Which countries have fastest hotel wi-fi? Surprising answer

wi-fi

Do you insist on consistently good quality and wide availability of in-room Wi-Fi at hotels? Then you better travel overseas, according to a new report from HotelWiFiTest, the website that tracks these things worldwide.

The U.S. ranks fairly high up on the list for the availability of free hotel Wi-Fi, but fairly low down for quality. The report notes that “quality” doesn’t mean super-fast Internet; rather, it means “the percentage of hotels that offer adequate WiFi quality in a given geographical area.” It defines “adequate” as download speeds of at least 3 Mbps — sufficient for SD-quality video streaming — and uploads at 500 kbps.

wifi

“For most travelers, having super-fast and consistently stable WiFi is a great bonus, but their first priority is ensuring that basic quality expectations for Internet access are met,” the company noted.

Worldwide, Asia offers the best Wi-Fi quality, the report notes, available at 50 percent of the region’s hotels. Europe is second at 46 percent, and the U.S. is third at 35 percent. On a country-by-country basis, 92 percent of South Korea’s hotels offer quality Wi-Fi, followed by Japan (84.9 percent), the Ukraine (!) at 82.1 percent, Switzerland at 79.8 percent and Romania at 78 percent. Ranking just below those countries, in order, are Hong Kong, Sweden, Norway, Taiwan, Hungary and Russia. The U.S. comes in at 40th place worldwide (35.9 percent), just above Malaysia, Turkey, Spain and France.

According to HotelWiFiTest, that means 79 percent of the world’s countries have better quality hotel Wi-Fi than the U.S.

My two favorite airlines. Yours?

The report found that the opposite trend holds true for availability of free in-room Wi-Fi, however, with that amenity provided at 85.4 percent of U.S. hotels — about the same as Ukraine, Taiwan and Turkey, but still behind Norway (92.4 percent), Sweden (91 percent) and Russia (90.1 percent). (That U.S. figure should increase since major chains like Hyatt, Marriott and Starwood recently decided to make basic free Wi-Fi available across all their brands.)

wi-fi

HotelWiFiTest’s report also looked at individual cities. In the 20 U.S. cities covered, Portland was number one in the Wi-Fi quality rankings (available at 66.7 percent of its hotels), 10 points ahead of second-place Seattle. Following in order behind Seattle are Albuquerque, Orlando and Chicago. Los Angeles ranked 7th (46.3 percent), New York 8th (44.5 percent) and San Francisco 10th (42.7 percent). Of the 20 U.S. cities rated, Atlanta came in at the bottom, with quality Wi-Fi at just 22.5 percent of its hotels.

Related: Ranking inflight wi-fi by airline

U.S. cities with the highest percentage of free Wi-Fi hotels are Portland, Albuquerque, Austin, San Antonio, Houston and Denver, all above 80 percent. Ranking 20th out of 20 for free Wi-Fi was Boston at 56.6 percent, just below Washington D.C. (58 percent).

Overseas destinations outdo all of the U.S. cities in terms of Wi-Fi quality, the report concluded. Of the 50 cities worldwide covered in the report, the one with the best availability of quality Wi-Fi is Stockholm (at 88.9 percent of its hotels), followed by Budapest (84.4 percent), Tokyo (81.9 percent), Dublin (77.5 percent) and Montreal (69 percent). Atlanta ranked 49th on the list of 50, exceeding only Albufeira, Portgual.

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Ranking inflight wi-fi by airline

I'm always happy to see a sign like this one on my recent JetBlue flight to New York (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

I’m always happy to see a sign like this one on my recent JetBlue flight to New York (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

I’m addicted to inflight wi-fi and my ticket purchase decision is nearly always dependent on wi-fi availability onboard. That’s probably because I run an online business and being offline for long periods can have significant consequences.

But it’s not just me. I’ve noticed a big increase in the number of passengers onboard accessing wi-fi from their laptops, smart phones and tablets– and that’s part of the problem. Too many passengers accessing wi-fi at the same time slows down connection speeds.

Technology is barely keeping up with the demand for inflight wi-fi, but we’ve seen progress with the newer, faster satellite-based systems on United and JetBlue. Gogo has rolled out its faster ATG-4 air-to-ground system fleetwide on Virgin America, and its showing up on more Delta flights.

But even with those improvements, connections can be slow. Painfully slow. Especially when flying over desolate areas of the Rocky Mountains on a plane full of internet-hungry techies on a flight between New York and San Francisco.

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Slowly but surely things will get better. And wi-fi in the sky will only become more ubiquitous.  For a look at the current state of inflight wifi, airline booking site RouteHappy.com has produced an interesting report named “The Global State of Inflight Wi-Fi” which ranks inflight wi-fi by carrier.

Here are some interesting snippets:

Routehappy

On which airlines are you MOST likely to find inflight wi-fi? Based on the chart above, it’s Virgin America, Southwest and JetBlue. What’s best about Virgin here is that you know you are going to get inflight wi-fi every single time you get on a plane. No other airline can match that right now.

Routehappy

It’s important to point out that Virgin America is a small carrier with a tiny fleet compared to major airlines. So look above and see how airlines rank based on number of flights with wi-fi, and you see that Delta and Southwest lead…big time.

Routehappy

Availability of inflight wi-fi is huge…but increasingly important is having enough power to stay connected on long flights. Wi-fi is a huge drain on device batteries, so Routehappy took a look at which airlines offer the best access to in-seat power. Virgin America and Alaska lead in this category (see above), which is important because a large percentage of their flights are long-haul where in-seat power is essential. On the other hand, Southwest, which offers mostly short haul flights, offers no in-seat power at all. Lack of in-seat power is a big drawback for JetBlue since many of it’s flights are long haul transcon or NE to Florida flights– but it is working on adding more power.

Routehappy

We are lucky in the US because we were the first to enjoy widespread access to inflight wi-fi while the rest of the frequent flying world looked on with envy. That’s starting to change now as international carriers rapidly adding new satellite based systems for over water flights.

From Delta regarding international wifi progress

Among US carriers, Delta has about 37% of its international fleet outfitted with wi-fi–  primarily on its 747s and A330s but coverage is sparse on its much larger fleet of 777s and 767s. United has wi-fi on all its 747s and about half of its 777s but only a handful of its new 787 Dreamliners. It’s only on two of United’s 767s. On American, only its new 777-300ER and select 777-200 planes are equipped with wi-fi.

Thanks to Routehappy.com for providing this information! Click here for the full infographic.

How do YOU feel about the state of inflight wi-fi? Are you an addict? Happy or frustrated with the service… and the pricing? Please leave your comments below!

–Chris McGinnis

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Plane runs out of fuel, ditches near Hawaii VIDEO

Have you ever wondered what happens when a plane runs out of fuel over the ocean?

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that a small plane from the Bay Area had to ditch in the ocean using a built in parachute after running out of fuel near the coast of Hawaii.

The pilot of a single engine Cirrus SR-22 aircraft that ran out of fuel is safe after ditching his aircraft 253 miles northeast of Maui, Hawaii Sunday. At approximately 4:44 p.m. the pilot was able to deploy the aircraft’s airframe parachute system and safely exit the aircraft into a life raft. (Now that took some TravelSkills, right? :) )

The Holland America Veendam cruise ship en route to Lahaina nearby was diverted to help rescue the pilot of the downed plane. Imagine watching all this unfold off the deck of a cruise ship. Unforgettable.

The dramatic video was shot by the crew of a Coast Guard C-130 Hercules airplane, which maintained communications with the pilot during the ditching. The most dramatic footage in the video above is toward the end after splashdown when the pilot evacuates into a life raft and the cruise ship arrives to save him.

Wow! Just wow.

What’s your biggest flying fear?

–Chris McGinnis

Crashing currencies = More travel deals for Americans

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Credit Cards

These are the two “go-to” credit cards in my wallet. What are yours? (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

The cards I carry: The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card and the Barclaycard Arrival Plus card. Both offer a nice 40,000 point sign up bonus (after spending $3,000 in first three months for the Barclaycard or $4,000 for Chase Sapphire), and you can use points on several airlines, hotels and other travel providers. Neither card assesses irritating and expensive foreign transaction fees. That 40,000 point bonus with Chase Sapphire Preferred Card is good for $500 in travel when booking through Chase Ultimate Rewards, plus it now offers primary rental car collision coverage (most cards provide secondary coverage). With the Barclaycard, you simply use your points to pay off travel related charges on your bill– so the 40K sign up bonus alone pays for a $400 airline ticket or hotel bill. (Remember, when you get a new credit card via the links provided here, TravelSkills earns a commission. This is what keeps us in business cranking out meaningful content and practical advice. If you are in the market for a new card, please do so via links posted above. Thank you!)

