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Fast (and free) Wi-Fi has become more important even than sleeping for many travelers.

It’s true; a recent survey by Amba Hotels, a London-based chain, found that 60 percent of respondents ranked fast Wi-Fi as more important than a good night’s sleep — and well ahead of friendly, knowledgeable hotel staff. They also cited Wi-Fi as more important than location or convenience when selecting a hotel.

We have all seen the lengths travelers will go to get good Wi-Fi (or to charge up the devices for which they need said Wi-Fi), and what happens when they can’t get it. A few examples I’ve seen:

– Folks spending entire mornings at tiny round desks in hotel lobbies to get the lobby-only free Wi-Fi

– Guests requesting hotel rooms that are close to the Wi-Fi signal, even if it is a lesser room

– People breathing in exhaust fumes to cop some free tour bus Wi-Fi for a few minutes

– Travelers sitting on filthy airport floors next to outlets

– People bent over and almost strangled by power cords while trying to connect at a power station

– Reviews on travel web sites that focus almost entirely on the Wi-Fi signal (or lack thereof)

To keep you from living through one of those scenarios, we offer this guide to getting better (and safer) Wi-Fi while traveling.

At Your Hotel

Before booking, there are a couple of ways to figure out if the Wi-Fi signal at your hotel will be any good.

First, look for boasts and buzzwords in the hotel property description on its website. If it makes strong claims about the quality of the hotel Wi-Fi, it is reasonable to assume that it will be good, or that if it’s not, you can probably request a different room. At the opposite end of the spectrum, look for comments like “Wi-Fi in our comfortable public lobby” or other language that seems to take the emphasis away from in-room Wi-Fi strength; these can be red flags.

Second, read reviews on sites like TripAdvisor or major booking engines. As noted above, Wi-Fi is important to many travelers, and they’ll make their feelings known if it is not up to snuff.

One thing to be careful about: Is the hotel hosting a large convention, a big prom bash or major athletic event? In these cases the Wi-Fi may be great, but the competition for bandwidth may be off the charts. I know of folks who were staying in a hotel with a heap of college students who said that the Wi-Fi pretty much shut down right after dinner when the young people fired up all their various devices, overwhelming the hotel’s otherwise formidable signal.

In Public

More and more municipalities are offering free Wi-Fi in tourist areas. During a recent work trip to Aix-Les-Bains, France, our hotel’s signal was barely making it up one flight of stairs, so I put “Aix-les-Bains Wi-Fi” into a search engine and found information that offered clear instructions on how and where to connect to the city-sponsored connection.

Starbucks is the old standby for folks searching out free Wi-Fi provided by a private company, but there are tons more; witness this list from Lifehacker, which reminds us that Panera, Quiznos and even Krispy Kreme offer Wi-Fi, as do retailers like Best Buy, Lowe’s and Whole Foods — not to mention Jiffy Lube.

Most public libraries offer some kind of connectivity, whether it is over a free Wi-Fi network or via connected terminals, which usually allow you to browse the Web more or less unencumbered.

At the Airport

Modern airports are often rife with Wi-Fi connection opportunities — you just have to find them. Many even offer complimentary options, though they may be time- or bandwidth-limited. To give you an idea, Airfarewatchdog has a chart of access options at a number of airports around the world; note that these change frequently, so you may want to double-check the options on your airport’s website before you depart.

Boingo also offers a paid service at heaps of airports, and if you are an American Express cardholder, you may be eligible for complimentary access. Boingo also does frequent promotions, such as 15 free minutes or half-price access; check Boingo.com for more info.

You can also try many of the chains and retailers mentioned above; most (but not all) airport Starbucks offer Wi-Fi, as do most airline club lounges. Check also if your Internet provider offers a hot spot in your airport.

If you see a connection but your data speeds seem slow, try again at a nearby empty gate. The competition from everyone waiting to get on your flight may swamp the network antenna nearest your gate, but since there are multiple connection spots in any airport, you may find better luck in a less crowded area.

In Flight

Your in-flight Wi-Fi options are typically limited to those offered by the airline (which these days are dominated by Gogo Inflight). Additionally, most in-flight Wi-Fi is restricted to Web surfing, checking email and other straightforward uses, with blocks on video streaming and other high-bandwidth activities, so you won’t really be able to use the Wi-Fi as a substitute for an entertainment system.

In-flight Wi-Fi tends to be expensive (and perhaps intentionally overpriced), and it’s not consistently offered on all planes in some airlines’ fleets. When it is available, the connection can be inconsistent, making for an often-unsatisfactory experience.

There are some ways to beat back the high prices and connection limitations — as well as ways to get some types of access without paying at all.

Some Caveats

Not all Wi-Fi connections are created equal. You may find the following on many public networks (hotels rarely apply these restrictions):

– Restricted access to some websites
– Lack of access to FTP or other more technical types of connections
– Restrictions on music and video streaming
– Limits on how long you can stay connected
– Web browsing only
– Restrictions on connection speeds

So if you have some critical tasks to complete, you may want to get those done on a network you know.

Security

Naturally, the demand for and proliferation of free Wi-Fi spots has inexorably led to opportunistic criminal activities, and it is important to know that pretty much any public Wi-Fi signal opens you up to security risks.

According to the Today Show, hackers will set up free hot spots near popular tourist destinations, gleefully watch folks connect and then start harvesting information during the connections.

The Wi-Fi connection can be legit and still be insecure, as hackers who are also connected to the network can set up what are called “packet sniffers” that can collect information that is traveling over the network to which they are attached.

This is true even if a login is required or if you are at a reputable hotel; there have been cases of hotel employees key-logging the activities of guests, allowing them to capture passwords, email account access, social media account access and more.

To protect yourself, avoid entering sensitive passwords while attached to open public networks, and give online banking a pass until you’re somewhere more secure. If you must do this type of activity, try to choose a network with fewer risks.

How to tell? According to the Today Show report, the riskiest networks are those that are named “Free Wi-Fi”. The comparative risk when connecting to one of these is much higher than when connecting to the Wi-Fi at a reputable hotel that is filled mostly with normal folks like you.

There is also anecdotal evidence that less fraud takes place over connections at a McDonald’s, for example, as many hackers are targeting high-worth individuals.

You can secure your devices while traveling in ways that are bit more technical than we can explain here.

This information is not meant to be alarmist, as we all connect to vulnerable networks at some point — but it’s important to be aware and assess the risks for yourself.

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