Why Hotel Wi-Fi Sucks, and How To Make It Faster

6 minute read

Hotels are fantastic places, with king size beds, fluffy bathrobes, and room service. When you leave the room, it’s magically cleaned for you. It’s almost paradise, until you try and get a decent internet connection. Then even 5-star resorts seem like digital slums. I can put up with being charged $4 for bottles of water, or even being charged for “premium internet” - except when it’s not premium. I often see 3mbps out of a typical hotel internet connection, up to 7-10mbps at a newer location. That’s garbage. Most cell phones on an LTE network can run circles around that (but don’t get me started on data caps). Thankfully, there is one simple thing you can do to drastically improve the speed and quality of your connection. I’ve successfully done this at many hotels and wanted to share so that I can help end some of the needless suffering of travelers out there.

The Biggest Problem with Hotel Internet - Wi-Fi

Most hotel Wi-Fi setups are bound by design to offer a lousy experience:

  • Hotels don’t refresh their rooms or technology frequently - so Wi-Fi systems at even high end hotels may be 5-10 years old now. Plus, they need to maintain maximum compatibility with older devices so aren’t moving to newer versions of the protocol like 802.11ac.
  • Hotel Wi-Fi is often over-saturated. The individual access points have many users sharing a small number of back-haul wired connections, leading to congestion.
  • Because of this saturation, Wi-Fi connections are often throttled per-device (and sometimes not in line with the amount a user is provisioned on a tiered connection system such as when hotels ask you to pay extra for “premium internet”).
  • Wi-Fi deployments in hotels enforce device separation, so your phone can’t connect to your computer or any other device on the same network. This is because all users in the hotel are sharing the same network, and if someone has a computer not well secured and firewalled it could easily be infiltrated by another guest.
  • Hotel Wi-Fi networks are usually unencrypted. This is just a terrible practice in 2016.

The Simple Solution - Make Your Own Wi-Fi

In most cases, somewhere right in your hotel room is a wired ethernet port, that likely has a much better upstream connection than the hotel Wi-Fi. Easy enough to use for a laptop (depending on its location), but to make it available to all your devices - use a wireless travel router. You probably have a wireless router at home that plugs into a Cable or DSL modem, and this is the same principle. Netgear Trek N300 is the model I’ve been using for the past couple years, and it’s still perfectly good today. It’s very small and easy to travel with. Plug the router in, and connect an ethernet cable between the wired ethernet jack in the room, and the router’s “internet” port. Then follow the router’s setup instructions to configure a local wireless network that you can take with you whenever you’re traveling.

Netgear N300 Travel Router

How Much Faster??

Here are a few results from some of the hotels I’ve stayed in over the past few months (when I actually kept records of speed tests). It’s a pretty significant difference. In each case I tested the speed of hotel-provided Wi-Fi in a hotel room against Wi-Fi from my Netgear N300 connected to a wired ethernet port in the same room.

Hotel Hotel Wireless Speed (down / up) Wired Speed (via my Wi-Fi Router) (down/up)
The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island 2.66mbps / 4.55mbps 51.08mbps / 54.28mbps
Solage Calistoga 13.70mbps / 7.93mbps 44.06mbps / 10.57mbps
Hilton Doubletree San Jose 6.48mbps / 12.99mbps 14.34mbps / 14.25mbps
Monterey Plaza Hotel 24.26mbps / 6.97mbps 62.52mbps / 89.09mbps
Hotel Healdsburg 45.89mbps / 24.10mbps 89.70mbps / 24.14mbps

Test it for yourself. I use speedtest.net or fast.com - which only tests Download speed but doesn’t require Flash.

Benefits Beyond Speed

Isn’t speed all that counts? Well, not quite. Even if the hotel Wi-Fi is just as fast as the wired connection (rare though that is), I still use a travel router to make a private network in my room for these additional reasons:

  • It only counts as one “device” to the hotel, so once you are signed in from the first device, you don’t have to sign in on each device and you can connect as many devices to your network as you want.
  • All the devices you connect to this local Wi-Fi network will be able to communicate with each other - which is extremely helpful if you want to connect a streaming devices such as a Chromecast to your hotel room TV.
  • You only have to configure the wireless network on your devices once, and they won’t have to connected to and remember a slew of unsecured hotel wifi networks which can leave the devices more vulnerable to spoofing attacks with things like the Wi-Fi Pineapple.

Finding a Wired Connection

This Access Point has ethernet ports

Most hotels expect users will want wireless connections these days, but before Wi-Fi was everywhere many hotels had cabled cat5 ethernet to their rooms, and many hotel rooms use wired ethernet in the rooms for other purposes already so there are a number of places I’ve learned to look for LAN ports. It doesn’t always work, but I’ve repeatedly surprised myself with what a little persistence can accomplish.

  • Bring your own ethernet cable, the hotel ones (if they even have any) often have damaged connectors.
  • Look near the desk, sometimes they do make it easy
  • Check the back of the TV. Many hotel entertainment systems use ethernet, and I’ve been able to use this connection to plug into a travel router.
  • Some hotels will have an ethernet port and RCA/HDMI ports on a panel near the TV - but I’ve found the ethernet ports are sometimes not wired up.
  • The phone - sometimes the phone system is an IP telephone and has an ethernet jack
  • The Hotel wireless access point - I’ve found these in various places in the room (including in closets) and sometimes they have wired ports directly on the device.

Using these methods I am able to find and use a wired ethernet connection in about 7 out of 10 hotels I stay in.

Configuring your Hotel Wi-Fi

  • Always secure it with WPA and a strong password.
  • Set the MAC address of the router’s wired connection to that of your laptop (or a similar ranged MAC) - some hotel networks block anything having the MAC address of a network device manufacturer (and travel routers typically are). This is easily done via the web administration interface.
  • Allow the router to automatically choose a channel to limit interference with other Wi-Fi access points (like the ones the hotel has plastered all over every floor)

What This Won’t Solve

If the hotel requires you to register or pay for “premium” Internet, this won’t get around that. What this will do is ensure you get the best speeds possible, especially if you’re paying extra for it.

If the hotel room really doesn’t have a working ethernet connection, then you’re also out of luck. For situations like this I also have a Wi-Fi LTE hotspot on me when traveling.

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