Q: I just got back from a work trip and, once again, was enraged that my fancy hotel charged me $15 a day for in-room Wi-Fi service. Am I just being cheap?
A: No! The price-gouging that goes on with hotel Wi-Fi is one of the great consumer scams of the day. Think about it: You can get free Wi-Fi at a McDonald’s (MCD) or at a city park, but check into some Westins (HOT) and they’ll be going through your wallet before you can update Twitter.
Q: Why isn’t Wi-Fi free at fancier places? Aren’t you supposed to get better service for paying more?
A: You’d think that, wouldn’t you? There used to be a certain order to things. You’d pay more for something, you’d get cushy extras. But hotel Wi-Fi has turned that rule on its head—budget hotel chains offer free Internet service while fancy chains tack on extra fees. The assumption on the part of expensive hotels is that the more you pay, the less price-sensitive you are. If your room costs $500 a night, are you going to sweat an extra $15?
Q: Do hotels need to recoup the costs of maintaining a Wi-Fi network?
A: Nope. Sure, installing and keeping a wireless network costs money, but you know what else costs money? Electricity. Plumbing. You can leave the lights on all day and it won’t change your bill one cent. So why should wireless be any different? Furthermore, travel website Hotel Chatter determined that it costs a hotel between $2.50 and $3.50 per room, per month, to keep a network running. At the high end of that range, that works out to 12¢ per day. And yet they often charge upwards of $10 a day for the privilege. That’s not recouping, that’s raking it in.
Q: Are some luxury chains better about this than others?
A: Yes. Again, let’s go to our pals at Hotel Chatter, which evaluates hotel Wi-Fi in an annual survey. Such chains as Fairmont and Kimpton will provide free wireless if you sign up for their loyalty programs, which cost nothing to join besides deleting the occasional e-mail promising discounts. The Peninsula chain isn’t very big, but it’s arguably at the forefront of best Wi-Fi practices: Not only is it free for everyone, but each room gets its own wireless network, so your connection isn’t slowed down by the data hog in Room 3449 who’s downloading all of Game of Thrones season one.
Some hotels are moving toward a tiered Wi-Fi plan, such as certain Four Seasons properties and the Dorchester in London. At those hotels, basic service is free. It’s pretty slow, but fast enough to check e-mail and some websites. You can upgrade to high-speed service, which can support multiple devices (that’s another annoyance—many hotels charge per device, multiplying costs) as well as video streaming. But you’ll pay for the boost: The Dorchester’s daily fee for high-speed Wi-Fi is £19.50, or about $31.
Q: Is there a way to just sidestep the hotel Wi-Fi network?
A: Sure, and you may already own the tech you need. By enabling wireless tethering on your smartphone (on the iPhone, it’s called “Personal Hotspot”—go to Settings, then General, then Network to find it) you can turn your phone into a Wi-Fi access point and use that to get your laptop online. Just make sure your data plan is big enough to account for the likely heavier-duty downloading.
Alternatively, you can go and get a prepaid dedicated mobile hotspot. These credit-card-size gadgets support up to five devices and use speedy 4G LTE networks. Since they’re prepaid, you only have to put money into it when you use it. Verizon (VZ) and Virgin Mobile offer good prepaid units, which come with weekly or monthly plans, that cost from $15 to $90. Depending on how often you use it, that could be a much better deal than coughing up $15 a day at your hotel.