There is no shortage of advice for travelers who want to use their dataphones, tablets and computers while traveling abroad. But my recent family trip to Europe posed some real challenges.
We were traveling in three European countries over a three-week period. We required an immediate connection after landing without stopping to buy a local SIM card and data plan. We needed to connect at least two iPhones to the internet, perhaps an iPad, and maybe even a laptop. As frequent travelers, we wanted a solution that could be used on future trips and not expire after 30 or 90 days. And finally, the solution had to offer high amounts of data use for a reasonable price.
In September and October 2015 we tested a mobile wifi data hotspot provided by Keepgo. Here’s how it is designed to work: About the size of a deck of cards, the hotspot acts as a mobile wifi router. Inside there’s a SIM chip that connects to local mobile telephone networks. With that connection made, the unit sends out a wifi signal that the user can logon to using wifi-enabled devices (dataphone, tablet, laptop, etc). The Keepgo unit can connect to mobile networks almost anywhere and the same SIM card can connect in dozens of countries worldwide.
That’s how it is supposed to work, but did it work? In our tests, the unit connected to mobile networks in the US (Washington DC, Raleigh and New York), London, Turin and rural northern Italy, Monaco, the Riviera, and the Provence region of France. Signal strength was good in most areas and the connection handed-off seamlessly between countries and, we presume, between mobile carriers. The connection speed was acceptable—not blazing, but certainly at 3G speeds.
The mobile wifi router met most of our challenges. We were able to use the Keepgo unit immediately after landing in London and again when our connecting flight landed in Italy. That’s a good thing because the little Turin, Italy airport seemed to have no shops selling local data SIMs—or at least none that were open when our flight arrived. We got in our rental car and had to immediately navigate the 45-minute drive on highways and backroads to our first destination. With an iPad connected to the Keepgo wifi unit, we were able to use Google Maps throughout the trip.
Hiking in the Italian Alps, we put the Keepgo unit in a shirt pocket, connected an iPhone, and were able to pull up trail maps and post a few “can you believe this view?” photos on Facebook. Our local hotel provided free wifi service, but the Keepgo unit’s connection was often better and faster than the plodding hotel wifi network. Using the mobile wifi router, we were able to connect our MacBook Air to check email and other internet essentials while traveling.
Finally, we drove from northern Italy across the mountains and along the winding Mediterranean coast into France. The Keepgo SIM switched seamlessly between countries and continued to operate well along the Med and into rural France.
So, yes the Keepgo mobile wifi router performed as promised. On past trips, we’ve purchased a local SIM card and limited ourselves to using one mobile device while traveling. That’s not an issue with the Keepgo mobile wifi router—we connected several devices simultaneously when needed.
And there’s one more bonus for frequent travelers. Most European SIM cards and short-term data plans we’ve purchased simply expired after 90 days of not being used. There was no way to remotely extend the data plan until our next trip, so we were forced to start all over with a new SIM and data plan each time we traveled. Not so with Keepgo—their SIMs and data plans are good for 365 days after the last data top-up.
Any cautions? Well, yes. Most experts advise you to switch off cellular data roaming when traveling abroad and make sure that most of your device’s apps only use wifi connections to download, upload or update data. That’s good advice if you are inserting a SIM chip into a single device, but with a mobile wifi router it’s not all you need to pay attention to. Your apps will always seem to have a wifi connection with a mobile router, but in fact the router itself will be using a cellular network. So when using a mobile wifi router, it is best to individually disable most apps’ automatic updates, uploads/downloads, push notifications, etc. There’s a more detailed explanation on the Keepgo website.
Remember, Keepgo is selling prepaid data SIM cards and hotspots. Your iPhone or other cellular phone will not have a new overseas mobile telephone number to use while you are traveling.
If you use the Keepgo mobile wifi hotspot, your device’s mobile phone connection will still be roaming (unless you turn the cell connection off) so be careful about making and answering phone calls while traveling abroad—you’ll be charged roaming rates by your home carrier. Best advice: use Skype, Google Hangouts or another voice-over-internet application to make phone calls while traveling.
What about costs? Usually the cheapest solution to using a mobile device in another country is to buy a local SIM and data plan when you arrive in that country. Mobile data plans are much less expensive in Europe, for example, than in the United States. The most expensive way to use a mobile device abroad is usually to sign up for an international plan from your US carrier. ATT’s international roaming plans are exorbitantly priced on a per gigabyte basis. Keepgo’s solutions fall in the middle. They’re much less expensive than ATT, but a bit more expensive than rates for some temporary plans purchased directly in Europe.
It’s worth noting that the Keepgo unit costs US$130 and ships with 1 gigabyte preloaded. The company has recently lowered its top-up pricing— a 1GB refill costs US$49.
Finally, Keepgo’s claims that its SIMs and mobile wifi units will connect in 64 countries, so while nobody offers worldwide coverage, Keepgo comes remarkably close.
Given the convenience of Keepgo’s use-it-when-you-land service, the ability to move between countries, and the fact that the Keepgo plans don’t expire between trips, we give Keepgo high marks.