Remember the bad old days when hotels would charge outrageous rates to use the in-room phones? But when did you last use a hotel phone – of course you use your cell phone instead.
Now think of the bad days at present when some hotels will charge ridiculous fees to allow you to access their internet. A recent article reported on a Cannes hotel, the Majestic Barriere, that charges €300 (US$400) a night for high speed Wi-Fi! Fortunately, this is uncommon, and many hotels have free Wi-Fi connections, but others will charge you $25 or more per day of access.
There is another dimension to hotel internet services that is often overlooked when grumbling about the fees. It is even more aggravating to pay their fees and then suffer with a slow internet connection (or to discover again the truth of the adage ‘you get what you pay for’ and while receiving free Wi-Fi, experience impossibly slow connection speeds and dropped connections).
There’s also a new trend, where hotels may give free but slow service, and then offer premium faster service in return for nightly fees. Bait and switch, by another name. And in some countries, it is common for your Wi-Fi connection to be restricted in terms of how much data you can transfer, instead of (or even as well as) how long you are allowed to access it.
Similar situations apply at airports. Some offer free Wi-Fi. Some offer a short free connection, and others have no free service at all.
But what choice do you have? How to avoid the rip-off fees, and be assured of fast internet service?
The Solution to High Wi-Fi Fees
Actually, you have two choices! You can either use your regular smartphone or tablet as a hotspot, or you can get a separate dedicated Wi-Fi hotspot device. The device takes cellular wireless service and ‘converts’ it to become a Wi-Fi hotspot that you can use to connect your laptop, tablets, and other devices to.
The capability isn’t particularly new. But the three positive developments that have made this practical are the continued reduction in wireless data charges, the continued increase in wireless data speeds, and the growing prevalence of locations where you can readily access fast wireless data.
Note that this article primarily focuses on domestic options. Internationally, data charges are very different, and we’ll consider those in a separate article.
Talking about the growing prevalence of locations where you can readily access fast wireless data, coverage is far from universal, but the larger cities seem to have fairly good coverage, and you can check with the coverage maps on your wireless provider’s website to see what type of coverage they offer in the locations you most commonly travel to.
Look for the 4G and/or LTE coverage in particular. 3G service is slower, and EDGE/GPRS is very much slower again.
Note also that there’s a huge difference, as you’ve probably noticed locally, between the theoretically promised connection speeds and the real world speeds you actually get. But, most of the time, the download speeds are acceptably fast for most normal requirements. Here’s an interesting report showing realworld download and upload speeds around the country, by carrier. Verizon and T-Mobile seem to be the best, and Sprint the worst.
You’ll probably find your wireless service provider charges you something up in the range of $5 – $10 per GB of data you use each month, and may also allow you to vary your monthly included usage from one month to the next. So if you’re not likely to be traveling one month, take your allowance down to whatever you need for regular about-town data usage. But if the next month you know you’ll be traveling, why not check what the hotels’ internet fees will be, and consider using your phone or tablet as your internet source rather than the hotel.
For regular web browsing, email, and VoiP phoning, you’ll probably find that using your phone as a Wi-Fi source works perfectly well, and could save you considerable money. Note this strategy probably would not work if you were planning to stream movies in your hotel room, and may also not be as practical if you wanted to do video conferencing, or other things that consume unusually large amounts of data. On the other hand, there’s no guarantee that your hotel’s internet speeds will be able to handle such demands either!
Another situation where using your phone might save you money is where your hotel connection expires a short while before you plan to leave the hotel. If you only ‘need’ another hour or two of internet access and are not likely to use much data, then even if the hotel’s daily rate was better than using your phone for the preceding days, the last few hours might perhaps be better done through your phone than through another day of hotel service.
There are some pitfalls to be aware of when choosing a data plan. The first is to appreciate that the word ‘unlimited’ doesn’t actually mean what you’d think it means. Most of the wireless companies choose to define this word as meaning ‘oh, maybe about 3GB – 5GB a month, and if you use more than this, we’ll slow down your access speeds (or possibly cut you off entirely)’.
The second is to realize that if you’re adding extra data to a phone plan, then buried in the fine print might be a restriction on how much of this data you can share with other devices over a hot spot.
