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Hotel wi-fi: the new minibar

The summer is good for catching up with old friends and this year has been no different. Oddly, I’ve heard from two former journo colleagues both complaining about the same thing – hotel wifi charges.

Everyone, it seems, has a “you won’t believe this” story about hotels and the way they charge for wireless internet access.

Peter Nowak, formerly a New Zealand Herald tech journalist and now safely back home in the winterless north (Canada) has a nice blog post about the costs of wifi around the world (avoid Australia, he suggests) and points out that fast internet access competes with the hotel’s own revenue stream from phone calls, movies and of course every politician’s nightmare, the porn channel (hint to all MPs: if you knew more about the internet you wouldn’t have this kind of problem).

That’s fine, in so far as it goes, but the damage such exorbitant costs incur on the tourism industry are large and growing. Tourists these days don’t plan a six-week jaunt down to the minutest detail – instead, they travel point-to-point, planning as they go. Hit a rough patch with no realistic internet pricing and word will get around: avoid.

My second catch-up, with a man who wishes to remain anonymous, includes a list of Six Things You Should Never Do At a Hotel:

  • buy wi-fi
  • make phone calls using the room phone
  • buy anything from the minibar
  • watch pay-per-view TV (even the non R18 stuff)
  • exchange currency
  • get room service

And I fear he’s quite right. It’s all part of the round of “nickel and diming” that goes on at hotels, and it leaves visitors with a nasty taste in their mouths I suspect.

So how do we fare locally? I don’t stay in hotels often enough to claim to be a connoisseur of hotel internet connectivity but, if my experience at conference venues is anything to go by, New Zealand still has a long way to go.

My mystery contact was charged $5.10 (why not just $5?) for half an hour’s internet access at one location, and was so incensed by the pricing at another that he went to the local café where the “free WiFi” was so well shielded by process and security (an eight-digit password but they handed out 10-digit numbers on slips of paper) that he gave up entirely.

“I got internet access in one hotel by sitting in the lobby, which is bad enough but, when you have to buy access in two hourly blocks, it’s contiguous time. You can’t spend 20 minutes in the morning, then come back in the afternoon to use the rest - you have to buy another two hours’ worth. It’s a rort,” he rants.

It’s nowhere near as bad as Australia though, and I can add my own worst tale – a hotel that billed itself as a “business hub” and offered wifi in the rooms. Great – I’ll take that, I said. Great, they said – here’s your wifi cable.

Erm. Wifi doesn’t need cables, said I, to much confusion. Apparently nobody else had ever complained. I suspect the owner thought “wifi” was a new marketing term for broadband.

Peter points to a lovely website that lets you rate your hotel’s WiFi speed. There are no New Zealand entries, so next time you’re travelling, why not test it out and we’ll build up a picture of the New Zealand hotel scene and we can compare notes.

On the plus side, the mobile phone companies are now fighting for your dollar, so you can get decent rates for mobile broadband ranging from casual use right up to 2Degrees’ fabulous 12GB for $99 that lasts for up to six months. If the phone world has taught me anything, it’s that customers like simple pricing that doesn’t involve being stung with extra charges all the time. The phone companies are slowly learning that – it’s time the tourist industry followed suit.

Paul Brislen is CEO of the Tuanz, the Telecommunications Users Association of NZ. 

Comments and questions

I do think that if everyone who stays at hotel stopped paying for WIFI then maybe then they would stop charging .Its a complete rip off when I can walk down the road to the local McDonald's and its for free or the local library . I agree with everything you say I never do buy anything from the mini bar another complete rip off

Thats why god invented tripadvisor so hotels ripping off tourists with this sort of nonsense get pinged :) If your friends want to have a go at hotels for being such greedy pigs tell them to do it on trip advisor - it'll hit the hotels where it hurts - guest bookings.

If this is done often enough some of these hotels my change their wayward behaviour.

We avoid big chain hotels and go for boutique accommodation where wifi is usually free

Hotel wifi may be a rip off but not necessarily as bad as using roaming data on your mobile phone while overseas. The hotel wifi is at least up front, not a ma$$ive surprise at the next [telco] invoice.
Let's see some price comparisons.

the reason wifi is so expensive is because they know that most tourists wouldn't buy it anyway, even at half the price, because mobile data is still cheaper.
But business tourists who don't care about the price will pay virtually anything.

So your mistake is in thinking the hotel gives a fudge about tourists using wifi. they don't. they want to get every last cent out of business travellers, so charge the highest possible price.

Some of the big chains provide free wifi in room but only to their frequent traveller members, IHG who operate Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn, Intercontinental amongst others is one - it's a worldwide offer so hence the local hotels under their banner comply.

I don't do as much travel as I used to but it's definitely handy esp in NZ and Australia.

The first thing that I do in pretty much any country that I visit is pop into the local phone shop to purchase a local data SIM. I then slip this into my wireless modem and have internet access for all of my devices anywhere that I stay.

In most countries the SIM cards are free (or you pay a small amount but get the equivalent amount of credit on them).

Even in countries where hotel wifi is included in the room rate mobile data is generally faster and more convenient.

I used to run a Study Abroad programme for students from the US coming to New Zealand and would spend about $25,000 dollars for nights in a Wellington hotel and about $10,000 for nights in a Queenstown hotel. I would always ask for free wifi/internet and was always told this couldn't be arranged, etc. In the end I just bought 3G sticks for my students but it has become a thing when I book hotels for students now.

Ever wondered why the breakfast restaurant at the hotel is full in the morning? The food is generally way worse, and more expensive than just popping out of the hotel to a nearby cafe for breakfast. However breakfast in the hotel is easy and quicker - and if work is paying for it, who cares? It's the same with Hotel WiFi.

If the market will bear it, they will charge it.

Given NZ's VERY low room rates compared internationally, get over yourself: hoteliers are forced to add extras. Last time I stayed in a hotel no-one held a gun to my head and made me have minibar, movies or wifi. Just like last time I went to the local restaurant - I did not have to have bottled water or dessert and didnt and enjoyed what I had and the price paid for it. Use it and pay or dont use it pretty simple really.