Let’s set the Wi-Fi free now!

If it’s 2015, then why are hotel guests still doing something so ’90s, like paying extra for an Internet connection?

Charging for wireless access in the 21st century is as silly as it sounds. An Internet connection is so essential, many guests would sooner do without indoor plumbing, electricity or heat in their room. A 2014 survey by Hotels.com found Wi-Fi was the most desirable in-room amenity.

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The only thing more absurd: making a customer jump through hoops, like reaching elite status or booking through a hotel’s website, to get their “free” connection.

And yet here we are. With one or two exceptions, American hotel chains reaffirmed late last year that they will do almost the exact opposite of what their guests wanted. They would either continue charging outrageous fees to connect to the Internet, or they’d force guests to do a song and dance to get what they want.

The reason? Hoteliers think they’ll make more money. Maybe it’s time someone told them it’s just going to make their guests come unhinged.

“Hotels give you the wrong things for free,” says Katherine Hutt, a frequent traveler who works for a non-profit organization in Arlington, Va. “I don’t need a shower cap, an iron, 15 cable channels or bad coffee. I need Wi-Fi.”

The issue of Internet fees came into sharp focus last fall, when the Federal Communications Commission fined Marriott $600,000 for allegedly blocking its guests’ personal wireless hot spots at one of its large convention hotels and ordered it to stop jamming customers’ signals. A few weeks later, Marriott declared wireless would be “free” for its elite-level customers, as long as they booked their rooms directly.

Wireless issues stayed in the news. Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide also announced that starting this month it will include Internet access in the price of its rooms, as long as you book directly or are an elite member of its loyalty program.

The two outliers: Hilton, which hasn’t announced any major changes to its wireless policy (some of its brands charge for a connection); and Hyatt, the only hotel chain that seems to have listened to its guests. It stopped charging for Internet altogether this month, no strings attached.

“Internet connectivity is no longer an amenity,” explained Kristine Rose, Hyatt’s vice president of brands. “It has become an integral part of travelers’ daily lives and a basic expectation.”

Customers echo that sentiment.

“I believe Wi-Fi connection is a basic utility,” says Ponn Sabra, a blogger and frequent hotel guest from Meriden, Conn. “There is absolutely no excuse for American hotels to offer anything less.”

Well, actually there is.

Connecting a hotel costs a lot, says Scott Van Houzen, the director of information systems for the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa in Acme, Mich. An Internet Service Provider, backup provider, gateway device, backup gateway device and access points in the hallways and public areas can cost tens of thousands of dollars for a hotel. Oh, and everything must be upgraded every 12 to 24 months, as technology changes. A 600-room hotel like his, which includes the cost of connecting to the Internet in a required $14.95 per per night resort fee, doesn’t get its Wi-Fi for “free.”

“There is good reason for hotels to use their Wi-Fi to create a revenue stream,” he says. “It’s expensive.”

Hotel industry insiders say profit margins on Wi-Fi are modest when they offer customers an optional connection. But when they’re required as part of a mandatory resort fee, “the profit is good,” says one source, who sells wireless Internet connections systems to hotels but spoke anonymously to protect clients. In other words, the next time you have to pay a daily surcharge that includes Internet access, whether you use it or not, assume the hotel is monetizing the Internet just fine.

Does that remind you of another popular hotel amenity that fell out of favor with guests? Pricey hotel phones, which accounted for 3% of the hotel industry’s revenue in 2000, slipped to just 0.6% in a decade, according to PKF Hospitality Research. Customers stopped picking up the expensive landlines and started using cellphones to stay in touch.

For Wi-Fi, the evolution is similar, but not identical. Selling Wi-Fi to guests has made up for the decline in phone revenue, but in the end, guests figured out a way around it with personal hot spots, frequent trips to common areas where there’s no charge for Wi-Fi, or visits to McDonald’s or Starbucks, which have open hot spots. Hotels are doing their best to fight that trend by offering guests partial access.

Here’s the difference: In a hyperconnected world, the Internet is considered more of a utility than is a landline ever was. Travelers look for a wireless access point before they find the bathroom or even a light switch in their room. The days of charging for Wi-Fi are numbered. Let’s put it out of its misery.

