Is Free WiFi Finally Coming to Luxury Hotels?

young business man lying and using smartphone

Source: iStock

Luxury hotels may boast high-thread-count sheets, indulgent spas, salon-worthy toiletries, and other posh amenities, but there’s one perk you won’t always find: free WiFi. While guests at lower-tier hotels usually get complimentary Internet access, travelers who check in to higher-end chain properties often open up their laptop only to find they need to whip out their credit card if they hope to go online.

Turns out, the rich aren’t happy about being squeezed for more dollars when they’ve already paid hundreds for a hotel room. Two-thirds of the wealthiest 5% of travelers (those with incomes above $200,000 or with more than $2 million in assets) ranked free in-room WiFi as an extremely or very important hotel amenity, a recent survey of nearly 3,000 people by Resonance Consultancy found. Being able to stream the latest episode of Making a Murderer or catch up on work emails was rated as more important than having access to a pool, restaurant, or fitness center.

Travel industry experts agree there’s something off about big hotel chains offering free Internet access at their more budget-friendly properties but getting stingy with their richer guests.

“It’s a glaring inconsistency in the hotel business, and frankly it’s just a flat-out stupid approach to doing business,” Henry Harteveldt, a travel consultant with Atmosphere Research Group, told Bloomberg Business. A survey by InterContinental Hotels Group (which owns Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza, and other hotel brands) found that 43% of adults would choose not to stay at a hotel if it charged for Internet.

So why do better-quality hotels charge for Internet? Because they can. Business travelers and wealthier vacationers may grumble about having to pay for WiFi, but they’ll cave if they really want it (or shrug their shoulders and write it off as a business expense). In fact, getting people to pay $10 a day or more for Internet has replaced older hotel moneymakers like overpriced telephone calls and pay-per-view movies, according to Priceonomics.

Businessman using laptop on bed

Source: iStock

Upscale hotels do seem to slowly be getting the message that charging for WiFi in this day and age is simply anachronistic. In 2015, Hyatt started offering free Internet at all its hotels. And chains like Hilton, Kimpton Hotels, Fairmont Hotels, and InterContinental Hotels now offer free Internet, but with a catch. You have to be a loyalty program member to get it (though joining the loyalty program is usually free). In some cases, like at Hilton, you might need to jump through additional hoops to get online, like booking direct through the Hilton website. You’ll also get faster Internet if you’re an elite member.

Free Internet when booking direct isn’t just about making travelers happy. It’s also a carrot designed to encourage people to eschew travel websites like Orbitz and Expedia, wrote business travel expert Ed Perkins. Hotels want to cut the middlemen out of their business and also seize the chance to sell you even more services.

Ultimately, free WiFi may not matter all that much to the next generation of travelers, rich or not. Millennial travelers surveyed by Topdeck Travel said regular WiFi access was only somewhat important to them when traveling. Plus, nearly 60% said they were only updating Facebook, Instagram, and other social media accounts a few times a week. For people who see travel as an opportunity to disconnect, not having free in-room WiFi may be more of a blessing than a curse.

Follow Megan on Twitter @MeganE_CS

More from Culture Cheat Sheet: