Read This Before You Use Hotel Wi-Fi

Hotel wi-fi with desk, laptop, coffeeA hotel desk with laptop, cup of coffee, and wi-fi sign
Ymgerman/Dreamstime

Free or fee? Secured or unsecured? We demystify the surprisingly baffling process of logging on when you're on the road.

When it comes to booking a hotel, Wi-Fi is an absolute must for most travelers. Indeed, when asked what services are of particular importance to them, 80 percent of hotel guests said that Internet access is the most crucial, a recent Statista survey of personal and business travelers found.

That data echoes a survey from English hotelier Roomzzz, which found that 65 percent of hotel guests go online within seven minutes of checking in at their hotel, and one third of hotel guests request the Wi-Fi password as soon as they arrive. Granted, that’s not really a surprise, considering you need a good Internet connection to stream the latest episode of, say, “House of Cards” without experiencing slowdowns.

Nonetheless, there are some important things to consider before logging in to your next hotel’s Wi-Fi.

1. Some hotels still charge for Wi-Fi

Though most major hotel chains offer guests free Wi-Fi, 36% of hotels worldwide still charge for it, a recent HotelChatter survey found. Generally, cheap hotels are more likely to charge for Wi-Fi, says Hailey Benton of Global Travel Academy (www.travelacademy.org). “High-quality and safe Wi-Fi connections are expensive, and if you have opted for a budget-friendly accommodation style this may mean that you miss out on certain perks, like free Wi-Fi,” she says.

But, depending on the hotel, there may still be ways to get free Wi-Fi. Some hotel loyalty programs offer complimentary Wi-Fi to frequent guests, says Benton. For instance, Hyatt offers free Wi-Fi to its Platinum and Diamond elite level members, Trump Elite gives its members complimentary Wi-Fi, and members of Marriott Rewards, which includes The Ritz-Carlton Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG), receive free Wi-Fi, Benton points out.

Other potential solutions? If a hotel provides guests free Wi-Fi in the lobby or another access point, like its business center, ask the front desk for a room that’s close by. Or, politely ask concierge for a promotional code to get free in-room Wi-Fi. (Some hotels will offer them if you ask.)

Can’t strike a deal? “I always suggest comparing the prices of in-hotel Wi-Fi to purchasing mobile data for your devices,” Benton says. “In many countries around the world, buying a SIM card with plenty of data is very affordable, and much more safe and reliable than hotel Wi-Fi.”

2. Know the difference between an unsecured and secured Wi-Fi connection

Speaking of safety, you’ve likely heard the terms “secured” and “unsecured” Wi-Fi before. Well, there’s a big difference between them. “Unsecured generally means un-encrypted and does not require a password,” explains Robert Siciliano, a security awareness expert at Safr.Me. Meanwhile, “secure Wi-Fi connection generally requires a password and is encrypted, or is accessed by a virtual private network software.”

Therefore, if you want to protect your data, look for a hotel with a secured Wi-Fi connection. “Unsecured is just that: insecure and vulnerable to criminal hackers sniffing out data as it travels through the air,” Siciliano warns.

3. Take the right safety measures to protect your computer

If you still want to stay at a hotel with an unsecured Wi-Fi network, there are ways you can access the Internet without making your personal information, bank accounts, and other sensitive data vulnerable to hackers.

One way to connect to Wi-Fi from your laptop or tablet is by creating a mobile hotspot from your smartphone. This entails sharing your phone’s mobile data connection wirelessly with the other device, and it may be a good option if your cell phone plan has unlimited data. (This PCMag guideshows you how to set up a Wi-Fi hotspot using an iPhone, Android, or other mobile device.)

However, if you don’t have an unlimited data plan, you may be better off buying a secure portable hotspot from either your cell phone carrier (e.g., Verizon’s highly rated $200 Jetpack MiFi 7730L), or from a third party like Karma, which offers pay-as-you-go plans and flat-rate monthly plans starting at $40.

4. Follow these precautions will help you further protect your personal data when using hotel Wi-Fi

  • Turn off your device’s wireless signal when you’re not using it. Tucking in for the night? Disconnecting your smartphone or other electric device from the hotel’s Wi-Fi network can minimize your risk of being hacked.
  • Use a VPN. Using a VPN, or Virtual Private Network, is the most effective way to safely access Wi-Fi. Why? Because, essentially, a VPN is “a private network that only you can access, hiding your important data from potential hackers,” Benton says.
  • Confirm you’re accessing the hotel’s Wi-Fi network—not a fake one. Some data thieves prey on hotel guests by setting up nearby Wi-Fi networks that look like legitimate networks but aren’t. And, unfortunately, “a malicious individual can very easily create a Wi-Fi network that sounds plausible,” says Max Eddy, cybersecurity expert at PCMag (www.PCMag.com). So, check with the front desk to verify you’re accessing the right network before you connect.
  • Don’t use sensitive websites and mobile apps. One way to prevent thieves from stealing your passwords to social networking sites, online banking services, and other websites and apps when using hotel Wi-Fi is by avoiding them completely. It’s not convenient, but it’s a safe approach.
  • Install antivirus software. Antivirus software programs can help prevent viruses, worms, trojans, and other malware from infiltrating your computer.

The bottom line? “Hotel Wi-Fi is convenient but it’s not always secure, even if it was set up with the best intentions,” Eddy says.

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