Getting online while traveling has never been easier. Getting online for free is still hit-or-miss.
Travelers in the US run into a patchwork of free versus 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 e-mail.
The good news: Free Internet at US airports is becoming more common. San Francisco, Dallas and Minneapolis are adding free options after previously charging about US$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 John F. Kennedy International Airport’s Terminal 5, where JetBlue offers it.
On planes, Delta Airlines 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 will not be done until 2015. All of them charge something to get online, ranging from US$2 for a mobile device on some flights to US$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 US$25 a day at New York hotels that already charge hundreds of dollars for a room.
Charges for staying connected on a trip can add up fast. A guest at the Embassy Suites near the Minneapolis airport would pay almost US$5 to get online for three hours. They’d pay US$8 more at the airport, then another US$5 to get online on board a Delta flight.
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 is possible to get close enough to frequent-flier clubs at airports to piggyback onto their free Wi-Fi service, he says.
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 US$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 says it is 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 e-mail and weather.
Meanwhile, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport is adding free Internet access in September. Travelers will have to watch an ad every 40 minutes.