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Best photo + United meals + Bid for Virgin upgrades + Delta downgrade + New Asian nonstop for SJC

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SkyMall bankruptcy surprises few

The SkyMall catalog was full of quirky, questionably  used items like this ball tosser (Photo: SkyMall)

The SkyMall catalog was full of quirky, questionably used items like this ball tosser (Photo: SkyMall)

SkyMall bankruptcy surprises few.

If you see a SkyMall catalogue in the seatback on your next flight, you might want to save it — it could soon be a collector’s item.

The venerable in-flight shopping diversion and its parent company have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy with an eye toward selling off their assets.

What was the nail in the coffin? Too many flyers so busy looking at their personal electronic devices that they had no time to browse through SkyMall’s eclectic and eccentric product offerings.

A SkyMall "Ice chute" for your blender (Photo: SkyMall)

A SkyMall “Ice chute” for your blender (Photo: SkyMall)

Also, more travelers were likely getting used to browsing through shopping sites like Amazon or others via planes equipped with inflight wi-fi. For example, Gogo periodically allows travelers to browse sites such as Amazon for free. Over the holidays, it allowed bored passengers free online access to over 30 retailers.

In the Wall Street Journal story that broke this morning, SkyMall chief executive Scott Wiley cited a “crowded, rapidly evolving and intensely competitive” retail environment as the reason for the quarterly publication’s recent struggles. “With the increased use of electronic devices on planes, fewer people browsed the SkyMall in-flight catalog,” he said.

Who is left holding the (shopping) bag? Sounds like the airlines. In court papers, SkyMall named Delta, American and US Airways as its largest unsecured creditors. Assets are between $1 million and $10 million and total liabilities are about $12 million.

When Delta and Southwest ended their contract with SkyMall last fall, the handwriting seemed on the wall for the company.

Perhaps someone will buy the brand and somehow turn it around. It certainly seems to have a place in the national psyche…that’s worth something!

Readers: What would you do with the SkyMall brand if you bought it? 

–Chris McGinnis

6 tips for better plane pics

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HOW TO GET A $400 AIRLINE TICKET FOR $89…and help out TravelSkills?: Want to snag an easy 40,000 bonus miles? Earn 2x miles on all purchases? Avoid obnoxious foreign transaction fees? Get TripIt Pro for free? Easy peasy! Get the new Barclaycard Arrival Plus card. With the Barclaycard, you simply use your points to pay off travel related charges on your bill– so the 40K sign up bonus alone pays for a $400 airline ticket, rental car or hotel bill. We earn a small commission when readers sign up, so if you are in the market for a new card, help us out and get one! It’s quick and easy. 

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United bonus miles + Delta to Shanghai + Beware mileage thieves + Chris speaks Russian

united

(Photo: Jim Glab)

AIRLINES

United offers bonus miles to elites. Matching a similar move by American Airlines, United has come out with its own offer of bonus miles for MileagePlus members who buy tickets in premium cabins. The longer the flight and the higher one’s elite status, the more bonus miles United piles on, up to 12,000 for Premier 1Ks on long-haul flights of more than 3,000 miles (and p.s. transcontinental flights). Unlike American’s promotion, which is good all through 2015, United’s only applies through the end of February. That’s because on March 1, MileagePlus switches over to a new regime of earning based on money spent rather than distance flown. Delta made that same switch January 1, which is why it felt no need to match American’s premium-cabin mileage bonuses. For details on United’s plan, go to www.united.com/newyearbonus.

United bonus

JetBlue’s double miles. JetBlue has come out with its own seasonal bonus promotion for members of its TrueBlue loyalty program. The carrier is offering double base flight points on all flights booked and flown by March 8. The promotion requires online registration.

Delta’s Asian Situation. Could it be a coincidence? Just days after American Airlines asked the Transportation Department to take away Delta’s Seattle-Tokyo Haneda authority and give it to AA to launch Los Angeles-Haneda service, Delta filed for approval to operate Los Angeles-Shanghai Pudong flights starting July 9 — a route already served by American as well as United and China Eastern. Delta said LAX-Shanghai was the route “most requested by our corporate customers.” The airline will use a 777-200LR with BusinessElite, Economy Comfort and regular economy seating.

Cathay Pacific

Taking a lean back in Cathay Pacific’s premium economy seat on a B777-300

Cathay Pacific will expand San Francisco-Hong Kong service effective June 12 from twice-daily departures to 17 non-stop B777 flights a week. These new planes are outfitted with Cathay’s new(ish) premium economy cabin (pictured above), business class and regular economy class– no first. The third flight will depart SFO at 1:40 a.m. on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays with an early-morning arrival in Hong Kong. Check out Chris’s SFGate.com post about a unique Cathay Pacific “delivery flight” from the Boeing factory in Seattle to Hong Kong. And check out the plane’s roomy crew rest area in this short video. 

Miles stolen at AA, UA. Cyberthieves have used stolen usernames and passwords to access AAdvantage and MileagePlus customer accounts, in some cases securing free flights or upgrades, according to the Associated Press. The airlines reportedly notified affected customers in recent weeks — just a few dozen at United, but some 10,000 at American, the report said — and have frozen their accounts. The airlines noted that their own systems were not hacked, and that no customer credit card information was obtained. Readers: Do you take any special steps to keep your frequent flyer account access secure? Post comments below.

HOW TO GET A $400 AIRLINE TICKET FOR $89…and help out TravelSkills?: Want to snag an easy 40,000 bonus miles? Earn 2x miles on all purchases? Avoid obnoxious foreign transaction fees? Get TripIt Pro for free? Easy peasy! Get the new Barclaycard Arrival Plus card. With the Barclaycard, you simply use your points to pay off travel related charges on your bill– so the 40K sign up bonus alone pays for a $400 airline ticket, rental car or hotel bill. We earn a small commission when readers sign up, so if you are in the market for a new card, help us out and get one! It’s quick and easy.

WeekendEdition

INTERNATIONAL

Google Translate uses you phones camera to translate signs.

What language problem? Do you get frustrated on overseas trips because you can’t read the local signs or understand conversations? With the newly updated Google Translate app, you can simply point your phone’s camera at printed words (as long as they’re in French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Italian or Russian) and see the English translation on the screen. The app will also translate spoken words into English (and vice versa), and with the new update it can automatically detect which foreign language it is hearing. Since I’m usually more baffled by signage in Japan or China than in Europe, I’m looking forward to the day that Google makes it work across the Pacific! In the meantime, the app does a nice job with Russian– watch me speak it in the video below.

In Case You Missed It…

–Chris McGinnis

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bonusBest bonus for travelers who love Southwest‘s no frills approach to travel: The Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Card has doubled its sign up bonus to a whopping 50,000 points (enough for TWO roundtrip flights) after spending just $2,000 in first three months, plus a 6,000 point bump every year on your cardmember anniversary. In addition, it does not charge foreign transaction fees, and offers two points per dollar spent on Southwest flights. What’s best about this offer is that the 50K bonus points get you almost halfway toward Southwest’s coveted Companion Pass status, which requires 110,000 points.

What are the two best all-around credit cards? Both currently offer 40,000 mile sign up bonuses!

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How do touch screens work?

Did you know that there are two types of touch screens? (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Did you know that there are two types of touch screens? (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Can you count how many touch screens you encounter on a single trip? Frequent travelers probably use touch screens more than most — smartphones, airport check-in or Global Entry kiosks, seatback entertainment systems are just a few.

Did you ever wonder how they work? The infographic below (from Visual.ly) provides an interesting look at the two primary types of touch screens: Capacitive screens (like on our smartphones) use electric fields to detect our fingers.

Resistive screens (like we use on most airline seatback systems) rely on pressure from our fingers to work– which regrettably leads to that irritating tap-tap-tap on the seatback which we’ve mentioned before.

Tip: At this time of year, be sure to clean your screen with a antibacterial wipe, or use your Purell after touching that screen! Or none of that is available, use your knuckle instead of your fingertip :)

 

touchscreens

 –Chris McGinnis

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bonusBest bonus for travelers who love Southwest‘s no frills approach to travel: The Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier Card has doubled its sign up bonus to a whopping 50,000 points (enough for TWO roundtrip flights) after spending just $2,000 in first three months, plus a 6,000 point bump every year on your cardmember anniversary. In addition, it does not charge foreign transaction fees, and offers two points per dollar spent on Southwest flights. What’s best about this offer is that the 50K bonus points get you almost halfway toward Southwest’s coveted Companion Pass status, which requires 110,000 points.

What are the two best all-around credit cards? Both currently offer 40,000 mile sign up bonuses!

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22 fun facts about flying

For your holiday reading pleasure, here are 22 fun facts about flying that you may not know. An entertaining and enlightening read from the folks at FlightRight.com.

Have a great Thanksgiving!

–Chris

22 fun facts

 

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Much needed upgrade in London

Heathrow Train

New cars for the London Tube (Photo: Transport for London)

The City of London has released plans for a futuristic upgrade to The Tube, one of the world’s largest underground rail systems. But don’t hold your breath– the fleet of 250 new trains won’t hit the tracks until the mid-2020s, and are anticipated to remain in service for 40 years. The Piccadilly Line, well-used by business travelers in central London, will be the first to get the new cars.

The cars were designed by UK-based PreistmanGoode, a design firm that specializes in transportation and has made its mark on many travel environments that touch us daily, such as seats on United, interiors of Qatar Airways’ new A380 or Heathrow’s Terminal 5. (Cool website!)

Simply called “the New Tube,” the trains will feature a few firsts.  They will be comprised of one contiguous walk-through barrel, rather than many interconnected cars. This stretched look means that more passengers can be transported on the same track, increasing capacity on the system overall. (You may have seen trains like this if you’ve taken the MTR subways in Hong Kong.)

Related: Chris’s column Business Trip: London

 

The new trains will bring a welcome reduction in crowding….the new layout increases capacity up to 60%, providing a significant boost for Tube travelers for the useful life of the new trains – pegged at 40 years or more. Slideshow here

Another welcome tech feature comes from the air-cooling of the cars. It’s not always possible to move air-conditioning at certain depths in the existing Tube system, and so this will bring cooler, fresher air to increase passenger comfort. (And could help eliminate that well known “Tube smell”– see our post about that here)

Extra Bonus! Here’s an easy way to top off your Chase Ultimate Rewards balance with 20,000 points!

The initial rollout will still have drivers in each car; eventually, the New Tube can run on its own without human guidance. As some viewers have pointed out on YouTube, this full automation has the added advantage of reducing, and eventually eliminating, chaotic Tube strikes.

London Travel Tip: During peak travel season, when tourists, business travelers and locals fill the city, do not depend on the ability of London’s current aging transportation infrastructure to get you to your meetings on time. Black cabs creep slowly through the traffic of central London. The London Underground, or Tube, is notoriously unreliable and susceptible to delays, forcing users onto lengthy alternate routes. To avoid being late in a city that appreciates promptness, always schedule your meetings with a very large cushion of time in between.

Popular: Did you hear about the latest wave of downgrades at United MileagePlus? Read this! 

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My 9 favorite travel smells

The new scent globe a London Heathrow Terminal 2 (LHR Airports)

The new scent globe a London Heathrow Terminal 2 (LHR Airports)

This week sees London-Heathrow’s brand new Terminal 2 “The Queen’s Terminal” operating at full capacity with all 26 airlines (primarily Star Alliance) now in their new home. Airport authorities planned for the transition to take place over the five months instead of in one fell swoop. Good thinking since the process seems to have gone without a hitch, and the new terminal is a far cry from the old cramped quarters of Terminal 1 & 2.

TravelSkills got an early sneak peek at the shiny new terminal and United’s nice new business and first class lounges last spring. But regrettably, we missed out on the terminal’s new, one-of-a-kind “scent globe” which the airport says “will immerse the curious in the aromas of Thailand; South Africa; Japan; China and Brazil.”

The scents emitted from the globe come from key ingredients associated with the designated country and “are designed to transport passengers to far flung destinations.” South Africa smells of tribal incense, wild grass and musk. Brazil’s scent is rich in rainforest fauna with a palette of coffee, tobacco and jasmine. Japan smells cool, oceanic with a mix of seaweed and shell extracts, green tea and Ambergris. Thailand is mix of lemongrass, ginger and coconut.

This of course got me on a train of thought about distinct travel smells… there are many and some so strong and memorable that I could be blindfolded, yet know exactly where I am due to the olfactory sensation. 

For example, there’s what I call “the Marriott smell.” Have you ever noticed that Marriotts (all brands) smell like band-aids? I’m not certain, but I assume that the lodging giant centrally sources an iodine-based antibacterial cleaning compound that emits the smell. It’s not a bad smell… it’s a clean, reassuring smell. But it’s there. Am I crazy or does anyone else notice this?

Extra Bonus! Here’s an easy way to top off your Chase Ultimate Rewards balance with 20,000 points!

Speaking of travel smells… here are nine of my favorites (in no particular order)… what are yours?

Chestnuts Roasting NYC IMG_1703

Chestnuts roasting in Manhattan (Steven Depolo / Flickr)

  1. The smell of coffee brewing on a plane as a long overnight flight is coming to an end. And the smell of jet fuel as you walk off the plane and onto the jetway.
  2. The acrid, sour, but memorable smell of chestnuts roasting on a dry, cold New York City night.
  3. Getting into a rental car, noticing the “new car smell” and looking down at the odometer reading 000016 miles.
  4. The smell of rain & tropical flowers when stepping off the plane at almost any airport in Hawaii
  5. The minty-soapy-lotiony-cologne-y smell of my toilet kit- it means the road is calling.
  6. The leathery, carpet-y “new plane” smell on a brand new or refurbished aircraft.
  7. I love it when you walk into a hotel with a spa… and you can smell it. Usually eucalyptus. On the other hand, I hate it when you walk into a hotel with an indoor pool and you can smell the chlorine.
  8. The smell of cookies baking on a plane (even if they are only served in first class).
  9. A Cinnabon at the airport. A Lush boutique somewhere overseas. And yes, even a McDonald’s when I’ve been away from the US for too long.

To me, Seattle and San Francisco smell like dark roast coffee. Los Angeles and Phoenix smell like orange blossoms. Houston smells like refineries. Tampa and Orlando smell like hot summer afternoon thunderstorms. Paris like bread. London smells metallic, and rubbery, like the Tube.  Mumbai like sewerage and sandalwood. Boston smells like fish or the ocean. Denver like wood smoke. I could go on and on.

What about you? Please leave your comments and favorite (or least favorite) travel smells below.

–Chris McGinnis

Extra Bonus! Here’s an easy way to top off your Chase Ultimate Rewards balance with 20,000 points!

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2 airlines offer free inflight wi-fi

Inside Emirates outstanding hub in Dubai (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Inside Emirates outstanding hub in Dubai (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Inflight wi-fi still feels like a miracle to me. It’s even more miraculous when it is free.

Right now, you can get it for free on two carriers: One international, the other domestic.

Today, Emirates announced that it will soon offer free wi-fi on all 53 of its A380 superjumbos, and on 28 (out of about 140) Boeing 777s. The Dubai-based carrier says that it is “aggressively retrofitting” all its other aircraft and will eventually offer free wi-fi fleetwide. This is great news because most of Emirates flights are super long-hauls, like this 15-hour journey I took from San Francisco to Dubai– and inflight wi-fi can sure help pass the time.

On most Emirates flights equipped with wi-fi, you’ll get the first 10MBs of data for free. To get a whopping 600MB, all you have to do is pay a token $1 fee.  But don’t count on getting free wi-fi yet– Emirates says that due to technical limitations, it is currently not possible to offer the 10MB free “on a few of its A380s and 777s” but that the issue should be “resolved in coming months.”

“If we can offer good quality Wi-Fi connections for everyone onboard at no charge tomorrow, we will do it. But we face a slew of technical limitations – from speed and bandwidth availability and cost, to the supporting hardware and software – all of which we are working hard to address with the industry right now,” said Emirates President Sir Tim Clark. “Ultimately, we believe that onboard Wi-Fi will become a free service, and a standard that customers will expect on a full service airline, just like onboard refreshments and personal inflight entertainment. Emirates is leading the way on this, and we are working closely with our suppliers and various stakeholders towards this vision,” he said. On a few of its A380s and 777s, it is not currently possible to offer the first 10MB free for technical reasons, but the airline says it is working hard to resolve the issue in the coming months.

