plan for max $20, to a grand total of $45 going local (and keeping your dongle for future use), compared to paying $70 for 3.5 Gbs and renting a Skyroam device and then returning it after one week.
If you're a heavy-user and want to compare the upper limit… buying a Solaris and getting 7.5 Gbs costs $212 for 1 week of use. There's a very well-reviewed Huawei hotspot (over 100 four and five star reviews) for $55, 1/3 the price of a Solaris. Speaking of fractions, The a huge Másmóvil data plan with nearly 10 times the data is also a fraction of the Skyroam price, around €89.90 ($100) for 50 Gbs. I feel like I'm wasting my time even typing words to explain this; it's just no question of which is the better deal. If overpaying someone by about $150 to do this for you makes you feel like you're getting a true concierge service, email me and I'll be happy to do it. I'll even put on a tuxedo (t-shirt) while I place your orders and/or pack your box. Otherwise, just follow my advice for free and you'll save yourself a ton of cash.
UPDATE: We now offer a concierge service through which we will mail you a local sim card, so you can get the cheap prices of going local without the hassle of finding a supplier
It's My Vacation! I don't Have Time to Hunt For Sim Cards!
No problem. UK provider Three has offers you can buy online from Amazon.com, bring them with you, and be ready to go the second you touch down. You can get 1 Gb for $15, 3 Gbs for $24, or 12Gbs for $50. These plans work in 43 countries, have top ups available, and last for 30 days after first use. Please see three.co.uk/feelathome for most recent update.
A single email without attachments only takes up about 15Kb. Uploading a picture to social media is about 500 Kb. A website is maybe 1-10 Mb apiece. None of these rentable devices can handle large music or video streaming anyway, which means no matter what you do, you're barred from big bandwidth guzzlers. 1 Gb is probably more than enough for a few days or even a week, especially if you are on vacation.
After you add up the cost of taxes, shipping, and fees (if applicable), the minimum amount you can pay for a rentable device is in the neighborhood of $20 for 1 day, $30 for 2 days, etc. That means that if you have your own dongle, there is no way for a rentable device to be cheaper than 1 Gb for $15 on Amazon, or less with a local sim card. If you do not have a device and need to rent one, I begrudgingly admit that renting a hotspot may be the most cost-effective thing to do—but only if you refuse to get a local sim card and also your trip is no longer than 3 days! After that, it is still cheaper to buy a a basic dongle for about $25 and pair it with a $15/1Gb or $24/3Gb sim card. (And why would you go on an international trip for only 3 days?!?)
Rentable "unlimited" mifi devices like Tep, MyWebSpot, and Skyroam are just marketing hype exploiting people's excitement about travel or ignorance of how cheap and easy it can be. None of their plans are truly, functionally, “unlimited”, and they are all significantly more expensive than local options. The best case scenario is that customers of rentable international mifi are overpaying slightly for inferior service and temporary device use, the worst case is that they are paying a lot more for a tiny fraction of what they could be getting otherwise. These devices are not a traveler's friend, nor are they a smart way to travel—on both counts they are the exact opposite.