Why is it so hard to find a hotel with decent free Wi-Fi? After all, you can walk into almost any Starbucks and sit down to reasonably fast Wi-Fi for the price of a cup of coffee (and if you're really hard up, you could probably slink in and open up your laptop without even buying the coffee). You'd think a luxury hotel charging $400 a night could afford to do the same. And you'd certainly think the big brands could refrain from blocking guests' own personal connectivity devices, as Marriott was recently fined for doing.
"I think 2015 is going to be the tipping point," says Jason Clampet, co-founder and head of content at Skift.com, an online media company specializing in travel. "This is the year where everything is going to change for the better and basic Wi-Fi--to do websurfing and check email, will be free and pervasive."
For years, many hotels have been bound by the revenue-sharing agreements they made with the companies that provided their connectivity, making it hard or impossible for the hotels to offer free internet access even if they wanted to. Part of the reason Clampet is so optimistic is that those contracts are starting to expire.
But until that vision of universal free Wi-Fi becomes reality, how can you reliably do real work from your hotel rooms without being hit with crazy fees? To help you out, we've compiled a guide to the good, the bad, and the ugly of hotel Wi-Fi service.
For years, the best bet for finding fast, free hotel Wi-Fi has been at the La Quintas and Best Westerns of the world. "Right from the beginning, it was the budget hotels that got it right," says Clampet. "They knew that if you're paying $59.99 for a room, there's no way in hell you're paying $10 for Wi-Fi. But they knew they could lure business travelers on tight budgets with the promise of free Wi-Fi."
Even the higher-end hotel brands, which charge a premium for Wi-Fi at their flagships, offer it for free at their less-flashy cousins. So while you'll likely pay for Wi-Fi at a Hilton, it's free at Hilton Garden Inn. Similarly, up until 2014, InterContinental Hotels generally charged for Wi-Fi, even though the company's Holiday Inn and Candlewood Suites brands have long hooked you up for free. (InterContinental started offering free Wi-Fi at its flagship brand last year.)
High-end independent hotels, such as those under the Relais & Chateau umbrella, frequently don't have the layers of owners and management companies that bigger chains do. "They're often able to make decisions faster," says Clampet. "The high-end places, outside of the chains, now see free Wi-Fi as an essential means of making well-paying guests really happy.”
New boutique brands
Nowadays, no one in their right mind opens a new hotel brand and charges for Wi-Fi--not even the big hotel companies that are still charging for it at their flagships. So names like Virgin, Andaz, and Edition--owned respectively by Richard Branson's conglomerate, Hyatt, and Marriott--offer free Wi-Fi.
"Everyone in the hospitality industry is falling over themselves to appeal to millennials," says Juliana Shallcross, managing editor of hotelchatter.com, which tracks the industry. "Any new hotel that opens up now is going to have free Wi-Fi."
This is one luxury brand that gets it, with free Wi-Fi in most of its hotels.
Loews started offering free Wi-Fi at all its properties early in 2014, when its CEO said it was not "sustainable" for hotels to continue to charge for the amenity.
Hyatt has announced that by February, all of its properties will offer free Wi-Fi. But there's a catch: If you need faster speeds (Hyatt hasn't said how fast), you'll have to be a loyalty member or pay up.
Major chains -- sometimes
Increasingly, chains such as Starwood and Omni are seeing wifi as a way to strengthen their loyalty programs and get you to book directly through their own sites, rather than through travel agents or sites such as Expedia or Travelocity. So in these cases, free Wi-Fi is coming--but incrementally, and often with a catch.
For example, if you're a member of Starwood's loyalty program and book a room through its own site or app, you'll get free Wi-Fi. Marriott says that starting January 15, all of its rewards members will get free Wi-Fi at its flagship brand, although some will pay $5 to $7 extra for higher speeds. Most Omni hotels will give you free Wi-Fi in exchange for signing up for the company's loyalty program.
Big-name luxury hotels
Weird, right? Turns out that luxury hotel owners just don't think like you and me. They figure that if you've got the money to spend $400 a night for a hotel room, how can you possibly object to $15 a night for Wi-Fi? There's a slightly different logic for business travelers: If the guests are expensing everything anyways, the hotels figured, they won't care what Wi-Fi costs.
Of course, this rationale has one stunningly simple, obvious shortcoming: Charging for Wi-Fi, especially when guests are already paying hundreds of dollars a night per room, does not exactly make for happy customers.
Great free Wi-Fi will get a guest to rave about your hotel on Yelp, notes Clampet--and that's worth a lot more than $20. Yet the Waldorf-Astoria in New York still charges $18.95 a night for in-room Wi-Fi. (A company spokeswoman says free Wi-Fi is available in the hotel's public spaces.)
Marriot did not seem to know a public relations debacle when it sees one--or creates one. Even though Marriott will start offering free Wi-Fi to loyalty members later this week (as mentioned above), it was also fined $600,000 by the FCC last year for blocking guests' personal Wi-Fi devices at its Gaylord property in Nashville. Marriott wrote the the FCC asking for a rule change, saying yes, it should be able to block your device, and was backed up by Hilton and a trade association, the American Hotel and Lodging Association. The FCC received 39 comments on the matter, with 38 of them negative and one being neutral or off-topic. A number of commenters wrote that Marriott's own Wi-Fi service is so bad that they had no choice but to use their own connectivity instead.
Marriott then released a statement saying that is trying to improve security in its conference spaces, which it says could be infiltrated by rogue hotspots. But Clampet says it's more likely about the money: "They want to be able to sell you, at a conference or trade show, Wi-Fi services to your booth for $1,000. The same way at a convention center you have to pay someone a few hundred dollars to plug in your light."
On January 5, Marriott said it would not block guests wifi devices in their rooms, leaving open the question of how those devices would work in conference areas. In a statement to Inc. on Jan. 14, a Marriott spokesman said Marriott "listens to its customers, and we will not block guests from using their personal Wi-Fi devices at any of our managed hotels." The statement also said Marriott would "continue to look to the FCC to clarify appropriate security measures network operators can take to protect customer data."