Waiting out yet another flight delay? The FAA claims that the average postponement for domestic flights is 48 minutes. Luckily, your e-mail, the latest news headlines and that trashy gossip blog you can't resist may be just a mouse click (and perhaps a credit card) away.
The use of laptops, PDA's, smartphones and other electronic gadgets is on the rise, and airports are wooing tech-savvy travelers by offering wireless Internet access — also known as Wi-Fi — throughout their terminals. Of course, not all airport Internet options are the same, and you'll have to come to the terminal prepared. Does your airport charge for wireless Internet, or will it let you connect (albeit sometimes at frustratingly slow speeds) for free? For some travelers wishing to log on, swaggering into the airline club lounge might be the savviest choice. For others, the in-air connection will do the trick. And what about that ever-present threat of the dead battery? Grab your gizmo and read on for the latest in airport Wi-Fi.
While you should be prepared to pay to use the Web at most airports, either at a wired kiosk or via Wi-Fi, there are a number of places that offer the service as a "courtesy." The largest domestic airport offering free Wi-Fi is, ironically, Las Vegas ("Nothing's free in Vegas, baby"), and connectivity reviews have been very complimentary. Other major freebie airports include Charlotte, Denver and Fort Lauderdale.
For a comprehensive list of who makes you pay and who's free, as well the general locations where you'll be picking up a signal, visit TravelPost.com.
But free of charge doesn't necessarily mean free and easy. The overall consensus seems to be that the free services can be spotty. Tellingly, some airports that offer complimentary Wi-Fi also have the paid-access infrastructure in place — including San Jose, Charleston, Little Rock and the aforementioned Denver — providing a for-fee option if gratis surfing becomes an exercise in thumb twiddling. Atlarge.com, a site aimed at business travelers, allows members to comment (sometimes quite bluntly) on the usability of airport Internet services.
On a slightly more controversial point, there are a few airports who offer free Wi-Fi with restrictions on sites it deems to be offensive (in Denver, these sites include Vanity Fair and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit pages).
In the airports where you must pay, your wireless radio will often pick up a number of different providers. Four of the most popular are Boingo, Opti-Fi, T-Mobile and Concourse, all of which require a credit card for payment. Most of the services cost between $8 and $10 for a full day. Of course, you'll be in the airport for a fraction of that time (unless your flight is seriously delayed), but a surprising few providers offer hourly or per-minute rates (San Jose does on the T-Mobile system).
Subscribe to T-Mobile's Hotspot add-on (a $20-per-month addition available to subscribers on the company's standard cell phone plans) and you'll have access to Wi-Fi at a large number of airports and/or airport lounges, as well as 8,000 other locations (Starbucks, Barnes & Noble) across the U.S.
If you're a frequent global traveler, Boingo's monthly plan is another option. The Boingo network gives you access to over 100,000 locations worldwide for a flat rate of $39 per month ($22 a month for just the U.S.). The system basically piggybacks service providers around the world, at hotels, airports and thousands of McDonald's. So if you're on an extended sojourn and need to keep in touch, it's an excellent option.
Airports without Internet
"Does it have Wi-Fi?" has long been replaced by "Does it have free Wi-Fi?" as the airport-related question business travelers and nerds ask most frequently. But not so fast. There are an ignoble few, relics of the space age, still lacking wireless capabilities. Flying into Van Nuys, California? Have a layover in Molokai, Hawaii or Jackson, Mississippi? Forget about e-mail and RSS news feeds.
Besides Honolulu, which has a paid option, most Hawaiian airports are lacking Wi-Fi service.
Other charge issues
Battery life is a frequent concern for those using electronic devices in the airport. Many airports, especially those well frequented by business travelers (O'Hare, JFK, LAX), have installed popular charging stations where you can restore battery life in your cell phone, laptop or other device. Newark added 50 stations with 4 outlets each in summer 2008.
Other airports feature only traditional outlets, often oddly located, requiring those in need of a charge to camp out on the floor. And where outlets are few, demand will be high.
In an interesting post on Girlawhirl, a lifestyle Web magazine catering to the woman on the go, the writer suggests bringing an adapter that can turn one outlet into four. It may look like all charge options are taken, but if you come prepared and ask politely, problem solved.
One last note: If you're traveling to an international airport, don't forget to consider plug style and voltages. For more information, see Electricity Conversion.
The airline club
Complimentary drinks, snacks, comfortable seating, a clean bathroom — and Internet access. That's the domain of the airline lounge, that private sanctuary of elite business travelers and a few everyday travelers willing to pay for the privilege of entrance. Most airline lounges feature Wi-Fi, and many include the service in the cost of the experience. Those that do? Northwest, American Airlines, Continental and British Airways, to name a few. If you're in a United, Delta or US Airways lounge, you'll have to pony up (unless you're at an airport offering free service).
The majority of airport lounges also feature data ports where you can hook up your computer to the Internet for free, as well as plentiful outlets for battery charging. So if there's a charge for Wi-Fi, don't fret. Just don't forget your Internet cable.
Day passes for airport lounges run between $30 and $50 per visit or $250 - $500 per year. Interestingly enough, passes for airline lounges that are bought ahead of time and not used often end up on eBay — and sell at more than 50 percent off. Is it worth paying $25 for unlimited snacks, cocktails, Internet use, plus an exceedingly comfortable place to relax before an exceedingly uncomfortable flight? (That's a rhetorical question, as you've guessed.)
For information on specific airport lounges at specific airports, try LoungeGuide.net, a user-generated resource featuring reviews of airline clubs around the world.
Wi-Fi in the air
In another small step toward satisfying the need to stay connected seamlessly from earth to air — Internet access on the inside of the retina will be next — several carriers are experimenting with in-flight Wi-Fi. (Technically, you'll have to wait until you're in the air and you can use approved electronic devices, so there will be a small usage gap.)
As of this writing, American Airlines is currently testing Wi-Fi service on its nonstop JFK — Miami, JFK - San Francisco and JFK - Los Angeles flights. The cost is $12.95 for all three flights, regardless of duration. If the test proves successful, the airline may extend the program fleetwide in the near future.
Air Canada, Virgin America and Delta also have plans to add in-flight broadband in 2009.
Until recently, the Germany-based Lufthansa offered Internet for $27 on some of its long-haul routes, but various issues with technology and expenses grounded the program, testament to some of the challenges of integrating the Internet into the onboard experience.
If you're connecting in the air, don't expect flawless service — simply said, it isn't easy to provide solid connectivity at 37,000 feet. Reviews have been generally complimentary, expectations being rightly set, but video watching in particular is said to be a bit choppy.
Battery life will be another concern. Some planes, such as those in the Qantas fleet, have laptop power sockets at all seats. On the American Airlines planes offering Wi-Fi, not all seats are equipped with sockets. So if you can't snag one of those, be prepared for limited computer use, or bring another battery — something to consider when shelling out the $13.