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Is Wi-Fi One of Your Travel Must-Haves?

Just about every travel survey these days confirms that travelers rate Wi-Fi one of their biggest requirements, both in airplanes and in hotels. But while the majority of flyers want Wi-Fi, Bloomberg Businessweek reports that only about 6 percent of flyers on Wi-Fi-enabled flights actually buy it. Nevertheless, airlines are installing Wi-Fi as fast as they can (and hotels are already pretty well covered).

A recent comprehensive report from the travel fare-search system Routehappy reported that Wi-Fi is already available on 38 percent of U.S. domestic flights, with another 9 percent in the process of “rolling out” the capability. But availability is uneven:

  • AirTran and Virgin America are the only two lines with Wi-Fi on 100 percent of their flights, although Southwest will be at 100 percent soon.
  • Delta offers the most Wi-Fi-equipped flights, with service on most mainline planes.
  • About half of Alaska and US Airways flights are equipped, and American will quickly be at about the same level.
  • Frontier, JetBlue, and United are the industry’s laggards, but all plan to equip flights fairly soon.

The holy grail of in-flight connectivity is a combination of Wi-Fi with a power outlet. So far, Virgin America is the only line with 100 percent availability for both features. However, power availability may become less important as more users switch to smartphones and tablets that provide better battery life than conventional laptops.

Routehappy provided some data on individual routes with the highest number of Wi-Fi flights—the tops are Los Angeles-San Francisco and Los Angeles-JFK—but knowing that lots of Los Angeles-JFK flights have Wi-Fi doesn’t help you much if you’re flying from Denver to Omaha.

Most of today’s domestic in-flight Wi-Fi uses GoGo technology, based on lots of ground stations. Overseas Wi-Fi by necessity must rely on satellite technology and satellite system installation has lagged the use of GoGo. According to Routehappy, at present only 279 international flights leaving the United States—that’s about 6 percent of the total—have full-flight Wi-Fi capability, but the number is increasing quickly. Airlines with the largest number of Wi-Fi-enabled overseas flights are, in order, United, Lufthansa, and Emirates. Many other lines will install more systems by the end of the year. If Wi-Fi is important to you, check Routehappy during your flight search: Its fare search displays Wi-Fi availability on every flight.

The “normal” prices for GoGo are $14 for an all-day pass, $39.95 for a monthly pass on one airline, and $49.95 per month for unlimited use on any airline, with occasional promotions. Meanwhile, however, faced with lower-than-anticipated revenues, GoGo has been experimenting with price increases. Frequent travelers recommend buying at least an all-day pass online, in advance, so as to avoid any unpleasant surprises. My guess is that, long term, acceptance of in-flight Wi-Fi will depend heavily on how many businesses allow their travelers to put Wi-Fi on their expense accounts.

Wi-Fi has already caught on widely in hotels. Even more than a year ago, I found hotels with Wi-Fi available everywhere I stopped on my round-the-world trip, with the same results on my trip to the U.K., Switzerland, and France earlier this year. As far as I can tell, all the main hotel-booking engines note the availability of Wi-Fi.

But the hotel situation isn’t ideal. In my recent experience I found Wi-Fi doesn’t always work as advertised:

  • Often, even when a hotel promises in-room Wi-Fi, signals are limited to areas close to wherever the router is located, with weak or nonexistent reception in at least some rooms.
  • Wi-Fi isn’t always free. Oddly, I’ve found that lower-priced hotels are more likely to offer no-charge Wi-Fi than the upscale places. Increasingly, however, you can at least partially overcome a Wi-Fi gouge by using your smartphone as a hot spot (many now have this capability) and getting online through a phone data link.

Overall, if you feel the need to be wired, you can almost always find a hotel where you can get your fix—and often at no extra charge.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

(Photo: Woman Using Laptop on Plane via Shutterstock)

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