Related: How to save $$$ on inflight wi-fi 

Emirates says that it saw a 200% spike in Wi-Fi usage in the month of October when it offered a free wi-fi promotion to mark the Eid holidays. During the month, it saw a daily average of 3,500 passengers using onboard Wi-Fi, at an average of 28MB per user. The highest number of Wi-Fi users on a single flight was recorded on an A380 with 153 passengers connecting, and the flight pulling the most bandwidth  was nearly 8,000MB from 26 users onboard a Boeing 777 flight. (It did not provide details on which flights.) Its data show that Emirates passengers most frequently access Google, Facebook, and chat services Skype, WhatsApp and BBM.  Passengers onboard Emirates also have other ways to stay connected with in-seat sms and email, as well as mobile phone services.

In the US, Emirates flies to Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Boston, New York City and Washington, DC. In December, it will begin flying A380s to both San Francisco and Houston. I’ve heard mixed reviews about Emirates’ inflight wi-fi connections. Have you used it? Please leave your comments below…

JetBlue

In the US, JetBlue’s beta version of Fly-Fi, its inflight wi-fi product, is on all 10 of JetBlue’s Airbus A321s and 73 of its A320s. It should be on all JetBlue’s Airbus aircraft by spring 2015. Eventually, you’ll get it on its Embraer 190s, too.

Fly-Fi is available on JetBlue’s fancy new Mint A321s flying between New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

JetBlue currently offers a basic wi-fi connection for free

On it’s website, JetBlue says that it currently offers a basic wi-fi connection for free

It’s basic “Simply Surf” option is currently free. For more bandwidth, JetBlue says that you can purchase its fatter “Fly-Fi Plus” plan for $9/hour. Just log in to the Fly-Fi portal during your flight and follow the instructions.

(Source: JetBlue)

JetBlue release this infographic in September. (Source: JetBlue)

Let’s do a bit of expectation management: Inflight wi-fi, no matter what carrier offers it, is still a relatively new phenomenon. Whether it’s paid for, or free, inflight wi-fi WILL NOT work as well as the connection you have at your home or office. Sometimes it will not work at all. Maybe some day it will. But not right now. Expectations managed? ;)

What’s been your experience with inflight wi-fi? Should it be free? Please leave your comments below. 

–Chris McGinnis

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Flying next to Virgin Galactic Spaceship Two [VIDEO + PHOTOS]

We took a ride in a Virgin America jet for one of the first looks at Virgin Galactic Spaceship 2 over Marin County in 2011. Click to see video (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

We took a ride in a Virgin America jet for one of the first looks at Virgin Galactic Spaceship 2 over Marin County in 2011. It’s the center portion– the “space ship” that crashed. Scroll down to see video (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Last week Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Two crashed in the Mojave desert. One pilot died in the crash, another survived. Virgin Galactic is now absorbed with finding out exactly what happened and is posting regular updates about the crash on its Facebook page.

While the crash is a tragedy and setback for the ambitious program, it reminded me of one of the most spectacular flights I’ve ever taken.

On a bright spring day in 2011, Virgin America was celebrating the opening of its brand new Terminal 2 at San Francisco International Airport. In typical Virgin style, it was a big to-do. Richard Branson was there. So was Buzz Aldrin and his wife. California Lt Governor Gavin Newsom, too. There were also plenty of airport dignitaries and a handful of lucky media, like TravelSkills!

We all boarded a Virgin America jet for a joy ride over the Bay Area– We had been told that Virgin Galactic’s spaceship might show up, too, so there was plenty of anticipation about how this was going to work…and what we might see up there.

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We took a spectacular spin over the city and bay, then buzzed the Farrallon Islands west of the city out in the Pacific Ocean. Then, all of a sudden, we were asked to peer out the left side of the plane to see the spaceship appear off the left wing. Over the PA system, a flight attendant told everyone to disregard the fasten seat belt sign, and get over to the left side of the plane to see “the future of space travel.”

Luckily, I was already seated behind the wing on the left side, so I had a bird’s eye view of the fantastic sight and captured as much as I could in photos and video. What a sight it was! We circled around over the Pacific, then flew in over the Golden Gate Bridge, over Alameda and approached SFO from the south to land in tandem. Wow! Enjoy the photos below.

Scroll down for photos & video of the spaceship’s visit to the Bay Area in 2011.

Look closely at the photos and you’ll see that there are 3 “fuselages” on the aircraft. The center one is the “space ship” and it detaches from the vehicle (known as “White Knight”). White Knight landed safely; the space ship crashed.

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Flying over San Francisco on a Virgin America joy ride (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Flying over San Francisco on a Virgin America joy ride (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Flying over the Golden Gate Bridge on a Virgin America joy ride (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Flying over the Golden Gate Bridge on a Virgin America joy ride (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Virgin Galactic

Flying over Sausalito, CA. Look closely and you’ll see the “space ship” part of this aircraft in the middle– it detaches from the larger aircraft to shoot into space. That’s the part that crashed. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Flying over Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay-- where Pan Am Clippers used to take off for Asia! (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Flying over Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay– where Pan Am Clippers used to take off for Asia! (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Flying over Alameda on approach to SFO (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Flying over Alameda on approach to SFO (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Here's a shot of the aircraft alongside the Virgin America jet from which we saw it out the window. This was at an event to celebrate the opening of SFO's Terminal 2 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Here’s a shot of the aircraft alongside the Virgin America jet from which we saw it out the window. This was at an event to celebrate the opening of SFO’s Terminal 2 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Latest news: Crash investigation could take up to a year. 

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New Apple SIM a boon for travelers

Apple's new iPad Air 2

Apple’s new iPad Air 2

Interesting, potentially disruptive, news for travelers emerged last week when Apple rolled out its latest version of the iPad.

The wi-fi + cellular models of the iPad Air 2 come with the new Apple SIM, an iPad-only feature that allows users to choose among short-term plans from a variety of different carriers for data without having to physically switch out the tiny SIM card. Well, this tiny SIM may have big, long-term implications when it come to the way we stay in touch when on the road.

With the new iPad Air 2, you no longer have to sign up for a long term data plan with a single carrier…you only sign on and pay up when wi-fi is slow or non-existent. And if you travel overseas, you can sign on with a local carrier and avoid stiff roaming fees. You can even use these connections to set up personal wi-fi hotspots for colleagues when there’s no wi-fi (Just like you can now do with most iPhones).

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“Whenever you need it, you can choose the plan that works best for you — with no long-term commitments. And when you travel, you may also be able to choose a data plan from a local carrier for the duration of your trip,” Apple says on its website.

Currently, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile offer short term plans for the iPad Air 2 in the US. (Verizon is notably absent.) The SIM also works with EE in the UK and could eventually go global—which would help eliminate the frequent traveler frustration of keeping up with several tiny SIMs for each country visited.

iPad Air 2

If you have a new iPad here are the simple steps to select the carrier:

  1. Open Settings.
  2. Tap on “Cellular.”
  3. Tap “Set up cellular data.”
  4. Select from available carriers.
  5. Complete the necessary information to purchase the temporary plan or connect to a current account.

This is something to watch over time, especially as carriers around the world respond to this new reality – and other tablet manufacturers decide how they want to respond to Apple’s move. Who knows, maybe one day, you’ll enjoy this type of plan portability on your smartphone.

Here’s an interesting discussion of this subject with PC Mag analyst (and former travel reporter) Sascha Segan.

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BYOD entertainment on planes

STreaming

Lufthansa expects you’ll do all kinds of things with your tablet onboard: buy tours, hotels and onboard drinks, enjoy some entertainment, and read up on your destination (Image: LSG)

If you are used to watching inflight movies, playing games or watching the moving map on a seatback or ceiling screen, get ready for a change.

After talking with airlines, entertainment providers and the various companies that outfit airline cabins at the recent APEX Expo in Anaheim, it appears that 2014 is the year of BYOD or Bring Your Own Device.

APEX is an annual inflight entertainment-focused trade show where Hollywood studios and other content providers tout their wares to airlines, and the BYOD concept was a huge focus of the expo.

Here’s how BYOD entertainment works: You bring your own device, whether smartphone, tablet or laptop onboard, and the airline beams content to that device from a server located on the plane. You connect your device to the server like you would to any other wireless network, then select (and likely pay for) a TV show or movie, or other content. Some planes allow you to watch inflight entertainment on your own device only; others allow you to choose a seatback screen or your device screen.