Should hotels include wireless Internet access in the price of their rooms?

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How to avoid paying for Wi-Fi

Stay at a hotel that doesn’t charge extra. These properties are opening all the time. For example, Virgin Hotels, which just opened in Chicago, doesn’t charge for Wi-Fi – even the fast kind.

Bring your own. A cellular-enabled personal hot spot can save you a bundle, as long as your hotel isn’t blocking it.

Find the “free” hot spot. Even hotels that charge extra will often have a “free” hot spot in a public space like the lobby or business center. If you don’t want to pay, bring your laptop or smartphone there.

50 thoughts on “Let’s set the Wi-Fi free now!

  1. This has been noted before, but the best availability of included WiFi is always in the type of midlevel business hotel that small businesspeople book with their own money. You’ll be dinged at resorts and you’ll be dinged at the hipster boutique properties.

  2. I think it should now be included as I do agree it’s seen almost in the same terms as a basic necessity.. but… I also believe that there IS a cost to the business. to provide it. therefore I also believe rates can and should change to reflect these now added costs.

  3. A hotel should be free to offer complimentary internet or charge a fee for it, and a customer is free to choose a hotel that meets his/her requirements.

    1. Precisely. It’s a business decision. It’s not “free” anywhere unless it’s available to the public, not just paying guests. The question is whether it’s included in the room price or not, and that’s for the marketplace to decide. I do protest those “resort fees” referenced in the article. That’s a scam.

  4. There is a medium. I recall a few hotels that included basic speeds at no extra cost, but charged to enable higher speeds. Basic is good enough for email, reading news, etc, but won’t be adequate for streaming HD video or some types of business communications.

  5. There some déjà vu here. Back in the early 1960s when Motel 6 first started up, that motel chain did not free television service, and one had to pay extra for television service. But by the mid-1980s, Motel 6 realized that everyone expected “free” television service when paying for a motel room, and since then, television service has been included free-of-charge with their rooms. I think Chris Elliott is using the very same reasoning in his argument that internet service to be included free-of-charge with rooms. The only difference I see is that, at the time, Motel 6 was to only motel brand that failed to offer free television service; whereas today, there still remain several brands that do not offer free internet service.

    1. I don’t know if it’s changed, but last winter I stayed in a Motel 6 for several weeks and Wi-Fi was free to AARP members. I wasn’t a member, but I joined to get the free Internet. And the connection was fairly fast.

      1. Motel 6 has a standard $2.99/day fee for WiFi. I’ve paid it before. It seems like a reasonable rate, but what I remember getting was almost dialup performance. However, most locations are franchised, and I suppose it depends on what a particular location’s manager has provisioned.

    2. I remember staying in a motel on a family trip in the 70’s where we had to feed quarters into a box next to the TV in order for it to work. May have been a Motel 6, don’t really remember. But I do remember dad complaining that the TV was costing more than the room rate!

  6. If a hotel charges $9.95 for Internet and half of the people staying at the hotel pay the fee, why not raise the room rate $5 and your getting the same amount and you can scream free wi-fi if you stay here.

    1. There’s probably an interesting dynamic if that happens. Then that means more people complaining if it’s slow or malfunctioning. It’s also pretty easy to refund the fee if service is out but what does the manager do if it’s included? There’s also a chance that the biggest users are the ones who wouldn’t otherwise pay a fee to use it.

        1. I find that often the biggest users are those who can get a service for “free”. Someone paying a small amount may have that fee paid for by an employer or as a business expense and may not use it much other than to access email or perhaps low-bandwidth stuff like Skype. However, the cost-conscious leisure traveler may be using “free Wi-Fi” to stream video.

          Also – it sets up an interesting problem with how much bandwidth the hotel needs to properly service everyone’s needs. I’ve seen variations, such as included service at a low capped bandwith (maybe 0.5-1.5 Mbit/sec) with a fee for a faster cap that might be able to stream video. I’ve also seen different fees for basic vs premium tiers.

