I am writing this from Room 613 of the Quality Inn in Richmond, Virginia. When I went to book the room earlier this week, the website for the hotel noted that – among the usual amenities like a mini-fridge and microwave – my room would be on the top floor, and that it had a city view. They weren't wrong:
I took that picture from my room's window, which is just above the AC unit. I also took that picture while in my socks. Once the picture was taken, I realized that my socks felt wet. After walking over to the bathroom sink to make sure that I hadn't splashed a bunch of water on the floor while brushing my teeth earlier, I walked back to the window, placed my hand on the carpet, and quickly realized that water was dripping from the bottom of the AC unit, sopping up every bit of carpet in its vicinity. That detail of the room was not noted on the hotel's website.
The website also failed to mention that their free, supposedly high-speed wireless internet would be inaccessible for long stretches, and be excruciatingly slow at all other times. I haven't even been able to send emails or post wit-filled Kinja comments – those had to go through my phone's almost-entirely-used-up-for-the-month data plan.
The quality of a hotel's WiFi is one of those things that you have no way of determining until you arrive in your room and fire up your laptop or tablet. Even then, much unpredictability remains, as there's a strong chance that the strength of the connection will decrease as more and more people arrive at the hotel and fire up their laptops or tablets. The unreliability of the network connection can quickly get aggravating, and not just for those who need to use a hotel's WiFi for work (i.e. me) or for those whose hobby involves writing high-quality posts for a travel blog (i.e. also me – also, shut up) – it also affects the many, many people who use streaming services to watch TV, or want to access the increasing number of games on their phone or tablet that require an active internet connection to play. It gets in the way of those who like to Skype their buddies while traveling. It turns something menial like sharing a picture on Facebook or Twitter into a rage-inducing experience. And it makes it really difficult to watch online porn, according to a friend of mine.
As with the cheap hotel experience in general, the best thing to do when it comes to hotel WiFi is to set your expectations really, really low. That way, anything beyond a level of connectivity that's similar to what you experienced when you first unplugged the line from your phone and stuck it in the back of your Compaq Presario should count as a bonus. That's what has led to so much of my frustration this weekend – after a good stretch with steady, reliable WiFi in hotels, I was expecting more of the same upon arriving at this weekend's soggy-carpeted Quality Inn. Shame on me.
Beyond the unpredictable quality of the connection, what else should you expect out of the WiFi at a cheap hotel (or motel – recall that I use the terms interchangeably)? Let's go the FAQ route with this one.
1) Will it be free?
Almost definitely. My current hotel is owned by Choice Hotels, which also owns such low-and-mid-range properties like Comfort Inn, Econo Lodge, and Rodeway Inn. The Wyndham Group owns even more of these types of hotels – Super 8, Travelodge, Days Inn, Ramada, Howard Johnsons, and Knights Inn. Both of these companies promise free WiFi at all of their properties. Good for them.
Other brands like Red Roof Inn and America's Best Value Inn also provide free WiFi. The only one of the cheapos that doesn't offer free WiFi consistently is Motel 6, which usually charges $2.99 per 24 hour period (I say usually because – if they have taken over another brand's hotel, or brought a Mom and Pop place into the franchise fold – in most cases, they will continue to use the free WiFi network that the previous ownership had in place).
Here's a quick motel tip: Though they are consistently the cheapest option, the added cost of WiFi access puts the price of a Motel 6 on par with those of other motels like Super 8 and Econo Lodge that regularly offer a few more amenities (for one, more breakfast options than just crappy coffee) than Motel 6. Keep that in mind whenever you're comparison shopping for a motel.
Also keep in mind that I'm talking about the lower end of the hotel scale here. If you're thinking of splurging for a higher-end hotel, note that a lot of those charge stupid amounts for WiFi use. Also, if you're driving and the hotel's in the heart of the city's downtown, you're likely going to pay an even stupider amount for daily parking. Put those two together, and your splurging can get out of control quickly.
2) Is the strength of the WiFi going to be more reliable at a higher-quality place, especially one that charges for it?
No! Oh goodness, no. Well . . . maybe. Let me explain.
