Getting online while traveling has never been easier. Getting online for free is still hit-or-miss.
Travelers run into a patchwork of free vs. paid access as they trek from airports to planes to hotels. Speed also varies widely, from fast enough to stream a movie to just enough to send and receive email.
The good news: Free internet at airports is becoming more common. San Francisco, Dallas, and Minneapolis are adding free options after previously charging around $8 for access. Phoenix’s international airport has long offered complimentary access.
Still, plenty of airports require travelers to whip out a credit card to get online, including the big ones in New York and Los Angeles. The agency that runs New York’s three airports says it has no plans to offer free Wi-Fi. The exception is JFK’s terminal 5, where JetBlue offers it.
On planes, Delta has Wi-Fi access on its domestic flights, and American and Southwest have added it across much of their fleets. United says it is adding Wi-Fi to its planes but the whole fleet won’t be done until 2015. All of them charge something to get online, ranging from $2 for a mobile device on some flights to $18 to get a laptop online on long-haul flights.
Hotels vary in what they charge. Free Wi-Fi is common at midrange and lower-end motels outside of big cities. But service can cost $25 a day at New York hotels that already charge hundreds of dollars for a room.
User demand for Wi-Fi is soaring. Five years ago, people using Wi-Fi were business travelers with laptop computers. Now, 11-year-olds with Nintendos and iPods want it. More travelers aren’t content to send a simple e-mail – they’re looking to download a whole movie. In hi-definition. Smartphone users are increasingly looking for Wi-Fi to avoid caps on cellular data plans. The number of devices that use Wi-Fi jumped 5-fold between 2006 and 2011, according to Boingo, which runs hotspots in 34 U.S. airports.
Charges for staying connected on a trip can add up fast. A guest at the Embassy Suites near the Minneapolis airport would pay almost $5 to get online for three hours. They’d pay $8 more at the airport (It plans to add a free offering later), then another $5 to get online on board a Delta flight. Total internet bill: $18.
Travelers use all kinds of tricks to avoid paying for access.
Daniel Wolter, a lobbyist for drug company Pfizer, calls himself a “travel miser.” It’s possible to get close enough to frequent-flier clubs at airports to piggyback onto their free Wi-Fi service, he says.
“I seek out the free Wi-Fi,” he says, although he’ll pay for service on planes when it’s the only option.
San Francisco’s international airport now offers a free Wi-Fi option for users willing to watch a commercial every 45 minutes. Adding the free option means the airport loses $2.5 million in revenue, but airport officials hope to keep travelers from switching to airports in nearby San Jose and Oakland, which offer free Wi-Fi.
Boingo Wireless, Inc. says it’s seeing a move toward hybrid setups, where airports offer free service (often with ads or slower connections) and a paid option for people who want a faster connection. Denver has both options, and the free service is enough to check email and weather.
“If you want to download a whole movie … you would be able to do it over our free basic service, but it might take you an hour or two,” says John Ackerman, the airport’s chief commercial officer. It would take a few minutes using the paid service.
Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport is adding free internet access in September. Travelers will have to watch a short ad every 40 minutes. The new service is run by AT&T and will pay the airport at least $750,000 a year, depending on advertising revenue.
Free online access isn’t just a matter of location. Devices also make a difference. Boingo has cut a deal with Nintendo to allow owners of its 3DS hand-held video games to get online for free at 42 airports in North America. Some Kindle owners, however, have reported difficulty in using airport Wi-Fi. Amazon, which makes the Kindle, didn’t respond to requests for comment.