  7. One major difference from TV or phone service is that it doesn’t matter how many travelers are using the phone or watching TV, but it matters a lot how many are using bandwidth-intensive Internet services. I had trouble with the free wifi at my preferred hotel for spring training trips last year; it is popular with traveling high school sports teams as well as some business travelers, and in chatting with the tech support folks it became clear that the hotel’s wifi just couldn’t support the relatively recent change in modern usage. The kids were online gaming against each other between rooms; the business travelers who used to turn on the TV were streaming movies. Of course, they’re trying to upgrade the services, but it’s a budget hotel chain. I’d be happy in that situation (and at that price point of hotel) to have free wifi at a level where I could reliably check email and twitter, and a paid tier for streaming etc.

    1. It does matter how many guests are using the in room phones.

      A switchboard system like that used at nearly every hotel only has a limited number of external lines that let the guests call outside of the hotel. This is a fixed number decided at the time the hotel is built based on number of rooms and the likelihood of average customers in their demographic needing to make calls (it can be changed later but is not a flexible number day to day). If the hotel is full and every guest tries to call out for pizza at the same time on their in room phones, a percentage of them will not be able to do so. With the prevalence of cell phones, this is less and less likely to happen.

      How does this relate to WiFi. With WiFi, every guest can probably connect to the internet at the same time just with each getting less and less bandwidth as more connect. The phone has a finite number of lines and any more users simply cannot connect when all are in use. Which is worse? Waiting an hour for your email to download, or waiting an hour to get a phone line?

      1. I’ll grant that this is true in theory and that I travel primarily in the U.S., but I have never had an issue getting a telephone line at a hotel in my lifetime.

        1. It only happened to me once. A few years ago was in the middle of nowhere Wyoming and got caught by an unexpected blizzard that shut the interstate. Found a hotel that still had a room so guess I was lucky. A few hours after I checked in, the cell service went out forcing us to use the hotel phones. Everyone in the hotel was trying to phone home and about half could not get a line. Because of this, I read up on hotel phone systems. I was not aware of the limits either.

  8. On our travels in the US throughout the last couple of years, we’ve experienced that nearly all 1, 2 and 2½ stars hotels offer free Wi-Fi. In contrary, in most 3-star hotels you have to pay for it. Same as breakfast. Really weird… They charge higher rates, but for what? That’s why we never choose for 3-star hotels. Wi-Fi is as basic as television, airco/heating and electricity. I can do without soap, shampoo and a showercap, if they want to cut on costs. I bring my own stuff…

  9. When I’m traveling and need a fast, reliable WiFi connection for business purposes, I choose a hotel that charges an access fee. The reason for this is that when I select a property that has free WiFi, the load on the system is generally so high, especially at night or on weekends, that it’s virtually unusable. If every property begins offering free WiFi, it’ll be incredibly slow, and there won’t be much incentive to upgrade the connection and equipment (at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars) so that my free connection is better.

    1. I remember staying at a place that had supremely fast internet service, although mine was wired. They had separate wired and wireless networks, although I don’t know how they were provisioned.

  10. Hilton is especially bad. I don’t know how the others work, but they are some figure around $13.95 per night PER DEVICE. Two people staying 7 nights at the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza with 5 devices that either require (Nook, Samsung tablet, laptop) or work better with (iPhone, Samsung Galaxy) wi-fi would pay a total of almost $500 to use these in their room. Hilton Honors members get this for free, but only those at an elite level. No joining onsite to get it for this visit! It’s also free to AT&T customers. Alas, one of us has Sprint because of the unlimited data, and the other has Verizon for its perceived superior quality. Plus, I believe this AT&T requirement may be for their Uverse service, which I think is a cable TV product not available in my area.

    1. I have seen the per device charge at other hotels lately as well. Doesn’t bother me much as I travel with only one device needing WiFi and use that as a hot spot for my other devices. Haven’t seen any issues so far.

    2. Nook doesn’t require it unless you’re shopping for books. Once downloaded you don’t need wifi. Phone only requires WiFi if you’re surfing the net or playing games, and same for a tablet. Why would you be hooking up all those devices at the SAME time? The tablet or laptop or smartphone all provide essentially the same capabilities if you’re using it for internet. I have a samsung galaxy phone.. download FoxFi and become your own hotspot. I stay at Hilton pretty frequently and I’ve never encountered a per device charge, but if I did, I’d connect the most essential one, like the laptop.