I need to gather more examples before I can say this with total confidence, but I'm close to getting there: higher-quality chains have crappier WiFi than the cheaper ones. And why is this? Because the higher-quality places are usually bigger, have more than just 2-3 floors, and run their WiFi through one access points that everyone in the 100+ rooms connect to, which causes the connection to become slower and less reliable as more people sign in. That's the hell I've been dealing with at this Quality Inn, which – WiFi and leaky AC aside – actually offers a very nice room. I've also dealt with this in too-many other instances where I've decided to pony up a little extra and get something a bit nicer than the $40 Knights Inn off of the highway. Meanwhile, the $40 Knights Inn off of the highway in Columbia, South Carolina where I stayed this past Wednesday had WiFi so speedy that I was able to stream a baseball game on my tablet while watching an episode of Archer on Netflix while also downloading the episode of Fargo that I missed the night before, which was possible because the motel – though spread out over four, single-story buildings – had separate networks set up for each building, which is exactly what any higher-quality hotel should offer on each of its floors so as to justify the extra goddamn expense.
I'm really pissed at this hotel's WiFi, guys.
3) So can I watch Netflix and/or Hulu and/or the HBO Go account whose password I got through my neighbor's mom's gardener's mom's neighbor?
If you can, consider it a victory. Savor that episode of Real Sex 52. Remember, though, if you stream something flawlessly in the afternoon, you might not be so lucky in the evening as more folks show up at the hotel.
4) And I can BitTorrent stuff, too, because I'm immoral?
Most likely. Red Roof Inn blocks these types of programs. It's been a while since I've stayed at a Motel 6, but I believe they do, too. Most other hotel chains do not.
5) Hey, speaking of immorality, what about . . . you know . . . the naughty stuff?
I wouldn't know, because I'm quite saintly. However, according to that one guy I know – who is also quite versed in traveling cheaply – there's only been one time in all his years of travel in which he's tried to access a porn site and has been blocked by a hotel's filters. This did not occur at a chain hotel (it was the Saratoga Downtowner in Saratoga Springs, New York, which has an awesome indoor pool that goes the entire length of the hotel, and is a great place to swim away all your dirty thoughts) – he has never had an issue at a chain hotel. I sure hope he tips the housekeepers well when he's done with the room.
6) Will my connection be throttled if I use a certain amount of bandwidth?
Are you in Canada? If so, then it's very possible. Last year, the majority of the hotels I stayed at in Alberta and Saskatchewan had their WiFi network operated by the same company, and that company specified in their terms and services that access would be throttled after using an unspecified amount of bandwidth (and they weren't kidding – I had several instances in which the baseball game I was streaming on my tablet pooped out halfway through; also, that guy I know – who also happened to travel around Alberta and Saskatchewan last year – said the same thing happened to him while checking out a few-too-many webcam gals). I can't speak for the rest of Canada on this one, though I'll find out more later this year when I head up to New Brunswick and Quebec.
Meanwhile, back in the good ole U.S.A., I've never come across a WiFi network at a hotel that has mentioned throttling service. However – and sorry for getting all broken record here – it's going to feel that way a lot of times in the evening as more people arrive at the hotel and access the network.
And that's my cue for wrapping things up. Looking down from my window - and getting my socks soggy again because, fuck, I forgot about the leaky AC unit - I can see the parking lot of the hotel start to fill, which means my chance of actually getting this column posted today is starting to decrease rapidly. If you disagree with anything in this post, now's your chance to leave a nasty comment, as I might not be able to get back online until tomorrow afternoon, when I arrive at my next hotel, which - happily - is a $40 Knights Inn off of the highway.
Dealing With Bugs | What's The Difference Between A Motel And A Hotel? | Trusting WiFi |Dealing With Other Motel Guests | Dealing With Expectations | When Should You Opt For The Cheap Motel? | Should You Tip The Housekeeper?
This is the second of two posts I had planned about motel WiFi - the first one focused on whether or not you can trust unsecured motel WiFi networks, and can be found at the link above. My motel posts are usually accompanied by a picture of the decor in the room where I write the post, but - in the case of this Quality Inn - none of the decor is interesting enough to merit a photograph. If you'd still like to check out pictures of comforters and/or curtains from the places I stay at while traveling, head on over to my Tumblr page, Motel Interiors. Comments are always welcome and much appreciated. If you'd rather email me, drop me a line at email@example.com.