There’s no need to connect to the ground since all the content is coming from the server on the plane. The entertainment streaming operates separately from onboard internet systems.

The concept works similarly on most US airlines with BYOD, including United, Delta, American, US Airways and Southwest. It’s sometimes marketed as an airline-branded product (like United or Southwest) and sometimes as provided by a third party such as Gogo, as on Delta.

Gogo-Vision works in over 1000 Delta aircraft

Gogo Vision works in over 1,000 Delta aircraft

Delta probably has the most wide reaching streaming option now– available as the Delta Studio on more than 1,000 planes. Passengers can choose between tuning in on their own devices, or on seatback monitors. On United, video streaming is available on most Airbus A319, Airbus A320, Boeing 747-40, and 777-200 planes– and for now only on Apple’s iOS devices and on laptops.

That’s the concept, but of course since it’s in beta it does not always work. For example, not every plane on BYOD airlines has the system installed, and even if it does, it’s not always working. It’s a relatively safe guess that most planes with wi-fi will also have streaming, but there are exceptions to that as the systems roll out.

Most airlines have chosen to “soft launch” BYOD to allow a teething period while the airline, staff and passengers get used to it. United’s rollout in particular has experienced a few hiccups, mainly due to its decision to go with a new Panasonic system rather than the more tried and tested Gogo network.

A soft launch also lets airlines play around with pricing, which can change dynamically and thus isn’t fully predictable. For now, expect to pay a dollar or two for most TV shows and several bucks for a movie, with a few “sample” shows or movies for free.

But there are a few pitfalls and a good bit of uncertainty with being at the bleeding edge of technology. Be prepared to do a bit of research into your airline’s offering — the tech details vary quite a bit — and keep up with things, since requirements change often.

Some airlines require you to use their own app or download a plug-in (before you board or on the plane). Be sure that you have the latest version of the airline app updated in case you need to use it to access BYOD.

Be sure to download the following to your phone and/or tablet:

Gogo-Vision iOS appGogo-Vision Android app | United iOS app | Southwest Onboard player iOS | Southwest Onboard player Android

BYO device entertainment systems working on United flights (Photo: United)

BYO device entertainment systems working on United flights (Photo: United)

If things aren’t working as planned once you are on board, don’t expect much help from flight attendants — one of the points made at APEX was that cabin crew aren’t trained in troubleshooting your device.

That’s especially true for Android users — sorry folks, but it’s the usual story: iOS users get first dibs on new developments and you follow on later. Check on the airline’s streaming entertainment page to see whether your device is covered.

Another issue: power. BYOD is great when your device is all juiced up, but few planes have plugs at all seats, so make sure your devices are charged up before boarding.

TravelSkills asked about your experiences with BYOD streaming IFE last month, with experiences generally positive but with a few issues.

FTdad liked it:  Just flew on a 747-400 from HKG to SFO and was impressed with the in-flight entertainment streaming. Interface and video quality was very good; I wish the video selection had been more extensive and more current. I was hoping the selections would be more like what is offered in business/first class.  Let us know what you think!

Susan had a good experience:  We flew on a United flight Aug 14 with the streaming entertainment from Honolulu to Los Angeles. Hubby used the iPad and I had the iPhone to get access to the movies as long as you had the latest version of the United app and a fully charged device. Decent choices of movies and got to catch up on some TV shows too for the 5 hour flight. Made for a nice entertaining flight and had no problems with it at all. But, I wondered what my parents would do (they don’t have smartphones nor would they know how to download the app!) and we also wondered how much United would charge once it was out of beta mode.

BBinSF, however, was less impressed:  Just flew O’Hare to SFO and only entertainment option was to pay for wifi. I couldn’t get it on my personal iphone–neither could several people near me. Flight crew insisted it was working (but they wouldn’t/couldn’t provide assistance). Then I tried my work iphone (same model as personal one) and I was able to pay, use email, use Facebook, Twitter–but if I clicked on any link it would bring me back to United Wifi homepage. Also no streaming allowed. Terrible experience. Will get money back but it was a verrry long flight without entertainment.

Have you tried BYOD yet? Would you rather get your entertainment on your own device or on the seatback? Please leave your comments below.

–John Walton & Chris McGinnis

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Lessons learned about United wi-fi

I was happy to get this alert from United telling me that I'd have wi-fi on my flight to Cancun

I was happy to get this alert from United telling me that I’d have wi-fi on my flight to Cancun, but…

I admit it. I’m an inflight wi-fi addict. I use it all the time.

Because my professional life pretty much lives online and I live much of my working life in the air, it’s a major productivity enhancer. I’m still in awe (and thankful) that we are able to use wi-fi in the sky at all. I’m very forgiving of spotty connections, but less forgiving of no connections.

United’s much heralded new satellite-based wi-fi service sounds like it must be great. But so far it has never worked for me. To be fair, the product is still in beta. Plus, I have received emails from TravelSkills readers flying over the Atlantic or Pacific letting me know that it’s working for them. Plus, I’ve used the ground-based Gogo wi-fi system on United p.s. flights between California and New York City. But it’s United’s new satellite based system I’ve been eager to try.

Last week I flew United to Cancun from San Francisco via Houston and learned a valuable lesson about when and where United’s wi-fi system works…and where is doesn’t.

The trip got off to a good start since the equipment from San Francisco to Houston was upgraded from an older domestic 757 to an internationally configured 767. That meant I got an upgrade to a nice big lie flat business class seat for the four-hour ride to Houston. The bad news was that United’s 767s don’t have wi-fi yet. But no big loss. I was a happy camper and just defaulted to Gmail offline to keep my email box cleaned up.

Chart: Progress report on United’s wi-fi installations

Next up was my connecting flight from Houston to Cancun on a nice new United 737 with 20 first class seats. Since United sent me the email at the top of this post on the day before my flight, I was excited that I’d finally get to use its inflight wi-fi. Even though it’s only a two-hour flight, it would be worth paying to log on and see how it worked.

As we were taxiing toward take of in Houston, I became even more excited about finally getting to try United’s wi-fi when the flight attendant announced that this flight was equipped with wi-fi and that it only cost $2 per hour (quite a deal compared to what Gogo is charging these days). We took off and headed south and just as we were flying over Galveston and a sea of tankers in the Gulf of Mexico, I thought it was time to log on.

I went through the easy log in process, popped in my credit card number and agreed to the terms and conditions. My credit card was accepted and I agreed to the $2 per hour fee.

And then I saw this pop up:

Screen Shot 2014-09-11 at 3.00.26 PM

And I thought, “Hmm. United’s wi-fi is satellite based, which means it should work over water as well as land. Let’s try logging in again.”

So I went back through the process again… including, credit card, CVV number, expiration date and all that.

The light on the galley wall indicated that the system was working

The light on the galley wall indicated that the system was working

And I ended up with a similar “out of coverage” notification.

Frustrated, I thought I’d talk to the flight attendant that had proudly proclaimed that this flight had wi-fi. “Is the wi-fi system on? For some reason I’m not able to log on,” I asked. He turned around and looked over his should toward the galley and said, “Yes, the light is on, so it’s working.”

I tried logging on again using my laptop. By this time, my seatmate was in on the wi-fi hunt, too, and he was trying to connect from his iPhone. Neither of us could connect.

So we asked the flight attendant again. Flustered, he came back and said, “We just flew up here from Cancun and I think it was working.” Then another flight attendant said, “It only works over land, not over water.”

So I said, “I think it’s a satellite based system, so it should work over the Gulf of Mexico, right? Can you reboot the system?” I asked. He said, “All I can do it turn it off and on. They haven’t really told us much more about it.”

So we gave up.

When I arrived in Cancun, I logged on to the hotel’s wi-fi system and there was a bill from United for $2.

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 4.47.59 PM

I was excited to see this on my return flight from Cancun to SFO.

On the flight back to SFO, I was on a nonstop 737-800 equipped with wi-fi. This time, the pre-flight announcement included a plug for the satellite-based wi-fi, but the flight attendant said it would not work until we flew “close to the US.” That still puzzled me since this was supposedly a satellite-based system, so as soon as we flew over Brownsville, at the southern tip of Texas, I tried again. Entered all the credit card info (again) my address (again) CVV and the captcha (again). And I was on! For about 10 minutes.

Then I get this message:

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 4.17.06 PM

So I called over the flight attendant again and said, “So what’s going on? Isn’t this a satellite based system that should be working over land or water or other countries? Why does this say it only works over the continental U.S.?”

