The travel industry has taken a number of big hits over the last decade and a half. The 9/11 terrorist attacks, followed by attacks in Bali, Mombasa, Madrid and other locations, made many people reluctant to venture far from home. Even those who wanted to travel were often unable to do as much of it due to skyrocketing costs resulting from new security implementations. The travel experience became far less pleasant as long lines, body scanners, pat-downs and sometimes-surly airline employees made just getting onto a plane an exhausting process. Cruise lines, trains, hotels and other travel providers also tightened their security measures and raised prices, although to a lesser extent.
After major airlines went into bankruptcy and/or merged, hotels failed and tour operators went out of business, the industry seems to be slowly coming around to the realization that they need to do something to woo back customers. One of the ways to do that is to provide something that many people have come to depend on in their everyday lives: fast and reliable Internet connectivity.
Hotel Wi-Fi has been a “given” for a while now, but it’s not all created equal. More and more planes are being outfitted with wireless Internet, at least on domestic trips. Cruise ships are starting to get creative about meeting the challenge of providing a decent connection speed in the middle of the ocean. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the technological innovations that are making travel a little more pleasant again.
After being an extreme homebody for over a decade – working from home, almost never taking vacations, spending most of the little leisure time I got relaxing by my own pool or watching movies in our media room – I’ve turned over a new and more adventurous leaf and have been doing quite a bit of traveling in the last few years, both for business and for pleasure. As a full-time writer, I’m able to combine the two and work wherever and whenever I want, as long as I meet my deadlines. And meeting those deadlines requires one thing above all else: a good Internet connection.
At home, we’ve had Verizon’s fiber in our neighborhood for the last 10 years, so fast and reliable Internet is something I took for granted until I started traveling. However, even in this age of FiOS and Uverse and Google’s gigabit fiber, such high speed coverage is available only in select locations. Much of the world – and even rural areas of the U.S. – are still chugging along with DSL, outdated and slow cable, high-latency satellite or even dialup modems. While 100 Mbps connections are available in rural upstate New York and parts of Kansas City and Provo, Utah are rocking at 1000 Mbps, some residents of east Texas have only the options of 56 Kbps phone lines or expensive satellite plans with low data caps.
When you venture outside the U.S., connectivity varies even more wildly. Average broadspeeds in Hong Kong and South Korea are over 50 Mbps, with top speeds far greater. Japan and Singapore provide fast and widespread connectivity. In Israel, over 90% of the population has Internet. Eastern European countries such as Latvia, Romania and Bulgaria also offer excellent Internet connectivity. Not surprisingly, third world countries such as Nigeria, Nepal and Bolivia are struggling with slow connections and sparse coverage. Here is a list of the countries with the highest and lowest speed connections: Top 10 fastest and slowest Internet speed 2014.
I’ve had the chance to experience the Internet from many hotels, airplanes and cruise ships during my travels and I know one thing you can count on is that you can’t ever count on having a consistent connection when you’re traveling. I’ve stayed in hotels for tech conferences that were specifically chosen for their excellent Internet connections and seen those networks crumple completely under the overload of hundreds of geeks attempting to log on at the same time with multiple devices. I’ve gotten an unexpected 4G connection out in the middle of nowhere when my companions’ phones were all off the grid (can you hear me now?). Conversely, I’ve hit “dead zones” in urban locations where I should have had four bars.
I’ve never quite understood why the fanciest and most expensive hotels usually charge extra per-day fees for Internet (which is often slow and drops), whereas many cheap motels provide free, relatively fast connections. I do understand why getting a signal in the middle of the ocean or at 30,000 feet isn’t an easy feat, and I still marvel at being able to sit on a plane or ship and post my pictures to my Facebook friends back on land (something that young digital natives no doubt take for granted). Now if only I can get that same service on all of my transatlantic flights, it would really help to pass the time since I have never been able to sleep on planes.
Cruise ships have been something of a last holdout when it comes to Internet. Many older passengers say they cruise specifically because it allows them to disconnect from the electronic world, and some adamantly disapprove of cruise lines’ latest efforts to bring fast connectivity to sea. Although Internet plans have been available, most have been very pricey, pay-per-minute plans that were excruciatingly slow. Now the major cruise companies are installing new equipment to provide a much better and more affordable Internet experience.
Carnival Corporation is rolling out a new hybrid (long range Wi-Fi plus satellite) technology to their ships. Royal Caribbean’s newest ships, Quantum of the Seas and Allure of the Seas, use O3b “fiber-like” technology to bring cruisers connectivity comparable to land speeds. All lines are undoubtedly aware that while some customers don’t care about connectivity, a new generation of cruisers who grew up with computers want to stay connected while on vacation. The future of the industry depends on attracting that new demographic.
For the cruise lines, better Internet connectivity is a good investment for multiple reasons. More passengers will cruise more often if they can get reliable, fast and reasonably priced Internet connections. And when they do, many of them will act as unpaid “brand ambassadors,” or word-of-mouth advertisers, posting their photos and descriptions of the fun they’re having to social media sites, thus luring more potential customers to get on board with the idea of cruising. It’s also an additional source of revenue, one more add-on that the cruise line can charge for and make a profit.
Airlines similarly find that offering Wi-Fi Internet on their flights is a win/win. Frequently flying business customers appreciate the ability to get work done, and vacationers who may be a little nervous about flying are distracted from their fears when they can log onto Facebook or check their email. A plane full of web surfers tends to make for a quiet flight, which allows passengers who want to sleep to do so more easily. Friends who weren’t able to get seats close together can even sit and chat back and forth over the Internet from the front to the back of the plane (yes, I’ve done that).
I foresee a day when all gate and flight attendants will be wearing Google Glass (or its equivalent) with access to personalized information about each passenger. Hey, it’s already starting to happen. At hotels, we’ll use our smart phones as our room keys and check out with our mobile apps. On cruise ships, we’ll order drinks from robotic bartenders and there will be no gloomy “interior” cabins thanks to the miracle of virtual balconies.
Technology is changing the entire travel experience, in most cases for the better. We’ll probably never return to the days when everyone could board a plane without removing their shoes and laptops (although the Trusted Traveler program allows some of us to experience that) and cost-cutting has done away with many former amenities across the industry, but maybe we won’t miss them quite as much if we’re plugged in.