You're sitting in your hotel room and you need to connect your laptop to the Internet to get some work done. But although many hotels offer free Internet access, you're staying in one that thinks of it as comparable to the room's minibar, charging you a small fortune to get online. "It's totally out of control, with a night's Wi-Fi potentially costing $30," says Allen Nogee, a senior analyst In-Stat, a market analysis firm. "Some hotels are now charging extra for second and third [Wi-Fi-connected] devices, and others are adding in per-megabyte charges."
What's a frugal traveler to do?
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Consider a mobile hotspot. About the size and weight of a wallet, these devices tap into your cellular provider's 3G or 4G wireless data service, delivering Internet data at broadband speeds via a built-in Wi-Fi router. They work anywhere your data service has a signal and can support as many as five devices at once.
Mobile hotspots' pros and cons
Mobile hotspots can yield bandwidth that is on a par with, and in some cases superior to, a hotel's costly Internet service. Satisfying the need for speed, mobile hotspots can stream movies, download huge presentations, and support videoconferences. The best can serve up data as fast as 15Mbps.
What's more, a single mobile hotspot can service a group of working businesspeople, such as several accountants auditing a company's books. Rather than logging on to the hotel's Wi-Fi service at night for $10 to $30 each, the workgroup can tap into a $100 mobile hotspot for all their data needs. (More details on mobile hotspot prices and data plans in a moment.) Some devices even have MicroSDHC card slots, allowing groups to share data.
On top of supporting a workgroup on the go, a hotspot is often the best way to retrofit a tablet or notebook for fast, new 4G connections. It can also provide a convenient way to get online in certain rural areas where wired high-speed connections aren't available but cellular coverage is.
Recently, when my office's Internet provider experienced problems and my connection became unreliable for several hours, I was able to switch to a mobile hotspot and continue working online. The irony is that I started getting much faster download speeds than my cable provider ever delivered.
Depending on your needs, however, a mobile hotspot might not be the best solution. If you're traveling solo, a mobile data card that's integrated into your laptop or a USB modem might make more sense -- they tend to be smaller, lighter, and cheaper than mobile hotspots. But these devices won't help you get colleagues online, and older ones won't work with wireless carriers' new 4G networks.