Pause. The flight attendant smiled conspiratorially and said, “Yes, it should be working, but we are on a Continental plane that gets its satellite from DirectTV, and the DirectTV satellite only works within a few miles of the US border. We are currently on a heading that keeps us south of the U.S. border.

Flying United just south of the Rio Grande (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Flying United just south of the Rio Grande (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

So we continued along the southern side of the Rio Grande over Chihuahua and Hermosillo without a connection. And a planeload of grumbling passengers, including me since I’d paid $8 for a four-hour connection and was not getting it. We eventually flew over Tijuana and out over the Pacific for the remainder of the flight to San Francisco—just far enough away from the coast to stay away from the DirectTV satellite coverage over the continental US.

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 5.44.07 PM

So even if I never logged on during this flight, I learned something valuable to share with TravelSkills readers: United has two different satellite systems for wi-fi, one made by Panasonic, the other by DirectTV. If you are flying on a Boeing 737 with Direct TV, it will only work over the continental US. If you are flying on another aircraft with the newer Panasonic system, it should work over water. Most of the time.

What’s been YOUR experience with United’s inflight wi-fi product? Please share your comments below!

–Chris McGinnis

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3 ways to make low- or no-cost calls abroad

Using wi-fi connections for nearly free overseas calling (Photo: Tim Bishop / Flickr)

Using wi-fi connections for nearly free overseas calling (Photo: Tim Bishop / Flickr)

With the proliferation of wi-fi around the world, it’s making more and more sense for travelers abroad to make free (or very low cost) calls using internet connections instead of the more expensive cellular roaming option.

Much of this is driven by Apple, which has made wi-fi voice calling a prominent feature of its latest batch of phones, meaning that iPhone 6 users can soon opt to circumvent cellular towers entirely by making calls over wi-fi– at home or overseas.

So if you are sick of returning from trips abroad to face inflated phone bills, here are a few ways to use Voice-Over-Internet-Protocol (VOIP) technology to make calls on your smartphones.

Related: Is banning inflight calling really necessary? (check out the LOUD comments!) 

Image courtesy of Viber

New Viber Out allows calls to anyone in the world (Image courtesy of Viber)

Viber – http://www.viber.com/

Viber is one of the most prominent “free text and calls over wi-fi” applications – so prominent, in fact, that the Iranian government called for its censorship this week.

So why the high drama in Iran?

Well, the app allows users to make calls that are far less traceable than those that route through cell towers – and it allows calls to be made to just about anyone, anywhere in the world, even to people who aren’t on Viber. The ayatollahs in Iran don’t like that citizens can use Viber to communicate negatively about the government. 

Anyway, here’s how to take advantage of the new “Viber Out” feature on the app:

1) Download the Viber app to your smartphone, install and go through the verification procedure for your personal cell phone number.

2) Enter the verification code, and then decide if you want to connect your address book, and Facebook details – or create your own username. If you don’t want to share anything, just keep clicking no until you get to the main screen.

3) “Viber Out” is the calling feature; it’s at the bottom of the screen under the “Calls” phone icon. Click there, and then dial your number.

4) If you don’t have credit, you’ll be prompted to purchase credit via your app store account. Rates are also accessible from this screen.

With calls to US numbers (both landline and mobile) priced at 1.9 cents per minute, Viber is a steal of a deal. Viber also allows connection to 1-800 numbers in the US, a boon to anyone dealing with mundane life issues back home while spending extended time traveling abroad.

The Viber interface is clean and straightforward, and very useful as a quick and reliable VOIP smartphone solution.

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The Skype dial pad (Courtesy of Skype)

The Skype dial pad (Courtesy of Skype)

Skype – http://www.skype.com

Skype is definitely the granddaddy of the VOIP family. The app has been around seemingly since the dawn of digital time, and thus has a solid following and steady reputation with most people.

The advantage to this longevity is that many of your contacts are already likely engaged on the platform, meaning that chats and messaging become more useful with more people you know on it. Nearly everyone has a Skype handle these days.

For calling from your smartphone via VOIP, the newly refreshed app makes it simple.

1)    Download and install the Skype app to your smartphone.

2)    Login with your desktop details or set up a new account.

3)    On the main screen, tap the keypad-esque icon on the left. This will lead you to the dial out screen.

4)    Dial your number.

5)    If you don’t have credit, you will be prompted to add credit via your app store account.

6)    Voila – you know can dial any number for a cheap VOIP call!

The new Skype app is actually quite beautiful, offering a straightforward way to keep track of recent conversations, favorite people, and an overview of your network.

Skype’s rates are actually quite a deal higher than Viber’s (but still cheap compared to cellular calling) – it’s 2.9 cents per minute to call U.S. landlines and mobile phones. A better deal can be had for those regular users to lock in savings with Skype’s clever “Subscriptions” product that charges a flat monthly fee for unlimited calling to a specific region.

Overall, Skype is still trying to remain competitive in a messaging-app heavy world. Subscriptions are a no-brainer for any long-haul road warrior regularly seeking to use a smartphone as a phone inexpensively.

New: How to get a free flight home for the holidays!

(Courtesy Google)

(Courtesy Google)

Google Hangouts for calls 

This is one that’s going to be a bit of a surprise. Using Google’s Hangout product is a fantastic way to connect with the millions of people that have Google accounts. The product automatically comes with a Gmail account, so that means anyone on that platform is accessible via a wi-fi call.

The advantage here is that Hangouts are seamlessly integrated into the laptop interface as well, making it easy to make calls on the go or via Google while working on a computer. Here’s how to do it. 

Calls are free user-to-user, and then are subject to Google Voice rates – which are also free for those calling a number in the United States. An easy win from a larger player that doesn’t always come to mind for VOIP calling.

How do you communicate when outside the US? Have you ever returned home to some painful phone bill surprises? Please leave your comments or advice below! 

–Nick Vivion

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Is banning inflight phone calls really necessary?

Emirates Airline does not have a problem with passengers using their mobile phones in flight (Photo: OnAir)

Emirates Airline does not have a problem with passengers using their mobile phones in flight (Photo: OnAir)

Oh, please! Is a federal ban on cell phone calls on planes really necessary?

This week Washington politicians urged  the federal government NOT to lift the current federal ban on cell phone use for voice calls on planes.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) have been considering ending the ban ever since they determined that cellular service onboard planes is not a threat to aircraft navigation or communications systems.

Nearly 80 lawmakers claim that cell phone use on planes could lead to inflight mayhem– they say it could interfere with flight attendants’ ability to do their jobs keeping passengers safe and the cabin environment calm. They add that inflight phoning would exacerbate the already tense atmosphere in tightly packed planes. They even go so far as to claim that allowing cell phones on planes could help coordinate terrorist attacks.

Really?

Inflight cell phone for voice calls use is already permitted by many airlines around the world.  Even highly regulated Europe relaxed its ban on flight calls way back in 2008.  None have reported any of the mayhem predicted by US politicians.

Companies that provide cellular service onboard say that calls don’t last more than two minutes and the service is only used by a handful of passengers on any given flight. They say that most passengers choose to use their mobile phones for texting instead.

In the US, Delta’s CEO has already publicly stated that it will not allow the use of mobile phones for voice calls during flight with or without a federal ban. Elsewhere, airlines that have adopted the onboard technology have the ability to turn voice calling on or off– and some, like Lufthansa, have decided to keep it off. Ryanair, Europe’s largest carrier,  experimented with allowing cell phone use on its planes in 2009 and dumped the idea due to lack of interest.

Here are lists of airlines that offer inflight mobile phone service via Aeromobile or OnAir

Graphic courtesy OnAir

Graphic courtesy OnAir

Huh? Why don’t people in these other countries yack endlessly on their cell phones on planes if they can? It’s because of market forces. Using your phone on a plane is not the same as using it on the ground. It’s very expensive… To make a call, you first have to set your phone to international roaming, and then calls cost about $3-$4 per minute.

Vintage seatback phone. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Vintage seatback phone. Who used em? (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Does anyone remember those GTE or Verizon phones installed in nearly every airline seatback in the 1990s? People could use those phones with the swipe of a credit card, at similarly steep rates, if they wanted to. But they did not.

Because of the cost (and peer pressure) I really don’t think that cell phone use onboard planes is all that big of an issue. Usage patterns here would not be too different from elsewhere in the world.