      1. The per device limit doesn’t matter if you use the devices at the same time or separately. Each device has a distinct ID for WiFi and the hotel is set to bill individually for each device that you connect. You do have to go through the signup process for each one where it clearly states there is a fee per device and not per room so it’s not like they hit you with unexpected charges at checkout.

      2. I have a child who might want to see the latest YouTube toy video, while I’m doing something else. My wife might also want to connect.

        I’ve seen multi-device WiFi setups, as well as ones that will kick off one device once a new one is connected with the same ID/password. So the way it works isn’t one device period, but one device at any given time.

      3. The Nook is the largest-screened device of mine with a web browser, so it is what I often use for Internet access on trips. (The Samsung tablet and the laptop belong to my frequent traveling companion). So that’s why I want wi-fi for my Nook in a hotel room. I am thinking of getting an iPad with 4G since the Nook is an older model no longer supported by Barnes & Noble. But after 3 years with Sprint’s unlimited data on my Galaxy phone, I am going to have to get used to limited data, since no one offers it for iPad, not even Sprint. Thus, the more places I can use wi-fi, the better, while still having 4G for those places that don’t have wi-fi, such as while riding the train to and from work.

    3. You shouldn’t need Wifi on your Nook/Kindle for more than one night unless you are an insanely voracious reader. And you could just download your books before you travel. But, yeah.

  11. I voted yes. A free (charge-included) Wi-Fi is an important factor when I choose a hotel to stay. I tend to avoid those who charge extra. Embassy Suites is acceptable. I can go down to a lobby to get free Wi-Fi.

  12. The argument that WiFi costs the hotels money so therefore they should charge extra for use is flawed. Every amenity any hotel offers costs them money so if we use the WiFi cost argument as justification for charging extra then every amenity should be an extra charge.

    I readily admit I have no idea what the internet connection for a hotel costs. I’m sure it is in the thousands of dollars yearly. But how about the “free” breakfast? It costs the hotel salary for the cooks and waitstaff as well as the price of the food which I am sure can run into thousands of dollars per month at some of the higher end hotels. The HD TVs in the room connected to the paltry cable selection had to be bought. Every room had to be wired and the cable company has to be paid every month. Similarly with phones. Each room had to be wired into the switchboard and the hotel had to guess at how many actual external lines they needed based on expected call volumes. The phone bill has to be paid every month even though most guests (at least in the US) will most likely use cell phones. The pool, exercise room, business center, all cost the hotels money (which some now try and cover with the “resort” fee). The hairdryer, coffee pot, and everything else a guest may use during the stay costs money.

    So if a hotel want s to charge me extra for what we have come to expect to be “free”, let them. But I will be making my choice of where to stay based on how much those extra charges add up to and I will not be staying where most things are not “free”. 🙂

    1. If a service is both (1) used by only a few guests, and (2) is expensive to provide, then I think there is reason to charge extra. But if internet service is both widely used and relatively inexpensive to provide, then it should be provided within the basic cost of the room. I just don’t have a good sense of how much internet service costs a hotel to provide (on a per room, per night basis).

    2. “thousands of dollars yearly” For any hotel, it’s certainly in the tens of thousands yearly. For a large hotel, hundreds of thousands.

  13. Stay at a two or three star hotel chain and they wrap the cost of providing wifi into the cost of the room. Stay at a four or five star establishment and they call wifi a $20/day luxury. There’s no reason the Waldorf=Astoria can’t do something that Motel 6 does with ease.

    1. It doesn’t make sense to me that someone paying $500 a night at the Waldorf is fine with spending an extra $20 here or $30 there on top of that rate for extras while someone spending $75 a night at a motel would refuse to. It comes down to the percentage of the room cost I guess, and that most people staying at a $75 a night motel probably don’t have the expense account the Waldorf client does. And the hotels know it which is why they charge for everything.

