Hotel Wi-Fi has always been a hit-or-miss thing. Sometimes, you get a fast connection. Other times, it’s slower than dial-up. But as the pandemic heads for the exit, wireless internet has been more hit than miss.
I recently stayed at a boutique hotel near Cape Town, South Africa, that was a “miss.” The connection stalled several times. The staff apologized repeatedly and tried to restart the lone wireless router in the lobby. But it did me no good.
Why is this happening? Industry insiders say hotels put much-needed upgrades for wireless connections on hold during the pandemic as the lodging industry dealt with more pressing problems.
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“Expectations for Wi-Fi are high,” says Janice Ting, a senior product marketing manager for mobile products at Netgear. “People are used to working, gaming, streaming and more from home on multiple devices, and they expect to do the same when they travel. Today, having a robust Wi-Fi connection at a hotel is as important as having strong coffee in the morning.”
The lodging industry knows it needs to up its game. Innisfree Hotels, which owns chain hotels in Florida and Georgia, is upgrading all of its properties with routers capable of a blazing 9.6 gigabytes per second, triple its current router speeds. But it’s been a challenge to keep up with the demand for fast connections.
“As the number of connectable devices per traveler increases, hospitality providers have to upgrade their systems,” says Scott Ford, the company’s marketing director.
But how do you know when you have a fast connection? And how do you get connected when you’re staying in a hotel or vacation rental?
How fast should a hotel’s internet connection be?
For post-pandemic travelers, a reliable internet connection is a utility, not an amenity. It should be fast and stable.
“At least 25 Mbps (megabits) per second, and ideally higher,” says Tom Paton, founder of Broadband Savvy, a consumer broadband site. “Don’t let them get away with just saying “it’ll be fast,” because this can be quite subjective. Ask how fast it will be in megabits per second.”
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At 25 Mbps, you get a consistent experience, and can join a Zoom call, while also downloading a file from Slack. It’ll allow you to watch HD TV, while also doing an app update on your phone, or browsing Facebook.
Most hotels fall far short of that. In a survey conducted before the pandemic by Highspeedinternet.com, the hotel chain with the fastest free internet connection, Rodeway Inn, clocked in at just 7.66 Mbps. For paid connections, Econo Lodge had the fastest connection at 8.48 Mbps. That’s enough to stream video – with an occasional interruption.
Sean Nguyen, a frequent traveler and director of the site Internet Advisor, says speed isn’t the only thing you should consider. How many other guests will be vying for a connection?
“It makes a big difference if there are 50 people connected versus five people, for example,” he says. “I ask them what speed an individual device would get based on the number of people that are usually in the hotel and using their internet.”
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His favorite strategy is asking the hotel to run a speed test before making a reservation. It takes just a few seconds on a site like Ookla or Speed Check. You’ll receive two numbers, one for upload speeds and the other for download speeds. Most people focus on download speeds because they are streaming music or videos, but upload speeds can be important if you’re videoconferencing or uploading photos.
How to connect when you’re traveling
Experienced travelers leave nothing to chance when it comes to their internet connection. And that’s never been more true than now. The savviest travelers ask for a room near a hotspot so that they can receive the highest connection speeds. The hotspots are far away from the desks in the room in some older hotels, giving you only a faint signal.
Another option: Carry your own hotspot.
“If you are traveling with friends or family and you are staying for more than a week, then my advice is to get a SIM card as soon as you land,” advises Simone Colavecchi, a search engine optimization consultant who travels frequently. “Also, make sure you check the cost of connecting to the country you are traveling to with your current network provider.”
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For Romeo Raabe, a long-term care planner from Green Bay, Wisconsin., bringing his hotspot has an unexpected advantage. He canceled his office internet connection and bought a T-Mobile hotspot last year.
“It’s much faster than my previous internet provider – and much safer than public Wi-Fi,” he says. “I can even stream Netflix in the motorhome when I’m traveling.”
What if the internet doesn’t work?
Occasionally, you’ll check into a hotel where the Wi-Fi is just awful. Excuses won’t help you connect. You need a plan.
The first step is to call the front desk and ask for help. Sometimes, they can restart the router or restore your connection. But that doesn’t always work, or it’s just a temporary fix. I can almost guarantee that you’re not the first person to complain about the slow Wi-Fi, and even a quick look at the guest reviews would probably reveal the problem before you book.
Another fix: Move to a different room. Some rooms are too far from the hotspot. Hotels understand that some customers need a faster connection, and they will probably be happy to oblige.
Can you check out of your hotel early and and demand a refund if the connection is too slow? Maybe. If the property advertises fast internet on its site – anything over 25 Mbps – you stand a pretty good chance. Run a speed test to document your internet speed. Make sure the property has a chance to fix it before checking out.
Renting a hotspot is also a great temporary fix. That’s what Richie Fink, a retired biosafety officer from Andover, Mass., did on a recent trip to Switzerland.
“It was reliable and fast,” he recalls. “I had a strong signal everywhere I went.”
But maybe the most effective fix is to let your hotel know that a fast and reliable internet connection is a utility. Not having it is like getting a hotel room without running water or electricity. If enough guests underscore that simple truth, we’ll all be online in no time.
Here are a few more connection strategies
Check the reviews. Hotel reviews almost always contain information about in-room connectivity. “You can count on user reviews to give you the most accurate account of the internet quality of the hotel,” says Aseem Kishore, CEO of Help Desk Geek. Look for hotels that have positive reviews before you decide on your accommodations.
Get comfortable with your equipment. “Practice tethering your smartphone to your laptop,” advises frequent traveler and privacy advocate Edward Hasbrouck. He says many phone plans allow you to connect your phone to your laptop as a wireless data modem, offering fast connection speeds. But it can also drain your data, so be careful.
If all else fails, leave. That’s the advice of Crystal Stranger, an accountant who recently rented an apartment in Cape Town, South Africa. “The internet was awful,” she recalls, “definitely not what was advertised.” After several attempts to address the slow connection, she left the apartment and found a place with faster Wi-Fi. “Don’t be afraid to leave if it’s really bad,” she advises. Note, though, that you may not be entitled to a refund.