If the feds are searching for something to regulate, what about enforcing a minimum seat pitch and seat width aboard aircraft? If they are truly concerned about reducing stress and controlling mayhem in airline cabins, a standard 33 inches between seats that are no less than 18 inches wide would go a long way… it might even prevent more “Knee Defender” type incidents that were widely reported last month.

So what you you think… do we need the federal government to tell airlines if they can or cannot allow cell phone use for voice calls onboard planes? Would it be a better idea for our lawmakers to enforce seat pitch instead? Or should the feds stay out of the airline business altogether?

I’d love to hear your comments! Please leave them below.

–Chris McGinnis

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How to save on overseas mobile roaming

Global Roaming

Photo credit: Kai Hendry

Mobile data roaming charges on overseas trips are a perennial headache for frequent travelers. And it’s only going to get worse as our voracious appetite for data increases with new devices like the iPhone 6. 

Of course, just turning off data roaming (or switching to airplane mode) is a quick fix to avoid any surprise charges when you get home. Or you could switch to T-Mobile’s unlimited global data plan. Or you could buy a local SIM card and pay local rates, but that means switching to a new phone number, which is probably too unwieldy for a frequent traveler on a quick trip.

But what else can you do to avoid exorbitant overages when you need data when you are in other countries?

Luckily, many cities are moving fast towards ubiquitous public wi-fi, which allow VOIP calls in addition to data usage. But until that becomes more widespread, here are some options…

Comcast customers traveling overseas will soon enjoy inexpensive wi-fi access via a new partnership between Comcast and Liberty Global, a giant cable operator in Europe with about 2.5 million hotspots in countries such as the UK, Belgium, Netherlands, Poland, Ireland and Switzerland.

For Comcast customers traveling to Europe, this looks like a solid deal and can be taken advantage of by downloading the Xfinity Connect App. Trials begin later this year (no hard date set yet) with wider rollout expected in 2015.

Similarly, Boingo provides access to more than a million wi-fi hotspots around the world for just $10 per month—you can sign up for just one month, or get a monthly subscription. (It’s a free benefit on some American Express cards- check yours here.) To find a Boingo hotspot, just download the Boingo Wi-Finder App to your smartphone, tablet, or laptop.

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Truphone's global coverage map

Call, texts and data in 66 countries in the “Truphone World”

Truphone is an interesting solution for companies with several frequent international travelers on staff who regularly rack up significant charges on overseas calls and data. With a corporate Truphone plan, companies provide frequent travelers with phones (including the new iPhone 6) that work seamlessly in the US and 66 countries. (Just turn on the phone when you land, and go…) Users have a local US number, and can add up to seven local numbers in other countries. Truphone’s benchmark monthly rate is $100 for 1,000 minutes, 1,000 messages and 1 gigabyte of data anywhere in the “Truphone World.”

What about those times you get lost in a foreign city...and there’s no one around to ask directions? In the past, you’ve likely just groaned, logged on to the local phone network and paid too much to access Google Maps. But you can avoid that– before you go out and about in a foreign city, save a local Google map to your iPhone when in a wi-fi zone for easy access: Here’s how to do that.

These are only some of the strategies to manage roaming costs while traveling. What other clever solutions have you come up with? Please leave your comments below.

–Nick Vivion & Chris McGinnis

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CLEAR opens security fast lane at SF Giants’ AT&T Park

You'll soon see something like this at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

Starting September 9, you’ll see something like this at AT&T Park in San Francisco.

From frequent flyers to fly balls, a special fast track lane for ballpark security is coming to AT&T Park, home to the San Francisco Giants.

A pilot program starting September 9th and running through the end of the season will be operated by CLEAR, the pay-to-enter trusted traveler airport security company currently operating at nine airports nationwide.

At AT&T Park, all fans have been screened with metal detectors or handheld wands this season, with the Major League Baseball organization requiring that all ballparks begin using metal detectors by the start of the 2015 season. Sometimes all that special screening can lead to backups.

“Ballparks are similar to airports as a lot of fans are going through security in a short time period,” CEO Caryn Seidman Becker tells TravelSkills. “During this pop up pilot, CLEAR members should expect the same great experience they have at the airport. CLEAR is all about making this process more efficient and effective.”

Related: Should I renew my CLEAR card?

How? After registering with the program, “CLEAR’s secure identity platform ensures you are who you say you are and you can use that identity in the airport and beyond. CLEAR is focused on bringing members an easier, faster, more efficient experience where they live, work and travel,” Seidman Becker promises — but wouldn’t say exactly how much time she expects members to save.

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Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 10.40.37 AM

Pre-game queues swell at AT&T Park (Photo: BullCityDave / Flickr)

But here’s how things will work at AT&T Park:

• The CLEAR lane can be found at the Marina Gate.

• The pilot will begin Tuesday, September 9th and run for the last 10 games of the season.

• CLEAR members must bring their CLEAR card to use the new pop up lane.

• If they bring a friend who is not a member, their +1 can use the line directly next to CLEAR.

CLEAR’s usefulness at airports gets a mixed reception from frequent flyers — and TravelSkills readers on our recent article about renewing CLEAR.

TSA PreCheck proved part of CLEAR’s undoing five years ago–  but with PreCheck lines increasingly choked by passengers unfamiliar with how the process works, CLEAR is starting to look more attractive again.

CLEAR lane

Not sure whether you want to spring for the $179 annual membership? “As busy travelers return to the grind, they can enroll with a two month free trial and get other “travel pro” tools as well for free until September 15th,” Seidman Becker tells us. “Just use code PROTRAVEL at checkout.  Members can always add a family member for only $50 more. All children under 18 are free and don’t require a CLEARcard. Kids can accompany CLEARmembers through the pop-up CLEARlane.”

Bottom line: if you fly frequently to the nine airports where CLEAR operates, you might find it useful. That’s especially true at airports where security can be swamped with vacationers, like Orlando or (soon) Las Vegas.

And now, AT&T Park.

–John Walton

UPDATE: Clear has published its own web page about the new fast lane at AT&T Park.

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A spin around the new Airbus A350

A350

The most noticeable feature of the new Airbus A350 is the unusual swoop of the winglet (Photo: Ramsey Qubein)

The world’s newest long-haul, wide body commercial jet, the Airbus A350-900, recently completed its route-proving mission in Helsinki and TravelSkills was invited along to take a look at the first of the “XWB” family of aircraft to debut.

Finnair will be the first European carrier to get its hands on the new bird when it takes delivery of its first of 11 in 2015. Initially, Finnair plans to deploy the A350 on routes between Helsinki and Bangkok, Beijing, and Shanghai. (Qatar Airways will be the first airline to operate the A350 later this year.) UPDATE: Delta has announced that it will purchase 25 A350s as part of a $6 billion deal with Airbus. The planes could be delivered to Delta as early as 2017.

In the US, both American and United are in line to add the A350 to their fleets with deliveries currently set for 2017 and 2018, respectively.  At a recent event in San Francisco, Cathay Pacific said that it plans to replace its fleet of Boeing 747s in part with the A350.

Airbus A350

High ceilings and a 3-3-3 configuration in economy make the A350 feel spacious (Photo: Ramsey Qubein)

Airbus designed the A350 XWB family to compete with Boeing’s popular and efficient Dreamliner (787) and 777. These smaller, lighter aircraft give airlines the flexibility to fly nonstop on “long, thin routes” where there’s not enough demand to fill a jumbo like the 747 or A380.

Disclosure: Ramsey was a guest of Finnair in Helsinki

The A350-900 has a range of 8,250 nautical miles (which means it can fly nonstop from the US East coast to cities in China or southern Africa) and will carry roughly 276 passengers in a standard two-class configuration. Since this plane can fly farther and holds a smaller number of passengers than larger aircraft, it gives airlines the chance to open new routes that may not have made sense before. The Wall Street Journal reports that 38 airlines have ordered over 700 A350s– its highest total ever for a new jet that has yet to enter service.

The “XWB” suffix stands for “Extra Wide Body,” referring to the interior of the cabin. The A350-900 is 18.3 feet wide “from armrest to armrest” which is six inches wider than the cabin of a Dreamliner, Airbus claims. Not a huge difference, but every inch counts when it comes to cabin space these days, right?

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A350_XWB_msn005_wing

An unusual curved winglet is the distinguishing feature of the new Airbus A350

In Helsinki, the first thing that drew my attention were the plane’s curved winglets, which reduce drag inflight. (See photo above.) They are not rigidly bent upward in the same way other aircraft winglets are; rather they curve upward and swoosh backward. This is supposed to improve the fuel economy that existing winglets already provide. Also, the shape of the aircraft nose is also unusually pointy,  something not found on other Airbus aircraft, and a characteristic that will make it easy to identify.

