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Airport Internet – Pay The Price Or Use Your 3G?

by Phil Turner
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There’s nothing worse than a long layover in an airport with nothing to do and nowhere to go. If you’ve got an Internet connection though, the hours will fly by and you’ll be back in the air in no time. With more and more airports getting Wi-Fi, the question is what’s the best way to go about getting this Internet connection?

Is it worth going online at the airport, or should you just stick to using your mobile phone or iPad’s 3G connection? You are carrying your iPad around so that you can be online 24/7 from wherever you happen to be, but you still want the most economical connection method that you can find.

Image source Flickr by Sean Lamb

Which Airports Have Wi-Fi?

Not all airports, of course, are going to have Internet connections; though most major airports these days do offer a network. You can always take your chances and show up with your fingers crossed, but you can also check the web site of your airport before you leave to find out whether or not Internet is available, an altogether more sensible plan.

Free Wi-Fi

Believe it or not there are many airports these days that will let you connect to Wi-Fi for free. Don’t get too excited though. The problem with free airport Wi-Fi is that you’re going to be getting super slow speeds, and if you’re looking forward to streaming a movie to pass the time, you’re going to be out of luck. Free Wi-Fi is generally okay for a quick email check, but anything more intensive than that is going to be a pain.

Paid Wi-Fi

Most airports offer a paid Wi-Fi option, which will give you better speeds. Sometimes the Wi-Fi is offered by the airport itself, but more commonly there will be a number of connections available with different companies and you can choose one based on signal strength. Faster speeds are great, of course, but that doesn’t mean that paid Wi-Fi is going to be perfect.

There are two issues with paid Wi-Fi that you need to think about. The first is security. You may be required to give your credit card number out online in order to connect, and this is something that makes many people uncomfortable. Unfortunately, there isn’t really a way around this, though there are a few companies that will let you use services such as PayPal instead.

Secondly, there’s the matter of cost. Generally you’re going to be paying a daily rate of around £10 or so, depending on where you are. Of course, you’re almost certainly not going to be in the airport for an entire day (though if you are, it might be worth paying that daily rate to pass the time). Most companies do not offer a per minute or hourly rate though, so you’ll be stuck paying for the whole day regardless.

The Airport Lounge…

One alternative to this can be to join the airport lounge. Most major airports have a luxury lounge, and whilst you can pay a yearly membership fee, some will let you buy a day pass. A day pass to the lounge isn’t going to be cheap. Once inside, however, you should have free, good quality Internet, and snacks and drinks to keep you going, not to mention a comfortable sofa to sit in.

A trick here is to search eBay for discount day passes if you know that you’re going to be in an airport on a certain day. Given the uncertain nature and timing of air travel, many people buy day passes and don’t use them, and it’s possible to pick one up relatively cheaply. If you’re going to be stuck at the airport for a long time, it might be worth investing in one of these passes.

Mobile Phone or Not?

Of course, you can just use your mobile phone’s 3G connection to surf the Internet. There’s going to be a few problems with this though. Even inside the UK you’re going to be spending a fair amount of money on mobile data if you surf using your phone for a long time, though if you have an unlimited data plan this won’t concern you. You will need to deal with doing everything on the small screen though, which might not be ideal.

If you’re travelling outside of the UK, using your mobile probably isn’t going to be an option. Many operators bar the use of mobile data out of the country by default, and you may need to call your operator before leaving to get data roaming switched on. Then the roaming costs associated with using your phone for the internet when abroad are incredibly high. It will definitely be cheaper just to use the airport’s connection and pay a daily rate.

The Cheapest Alternative

By far the cheapest and most reliable way to get the Internet while you’re hanging out at the airport is going to be to get a mobile broadband plan. How cheap? As an example, O2 iPad deals get you up and running for just a couple of pounds. You get a free SIM card to put in your iPad and then a pay as you go plan which will cost you a mere £2 a day (though there’s a £10 a month option too). As far as pricing goes, that’s the cheapest that you’re going to find.

Even if you prefer using a computer to using an iPad or tablet you can still get a mobile broadband plan. In general 1 GB of data is going to cost you under £10, and given that’s the average daily rate for airport Internet use and that the 1 GB of data will last far longer than a day (as long as you don’t spend your day downloading entire films), that’s still going to be a much better deal.

Being stuck at the airport isn’t fun, but with your Internet connection at least you’ll be able to entertain yourself for a while. Relying on spotty and expensive airport connections might not be the way to go though. If you’re looking for a decent connection that’s cheap, reliable and fast, you’d be much better off considering a mobile broadband plan.

Phil Turner found uSwitch.com very informative when trying to find out more about o2 iPad deals for when he was travelling outside the UK.

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