Waiting out yet another flight delay? The Department of Transportation reports that only about 77 percent of U.S. flights arrive on time. Luckily, your e-mail, the latest news headlines and that trashy gossip blog you can't resist are 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.
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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 U.S. 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 Philadelphia, Boston, Charlotte, Denver and Fort Lauderdale.
Outside the U.S., cities that will give you a Wi-Fi fix for free include Hong Kong, Vancouver, Toronto, Vienna, Oslo and Osaka, to name just a few.
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. (Be sure to double-check this information against your airport's own Web site, as wireless plans change frequently.)
But free of charge doesn't necessarily mean free and easy. The overall consensus seems to be that the free services can be spotty. And some airports put a cap on how long you can surf for free (for example, the Athens airport starts charging after an hour).
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In the airports where you must pay, your wireless radio will often pick up a number of different providers. Some of the most popular are Boingo, T-Mobile, Sprint and AT&T, 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 not all providers offer hourly or per-minute rates.
Subscribe to T-Mobile's HotSpot add-on (which can be added on a monthly basis for subscribers on the company's standard cell phone plans, or purchased on a daily basis) and you'll have access to Wi-Fi at a large number of airports and/or airport lounges, as well as more than 45,000 other locations around the world.
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If you're a frequent global traveler, Boingo's monthly plan is another option. The Boingo network gives you access to more than 400,000 locations worldwide for a flat rate of $59 per month ($9.95 a month for just North and South America, or $7.95 a month for worldwide smartphone access). 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. Have a layover in Fairbanks, Alaska? Killing a flight delay at Kauai's Lihue Airport? Forget about e-mail and RSS news feeds.
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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, Philadelphia, JFK), have installed popular charging stations where you can restore battery life in your cell phone, laptop or other device.
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.
A few years back, a writer on Girlawhirl.com, a lifestyle Web magazine catering to the woman on the go, suggested packing 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 if other travelers would be willing to share ... 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 Overseas.
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 these days feature complimentary Wi-Fi, as well as data ports where you can hook up your computer to the Internet. (Don't forget your Internet cable.)
Day passes for airport lounges run about $50 per visit or $300 - $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.
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Wi-Fi in the Air
In another 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 have now begun adding in-flight Wi-Fi. (Technically, you'll have to wait until you're in the air and permitted to use approved electronic devices, so there will be a small usage gap.)
As of this writing, Virgin America and AirTran have rolled out Wi-Fi across their entire fleets, while most other major U.S. airlines have begun adding the service on select aircraft.
The most common in-flight Internet provider is a company called GoGo, which costs $4.95 for Internet access on a single flight up to 90 minutes, $9.95 for a flight of an hour and a half to three hours, and $12.95 for a flight longer than three hours. You can also buy daily and monthly passes.
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 Virgin America 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 before shelling out the fee.
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--written by Dan Askin