For these reasons (and also based simply on the economics of the cost per GB of data), it is sometimes better to buy a data-only plan for a tablet or a special internet sharing hotspot type device. You have a better idea of what you’re getting in such cases, and are unlikely to have any restrictions on sharing it through a hot spot.
Dedicated Internet Connection Devices
If you’re looking at buying a dedicated internet connection device, you have a choice of two types of device. One type of device is designed to connect to a laptop or something through a USB connector, and is unlikely to broadcast its own Wi-Fi hotspot. There’s nothing wrong with these devices, particularly if you’re using a PC type laptop with the Connectify software loaded, which will enable the PC to then rebroadcast the internet signal through its Wi-Fi transceiver.
The USB connecting devices are the successor to the earlier generation of similar devices that would connect through a PC-MCIA card slot in our laptops (remember PC-MCIA cards – they seem to have pretty much disappeared entirely these days).
The more flexible type of unit however is a freestanding unit that translates the wireless internet signal into a local short range Wi-Fi signal that all your Wi-Fi equipped devices can connect to. These units might sometimes have the ability to connect directly to a laptop through a USB connection as well, but their main value is in being able to establish a Wi-Fi hotspot without needing a laptop.
You can find these units for sale on your wireless carrier’s website, and they’ll probably cost something under about $150, less if you buy them with a service contract.
But these days, most tablets can do double duty as a personal Wi-Fi hotspot as well, and so there seems no benefit to having both a tablet and a personal hotspot device. Keep the number of separate pieces of electronics you travel with to a minimum, and simply use your tablet.
Third Party Services
There’s still another way of connecting to wireless data. You can use a ‘third party’ solution – by which we mean a service that is totally unrelated to your current wireless service provider and account/services.
An interesting example of this is the new Karma device – due to be delivered shortly, the $150 unit (often offered on special for $100) sells you data in blocks, and each block of data (between 1 and 10 GB) lasts forever. The pricing works well for low to moderate users, because the best case scenario has you paying $10/GB, and the worst case scenario has you up at $14/GB, but if you think about it in terms of your typical nightly hotel data usage, then the chances are you’re using something under 1GB/night in a hotel (I’m an intensive data user and I rarely go much over 500 MB per 24 hour period) which means with a Karma unit, you’re paying something under $10 a night for your internet service if you buy their data in $99 blocks of 10 GB.
So – if this example is in line with your data use – any time a hotel wants to charge you over $10/night – and most do – the Karma device is saving you money.
Although the Karma’s $10 – $14/GB is perhaps more than your current wireless service provider charges, the difference is that your wireless deal gives you a block of data every month on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis – there’s no carry-forward of data from one month to the next, so there is almost certainly going to be some wastage.
For example, maybe you get a 5 GB plan for $45 with your wireless company, but maybe you only use 3 GB of it, so your cost per GB has gone from apparently $9 up to $15/GB.
There’s also the need to understand what would happen if you use more than the 5GB (or whatever amount) you’ve signed up for – maybe you start paying at a penalty rate for overages. With the Karma, you never ‘waste’ a single byte of data, because it just lasts until you’ve used it, and you can keep buying extra data packs as and when you need them.
Another third party service which at first seems to be attractive and appealing is Freedompop. It claims
Guaranteed high speed wireless Internet on all your devices no matter where you go. Whether in the airport or at the beach, FreedomPop’s elegant pocket-size hotspots ensure you always have free wifi for your tablet, computer and phone.
On the face of it, this claim is unbelievable for two obvious reasons. The first is their suggestion that they have universal coverage, everywhere. Interestingly, the first part of signing up for their service is to put in your street address so they can check availability, which immediately points to the lie inherent in their ‘no matter where you go’ claim.
The second unbelievable claim is ‘always have free wifi’. About the kindest interpretation of this would be that the Wi-Fi is always free, as long as you never use it. As best we can tell, all their plans have low limits on the amount of highspeed internet provided, and also come with associated monthly costs in any event.
We truly don’t understand what seems to be a yawning gap between their claims and their actual service. Clearly the word ‘free’ is a nuanced rather than simple term.
In all cases, when your device (phone, tablet, or dedicated device) is active as a hot spot, its battery life will be limited and you should be able to have it connected to a charger.
Our cell phones freed us from the tyranny of hotels and their ridiculously overpriced fees for using their in-room phones. In many cases, our cell phones can now free us from the new hotel tyranny too – ridiculously overpriced fees for their internet service.