The biggest benefit of an international flight from or to South Africa is that, for anything from 8 to 16 hours, one is out of touch with the world and forced to catch up with work – or sleep, reading, entertainment or conversation.
That, of course, it also its biggest drawback. Especially in business travel, where it is almost dangerous to be uncoupled from the office for more than half a day, the first priority on getting off the plane is to get connected. But even for leisure travellers, there is often a great psychological need to reconnect, download email and deal with anything urgent that may have cropped up during the time in communications limbo.
For South African travellers, using mobile data is out of the question – unless one is desperate or – more rarely these days – on a generous expenses account. For MTN, Vodacom and Cell C customers, roaming data in most countries outside Africa costs a near-criminal R100-plus per megabyte. This means that someone using 10GB – which would cost less than R1000 as a bundle in South Africa – would face a bill of more than R1-million on returning home.
It does happen, especially on arrival in another country, when mobile data has not been disabled and the user allows the phone to update apps via that mobile data. Without even knowing it, you can be ruined before you’ve left the airport.
Fortunately, most international airports now offer a quota of free wi-fi. A business traveller, in particular, should be aware of the fact that mobile data should be disabled as a first priority when switching on the phone. Some assume that wi-fi should be included in that disablement, when it is, in fact, the solution rather than the problem.
The key is to find the network offering free airport wi-fi. In most airports, posters advertise the presence of hotspots, but the danger exists that one may inadvertently access a fake hotspot, set up by a hacker to con people into typing passwords for online banking and the like into this “honeypot”. If it is at all unclear whether official wi-fi is being accessed, financially sensitive sites like online banking should be avoided.
It is fairly easy, however, to find out in advance what wi-fi is offered at the airports in which one is likely to need a connection. As they say in beginners’ guides, Google is your friend. Make sure the information is up to date, though.
At the time of writing, among major airports, unlimited free access is offered at Dublin, Hong Kong, Moscow Mumbai, Singapore, Sydney, Tel Aviv, Toronto and Vienna. Heathrow has just upped its quota from 45 minutes to 4 hours free, going one up on Stockholm’s 3 hours. Amsterdam and Zurich both offer the first hour free. South African airports, with their 30 minutes free wi-fi, are matched by Frankfurt, Munich and Rome. In the United States, LaGuardia, Newark and JF Kennedy in New York also offer 30 minutes free access throughout the airports, while JFK’s Jet Blue Terminal (terminal 5) offers unlimited access.
Other airports are more generous, with Las Vegas, Boston, Dallas, Orlando, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington among the unlimited free airports in the United States. Airports that have yet to wake up to the public relations benefits of a good chunk of free wi-fi include London’s Gatwick, Spain’s Barcelona and Madrid, and France’s Charles de Gaulle, which are each open for a near-unusable 15 minutes.
The technical geniuses behind these services appear not to have noticed that it can take almost that long just to get the connection working, let alone getting to use it. If that wi-fi connection is truly urgent, and no free wi-fi is available, it is obvious one should pay the price to connect to commercial wi-fi in the airport, or even subscribe to a global wi-fi service like iPass or Boingo. There was a time when such services were regarded as a luxury. For many travellers today, they are as essential as a passport. After all, connectivity has become the entry visa to the mobile office.