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Feature: The Eight Airlines That Offer Free WiFi (And The Worst WiFi Price Gougers Revealed As Well)

Some people can’t live without WiFi – it’s a knock that older folks might direct at Millennials or younger. But it’s the truth, and I live by it as well. Being partially based in a developing country such as Nepal, I always appreciate the high speed and consistent internet I get when I’m in Singapore – a feature that’s sorely lacking in Kathmandu.

I do have to say that the one place I don’t crave the net is on airplanes – I like to disconnect and decompress on my flights and that’s what I tend to do, even if WiFi is available on board. This rings especially true for flights I take on vacation.

On the other hand, many people crave it – need it – on flights, be it for personal or work purposes. It is also an edge that an airline can get over competitors and that was what certainly drew me away from United’s p.s. service (before the move to Newark) and to Virgin America for my frequent trips between New York and LAX. Back then UA were late to the game with WiFi, and when they did they went with GoGo which was woeful in comparison to Virgin’s high speed net on their flights.

While WiFi isn’t yet as common around the world in comparison to US domestic travel, more and more airlines are introducing the service despite the understandably logistical hurdles. Things like “No-Fi” zones (China, India, Russia mainly) have to be taken into account as well as trans-oceanic crossings where signals might be hard to come by.

But as technology progresses it’s becoming more of the norm – and guess what – some airlines (just a few) do offer it for free or such a nominal price that it might as well be. This might prove to be a deal maker for a lot of people, so we took a look at what airlines out there offer WiFi at no or the best cost (and what airlines are the priciest gouges too).

Basically, there are eight airlines in the world that offer free inflight WiFi. Keep in mind that this can be better or worse depending on the size of the plane, because if everyone jumps on at the same time sometimes rendering the service unusably slow. On the flip side, this is a great perk to have an option to use for free or at basically no cost.

 

Free WiFi:

  • Qatar Airways
  • Air China
  • Emirates
  • JetBlue
  • China Eastern
  • Norwegian
  • Turkish Airlines
  • Nok Air

On the most basic level, all these airlines offer free WiFi for all. But the packages differ from airline to airline, some being more generous than others. There can be a host of other restrictions and nuances as well.

Take for instance Air China – they offer a very fast WiFi service – 20-30 Mbps in fact (which for inflight is astounding) – but it’s only available on domestic flights and only for use on tablets or laptops, not smartphones. China Eastern Airlines, the third largest airline in China, does allow smartphones to be used in their service but the airline is currently still in trial phase so only a smattering of MU aircraft have the system installed. And it’s anyone guess whether you get an equipped aircraft or not, since no flights are guaranteed WiFi.

Air China offers a surprisingly industry leading WiFi service with ultra high speed access for all. Credit: Star Alliance

Then there’s Emirates – yes the airline offers free WiFi – but only for the first ten megabytes of data before the service becomes chargeable. Their fellow Middle Eastern rival Qatar Airways has something similar but instead of going by data they go by time – the first 15 minutes of the flight are free before the system reverts to charging. Philippine Airlines did a combination of this, with either the first 30 minutes or first 15 megabytes, which ever comes first free. The airline has since “temporarily” discontinued the service, but there’s no date announcement for reinstatement as yet.

Emirates was a pioneer with inflight WiFi and has it incorporated into their award winning ICE entertainment system. There are pros and cons to the way the airline has approached their WiFi service. Credit: Emirates

Turkish Airlines offers free WiFi fleet wide and it’s uncapped too, but only to their Business Class passengers (accesible through codes given on boarding) whereas the rest of the riff raff are made to pay a modest fee.

Thailand’s Nok Air (the low cost subsidiary of Thai Airways) does offer free WiFi – but only on two aircraft in their fleet. They do boast up to 10mbps download and 786kbps upload speeds, and the airline intends to roll out fleet wide as their 737 fleet goes into scheduled maintanence. This is made more impressive given the low cost nature of the airline and how short the routes they fly (mostly within Thailand and IndoChina) but it seems to be a worthy alternative to offering no inflight entertainment of their own. Norwegian is the other low cost carrier that now offers WiFi free of charge on most of their fleet but only within Europe and not on their long haul operations on the 787 fleet.

Then comes JetBlue, which probably has the best offering of all (and by some margin too). The airline’s patented system, called “FlyFi” is free of charge to all passengers regardless of class and offers up some very high speed browsing. But for those who want to use the system for streaming Netflix and other high-res platforms, there’s an added ‘premium’ service that is available for a very reasonable fee. FlyFi is only available on the contiguous United States however, and not on any overwater or international services.

JetBlue is widely seen as having by far the best WiFi offering – combining free service with high speed internet. Credit: JetBlue

As you can see, there’s free WiFi and then there’s “free” WiFi, but these are the top eight airlines that are offering the service at very reasonable packages and combinations. It will be interesting to see the evolution of this service and how many more airlines will jump on the wagon offering inflight internet for free or almost free.

I say that because there’s a long road ahead. Because, these airlines – most of them major international players, mind you – rank amongst the worst in the industry in terms of bang for buck or just basic decent pricing.

 

Most Expensive (read: not worth it) WiFi

Then there’s the other side of the spectrum – and these guys are definitely it:

Virgin Atlantic

$22.30 per flight

American Airlines

$16 per day; $49.95 per monthly pass on domestic flights; $12 for two hours, $17 for four hours or $19 per flight on international journeys.

United Airlines

$3.99 to $15.99 on domestic flights (according to the distance traveled); from $1.99 to $3.99 per hour

Aer Lingus

$9.95 per hour or $18.95 per flight; free for business class flights

Delta Air Lines

$19.95 for an hour and $39.95 per flight on a laptop or tablet; $14.95 for an hour and $29.95 per flight on a mobile

Southwest Airlines

$18 per day

Singapore Airlines

$30 per 24 hour period of $15 for first 150mb followed by $0.75 per mb downloaded.

So either that’s some very steep base pricing or things can get ugly fast despite an initial “good” offer if you’re not careful and monitor your data usage. It gives a good contrast and comparison to those who seem to be leading the industry in the advent and spread of WiFi.

We can only assume that as airlines such as United (and their new ‘dark’ fleet – as in no IFE whatsoever) are going to go down the improved WiFI route as they see that with almost all their passengers owning smartphones at this point, free or accessible high speed internet is the way to go with minimal investment. Someone like Singapore Airlines however, with their award winning KrisWorld entertainment system which they’ve invested heavily in, has no real incentive to offer much more WiFi options and will likely remain a bit player in this regard.

It’s all really about preference and choice – at the moment the choice is becoming more widespread, but preference remains to be seen with passengers end up being most satisfied with at the end. The business end of the spectrum will always appreciate, use and pay for it.  But will others?

What’s your take on inflight WiFi – do you use it when it’s available, even if for a stiff fee? What’s your cut off when it comes to usage – how much is too much? Or does it not really matter to you since your company or others will likely comp the expense? 

And one more thing – where do you stand on the battle of WiFi vs. IFE? Where does the future lie? 

 

 

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