Related: A look at Finnair’s interior designs for the A350

Aside from the nose and the winglets, the aircraft looks very similar to the A330 family since it is a twin-engine aircraft. The cabin is wider and the windows are larger than its older sibling, however, which are two features that passengers will appreciate.

A sense of spaciousness is immediately notable on entering the plane. I attribute this to the  high ceiling, which is in part due to the way the overhead bins fold away into the ceiling of the aircraft. The bins are very deep and tall allowing more space for baggage.

A350

Another feature: a cabin that’s 220 inches wide… which can accommodate either 9 or 10 seats across in economy. Let’s hope airlines opt for the 9 abreast seen here.

Of course, each airline will decide how they want to configure the interior seating and cabins, which plays a role in the sense of space as well. The A350 is wide enough to have 10 seats across in the main cabin, if an airline chooses to do that. We hope airlines stick with a 9-abreast option to truly take advantage of the extra wide cabin and not pack us in like sardines. Thankfully, Finnair will have a 3-3-3 configuration in economy and a 1-2-1 design in business class. (Airbus feels that an 18 inch wide seat should be the standard and has launched a campaign to encourage airlines to adopt it.)

Like the Dreamliner, the A350 is a game changer because it is 25% more fuel efficient than similarly sized aircraft, which makes airlines (and environmentalists) happy. Airbus’s main selling point is that, when compared to the Dreamliner, the A350 burns 9% less fuel, yet still carries more passengers.

A350 XWB - ROUTE PROVING - TRIP 2 - HONG KONG THROUGH THE WINDOW

Windows on the A350 are larger than on other Airbus planes, but not as big as those on the Boeing 787.

In addition to the plane’s pleasing girth, passengers will notice larger windows than other Airbus aircraft (Airbus windows are noticeably smaller than those on Boeing and Embraer planes). Still, the windows are not as large windows those on a Dreamliner, and they don’t have electronic dimming capability.

A350

High ceilings and mood lighting add to cabin comfort on the new A350 (Photo: Ramsey Qubein)

LED lighting in the cabin can produce nearly 200 shades of color, which airlines can use for branding purposes or to create a more soothing atmosphere. Cabin lights will gradually become brighter as they are turned on. Lighting like this should offer flight attendants a gentle alternative to just blasting the lights on to wake everyone up for a meal.

The A350 airframe is crafted of composite materials that are corrosion and fatigue free. Like the Dreamliner, this makes it lighter. An advanced air filtration system will refresh cabin air completely every two to three minutes, which should help to combat dry skin and reduce the effects of jet lag. The cabin will be pressurized at 6,000 feet, which is similar to Boeing’s Dreamliner.

Related: Flying on a brand new United 787 Dreamliner

Finnair’s new aircraft will come equipped with wifi access, which will help to make those long flights feel shorter. Also, engineers integrated the inflight entertainment systems and wiring underneath the floor so there are none of those irritating boxes underneath economy class seats stealing your precious leg room! (There must have been a few frequent flyers at the drawing board, right!)

Overall, when the A350 takes to the skies with airlines in 2015, its passengers should be pleasantly surprised with the modern interior and sense of space…and airlines will be elated at the jet’s efficiency.

–Ramsey Qubein

 

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Airbnb for a business trip? Mixed results

Airbnb balcony view

The view from the balcony of my Airbnb accommodation (Photo: Airbnb)

During a recent business trip to Los Angeles, I stayed in an Airbnb apartment for the first time. When I made the booking, I was thrilled at the prospect of getting more for less—fabulous location, more space, free parking and (of course) free high-speed wi-fi. But as a first-timer, I also had a plenty of questions about using Airbnb for a business trip.

Regular TravelSkills readers may recall why I chose Airbnb for this trip…here’s a snippet from my previous post Are Uber, Airbnb or Lyft safe?

I booked an Airbnb condo in Los Angeles because all the convention hotels near my conference were sold out—except one property 10 miles away. The thought of a 10-mile slog in LA traffic was unbearable. Through Airbnb, I booked a one-bedroom condo in a brand-new building across the street from the convention center. Like most business travelers, cost was not my primary motivation, but it made me smile to be saving $84 a night. Hip décor and free use of the building’s gym and pool didn’t hurt either.

Recently, Airbnb has made a play specifically for the business travel market with a new, focused portal and by partnering with Concur on its TripLink product.

But does Airbnb really make sense for business travelers? Let’s see…

Airbnb living room 2

The unit’s living room was a lovely place to hang out at the end of the day. (Photo: Airbnb)

Here’s how my Airbnb stay played out:

Right off the bat, I have to say that I missed the familiarity of checking in in a hotel lobby. “Checking-in” at my Airbnb proved to be confusing and time-consuming. I was thrilled to have free parking for my rental car. So when I drove in from the airport, I followed the instructions the host provided. Entry required punching a code into a garage keypad, identifying myself and waiting for someone on the other end to open the gate. There were some miscues, and that process took about 10 minutes. The iron gate finally swung open.

The unit’s keys were to be in a lockbox on a pillar by the parking space. Thankfully, opening the lockbox went without a hitch. But then, it was not clear how to get from the parking garage into the locked building. At this point I was thinking fond and nostalgic thoughts about hotel front desks—I wanted one! After 10 more minutes, two phone calls and a few texts, I was in. Hours later I realized the fob for building entry was on the key ring. Dumb. Still, at a hotel, I would have been unpacked by then.

Bedroom in my Airbnb accommodations. What happens when you need to call "housekeeping?" (Photo: Airbnb)

Bedroom in my Airbnb accommodation. But what happens when you need to call “housekeeping” for an extra towel? (Photo: Airbnb)

Luckily, it got better once inside. The apartment was lovely and as clean as any hotel room. The view of the Convention Center, Staples Center and L.A. Live was just as the listing promised. There was complimentary coffee (Keurig!), tea, and water bottles, and snacks were provided free of charge. And of course, free wi-fi is always a welcome amenity.

The primary reason I chose this Airbnb apartment was its super-handy location. I was only a three minute walk from the front door of the LA Convention Center and reveled in the convenience– I was closer than all those other attendees at my convention who were paying significantly more up the street at the JW Marriott, or Ritz-Carlton.

Related:  Best new biz-class hotels in L.A.  | 20 business class seats in one room

In the morning, it felt a little weird waiting for the building’s elevator with some “real” (non-Airbnb) residents. And I wondered…as an Airbnb guest, was I a persona non grata? Maybe. I smiled and looked down. The following days I would conceal my convention badge.

One day while at the convention, I realized I needed my laptop, which I’d left back at the apartment. I dashed across the street and back in the span of five minutes. If I’d chosen a hotel, this would likely not have been such an easy option. Big score for Airbnb.

The front door to my Airbnb apartment near the LA Convention Center (Photo: Nancy Branka)

The front door to my Airbnb apartment near the LA Convention Center (Photo: Nancy Branka)

When the sun went down, though, I wasn’t feeling the love. I attended a convention-sponsored party at a nearby venue. Easy—just a short walk, right? When I walked over to the event in the evening light with lots of fellow conventioneers around, I felt happy about the sunset stroll.

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However, when the event was over and I had to walk back to the apartment in the dark,  I wasn’t so sure about the neighborhood. There was no brightly lit and active hotel front door and lobby staffed by a doorman and a steady stream of cars, taxis and guests. And I wasn’t comfortable with the homeless man camped out by the building’s front door, something I’d less likely encounter at a business-class hotel.

Did my real-life Airbnb experience meet my expectations?  Overall, it was a very positive stay because of location, location, location. So I’m glad to have Airbnb in my arsenal of travel resources. Now that I’m no longer an Airbnb newbie, I would feel more comfortable about doing it again, especially for a longer stay. 

But on the other hand, there were some hassles that would make me think twice about using Airbnb again for a business trip. Every Airbnb unit, every host and each location is different– careful scrutiny of both is essential to a successful stay. Luckily, the Airbnb site is very helpful when it comes to this with plenty of safeguards, user reviews, verified photos, maps and information. But booking a brand name, business class hotel room doesn’t require such scrutiny.

Have you ever used Airbnb for business travel? Would you feel comfortable using it? Share your thoughts in the comments.

– Nancy Branka 

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