Going Online When Flying: a Wi-Fi Guide for Business Travelers

Business Class traveler enjoying flight working on laptop © Qantas / Anson Smart

At the Airport

Many airports now offer free, unlimited Wi-Fi access. The connection speeds vary, with the fastest reaching 45.31 Mbps (fast enough for whatever you need to do) - in San Francisco International Airport, but the average is often half that or less.

Airports in the United States, Southeast Asia and Europe (notably Germany and the Baltic countries) get the top rankings for fastest download speeds, while airports in South America tend to have much slower connections.

Keep in mind that whenever you use public internet services, these are not completely secure. Here are some tips to keep your data safe:

  • Don’t join the first network that appears on the list. Check that the hotspot name exactly matches the official airport Wi-Fi network (watch out for differences in capital letters, numbers or special characters). Most will require that you enter your email address and a password.
  • Exclusive Wi-Fi networks in business lounges are more secure (and tend to be faster) as they aren’t available to passengers in the rest of the terminal. However, the same rules of caution apply. 
  • Minimize sending personal data over a public Wi-Fi network as much as possible. Ensure the sites you visit have HTTPS encryption and avoid transferring documents by FTP.
  • If you’re working on sensitive files, disable automatic file sharing to the cloud.
  • If you have a personal or company VPN (virtual private network), take advantage of this as it encrypts all your communications. Activate a VPN session immediately after joining the Wi-Fi network and before you start browsing . Note that if you’re traveling in a country with internet restrictions (such as China), many social media and news sites may be blocked. If you have a VPN connection, you can use this to access sites as if you were at home.

During the Flight

Today you can go online on an increasing number of flights. While some airlines offer a free inflight hotspot, or free access for certain passengers, it is often a paid service. The price usually depends on the time spent online and/or the volume of data, ranging from $7 to $30 per device.

Emirates, for example, offers two hours of free access and 10–20MB of data, which may be enough to check your emails and accounts. A handy tip if you have several devices is to use a free session on each, as connectivity is paid per device.

Pay attention to whether the plan you purchase has a data limit in addition to a time limit, as if you use up your data entitlement, you may be charged extra even if your plan covers the duration of the flight.

It’s wise to check your airline’s Wi-Fi data plans before your trip: some offer discounted plans for members, others have a month pass for frequent travelers. For example, Singapore Airlines offers one free Wi-Fi session per flight in a specific flight sector for First and Business Class passengers and club members.

In some cases there is a significant markup to purchase access when you’re in the air. So if you haven’t included this when you booked your ticket, try to do so before you board.

Emirates Business Class man using smartphone laptop online © Emirates

Inflight Wi-Fi is only available at cruising altitude, not at take-off and landing. Connection speeds tend to be slower than on the ground (the connection on a 4G LTE smartphone is about 10 times faster).

The performance is usually adequate for basic web browsing and text-based messages, but less so for large file downloads or streaming.

Having said that, the best services are currently 15 Mbps, which is fast enough for streaming, and the speed is getting faster all the time. Here are some tips for going online in the air:

  • To speed up access, disable all background apps and automatic updating/backup. Download large files before you board. Visit sites you want to use before you connect to inflight Wi-Fi so they cache locally. Avoid sending large files. Use apps (which use less data) instead of browsers.
  • Do not assume that public Wi-Fi is secure. Using a VPN will mitigate these risks, though VPNs use more data and are slower. To increase security, disable Bluetooth and other data-sharing apps. Log out of accounts.
  • To transfer data without having to use the cloud, bring a dual USB drive (a flash drive with a computer USB connector on one side and a phone micro-USB on the other). 
  • If you have several devices, you can share inflight Wi-Fi access between them with a travel router such as Connectify virtual router, which turns your laptop into a Wi-Fi hotspot you can connect to.

As an alternative to in-flight Wi-Fi, some airlines offer a 3G or 4G broadband connection in some of their airplanes. This allows you to use your own phone inflight to make calls, send messages or browse the internet rather than using the plane’s Wi-Fi. However, your service provider may charge you for roaming, so check what your plan covers.

Now you know how to work online safely and efficiently on your next business trip!

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