      1. I agree. I stay there when I’m in town for business because of its two block walk to our New York offices and because hi-speed wifi is included in our corporate rate, but I don’t see a pleasure traveler being satisfied with feeling nickel and dimed at an establishment that is (was, perhaps?) synonymous with unrivaled customer service over something as basic in the 21st century as hi-speed internet connectivity.

  14. I do believe a time will come when charging for Wifi will be as anachronistic as charging for a room with a private toilet and shower. Christopher Elliott could do us a favor by
    listing all chain hotels which have free WiFi. When hotels find people avoid hotels with a Wifi charge, the market will force them to change.

    Meanwhile, all of us should ask when booking directly if WiFi is included, and when told no, tell them you wouldn’t consider a hotel which charged for Wifi. Things will then change.

  15. We stayed at the omni in Atlanta last December. You “only” had to be a member of their loyalty program to get free Internet. So, I joined their program, which, of course, cost nothing. I did have to go to the desk at check-out and request the charge be taken off of my bill, which they did. The desk clerk didn’t ask for my number or anything, I just had to tell her I was a member. Guess I didn’t have to join after all . . .

  16. For me, the answer is (as is often the case with Elliott’s polls) “It Depends.” When I’m traveling for business, I need to check my email and be able to occasionally tap into Live Meetings. Internet is absolutely essential then. I have yet to encounter a hotel when I’ve been on business that charged me for wifi (and if they did I’d expense it anyway). But, our corporate preferred hotels all include free wifi in our room rates–this includes Marriott and Hilton so I don’t know if I’d have to pay for it if I were traveling on my own. However, if we’re on vacation in Hawaii or Alaska, wifi means little to me. I can’t imagine spending a moment of precious vacation time streaming silly YouTube cat videos,and when I go on vacation I set an out of office that says I will have no access to emails, so I guess I don’t get the need to be 100% connected ALL THE TIME. I do have foxfi on my smartphone and an unlimited data plan so in a pinch I can use my phone as a hotspot when my son or husband or I NEED to get online for something like scheduling an excursion or checkint out reviews/making reservations.

  17. I don’t understand all the wailing about “free” internet in your hotel room. It’s expensive for hotels to install and maintain good connectivity, and the upgrades are not cheap. If internet access is important to you, just book hotels who offer all their guests internet without charge. Lots and lots of them exist; if people vote with their wallets, soon hotels will realize what people want.

  18. Free wi-fi is a double-edged sword. There is no question hotels are gouging customers over it (seriously, more than one night of wi-fi can get close to the equivalent of a month’s worth of home service). On the other hand, open wireless is a security nightmare and a haven for cybercriminals. The amount of identity theft and malware insertion that happens at places like Starbucks is staggering, and most people don’t know about it. While I agree that Wi-Fi should be included in the cost of a hotel stay, I would much rather a hotel keep it behind some sort of security wall rather than leaving it open.

    1. The discussion is about not charging extra for it, not about some sort of “security wall”. I use a VPN to get past the hotel.

  19. Costs money to build plumbing and wire for electricity too. When a certain percentage of people use something, it should be bundled into the room charge.
    An internet fee of $14.95 based upon an 80% occupancy rate is $4365 a year. With the speeds hotels generally have, they are not spending anywhere near this per year.

    You’d think hotels would learn that $6 water and $15 a night internet access isn’t customer service, it just ticks people off.

  20. Why, if it’s so expensive to install and maintain, do the Hampton Hotels offer free WiFi wherever I go? And the Hampton prices are very competitive (not to mention the very nice hot/cold breakfast which is also included in the room price).

  21. We get the most complaints from clients about Sandals and Beaches charging for internet. For the price people pay to go to any of those resorts it should be included. Several years ago at a forum, agents told Sandals execs that customers were complaining about that and the execs began shouting at us that it will never happen and it cost too much. But they have relented and the upper categories get it included now. If lower priced resorts can include it, there is no reason why every hotel or resort can’t as well, especially if they are charging ridiculous resort fees that do not include it.

  22. Very true. I normally use the Wyndham group hotels. Never had to pay for wifi. Never had to pay a resort fee either. Never paid for parking The only thing I give up is downtown locations.

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