Travel Troubleshooter: Hotels Are Charging Even More for What Should Be Free
By Christopher Elliott
Tribune Media Services
What could be more absurd than paying a surcharge for a wireless Internet connection at your hotel?
Paying even more for a wireless Internet connection at your hotel.
But that's exactly what more travelers are being asked to do when they open their laptops after checking in. A "regular" Wi-Fi connection typically costs about $10 a day, but if they want to upgrade to a higher speed, they have to pay a premium of between $5 and $10 over and above that rate.
Philip Guarino was faced with that choice on a recent visit to Zurich, Switzerland. A basic wireless connection at his hotel ran at 500 kilobits per second (the average dial-up connection is 56 kilobits per second). The "premium" connection speed was about 20 times faster, which would have allowed him to easily stream videos, make Internet-phone calls and download large files - all the things a reliable high-speed connection ought to do in 2011.
"I pay for the upgrade every time because the difference is so extreme," says Guarino, a business consultant.
Let's take a little time-out, here. In the 21st century, wireless Internet access is a basic utility, like electricity or indoor plumbing. Charging extra for a connection that ought to be included with the price of your room reminds me of the avaricious motels in the 1970s that added a 25-cent fee for having color TVs in the room.
But the hotel industry is serious about this. I saw it just last week when I checked into a Hilton family property in California. As a frequent guest, my wireless is "free" - but if I want fast wireless access, the hotel charges more. So much for loyalty.
The hotel industry begs to differ with me. Back in 2004, properties needed to upgrade their wireless systems, so they turned to guests to pay for the needed routers and modems. The idea caught on, says David Wieland, president of InnFlux, which provides hotel wireless systems.
"Today, as bandwidth needs are exponentially outpacing bandwidth availability in many areas, the tiered approach is becoming more widely accepted and endorsed," he says. "We have serviced more than 700 hotels and more than 80 percent of them have employed the speed upgrade option."
Wieland makes a valid point. Internet bandwidth is a limited resource for a hotel. It might only have 50 megabits per second of bandwidth available that must be shared among guests. Doesn't it make sense that guests who are willing to pay more should also get more?
Under such a scenario, the premium guests would get a fast 5 megabits per second connection, while the garden-variety travelers would be throttled to 1 megabit per second, which is still considerably faster than a dial-up connection.
Still, the notion that you should pay for a basic utility is ridiculous. Paying even more for it is a little like paying extra to make sure there's water 24 hours a day, or that the electricity doesn't get turned off in your hotel room. It's not exactly the same thing, but close enough.
I didn't go for the upgraded connection on my last hotel stay. I don't want to encourage them. Current "take" rates - an industry term for people who buy the faster connection - are about 3 percent for "free" wireless networks and 15 percent for paid ones, according to Wieland.
It could be a losing fight. Although some forward-looking, guest-friendly hotel chains never charge for wireless access, many more do. And many more will, if we start paying the speed premium, according to frequent traveler and travel blogger John DiScala.
"I think it's going to be the way of the future," he says.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c)2011 CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT
This column was printed in the March 13, 2011 - March 26, 2011 edition.