What's the maximum rate you should pay for the use of your hotel's wi-fi signal on your next travel adventure? The savvy traveler would tell you that nothing over "totally free" is now (and should remain) the standard for this hotel amenity.
Ten years ago charging for use of an internet connection inside your hotel room was standard practice and accepted by world travelers (Wi-Fi had only just become available). You could compare that thinking to the 1950s, when the standard method to watch the television set in your Manhattan hotel was to place a coin into an attached slot.
"Not all of our customers make use of the internet," is the number one excuse I've personally heard when bringing this subject up to hotel managers in an attempt to get a handle on the various 'wi-fi for a fee' justifications. Other popular excuses are "we're under contract to a third-party company, therefore there's nothing we can do," and "every hotel charges for the internet" (a blatant falsehood thrown out to end an uncomfortable conversation).
The truth is that it's 2013, the internet is as ubiquitous as the television and far more useful. The overwhelming trend in hotels is to move towards providing free internet to their customers (even amongst the so-called high end brands), but not every property is on the bandwagon yet.
At this moment I'm sitting in one of the outliers, a hotel marching more slowly through the 21st century, with a fee of $15/day to use the internet (for American hotels still charging an internet fee, this is the average rate for such a charge, ordering a hamburger from room service costs less). When I confronted the check-in receptionist about the charge she was quick to point out that either Cosi or McDonald's down the street would be happy to provide clients of the hotel with free internet service.
My response: "Do you suggest that to everyone who checks in?"
"Only if they seem upset about paying for the internet," she said.
"How often would you say people are upset?"
"Most of the time," and she pointed towards the exit with the restaurants providing the free wi-fi so I could use my laptop while waiting for a room to free up.
Without naming the hotel directly, let me give you some insight into their inner workings. It's a 4-star (remember the star system is a bit arbitrary) Grand Central Manhattan property with a strong historical background. It ideally charges $358 for a simple Queen room when it can get that much (I took that price from their third party booking offerings) and under $100 for the same room when the hotel gets desperate and wants to put warm bodies in unused rooms (that's what I paid). Price disparities of this nature usually accompany "suspect" business models in customer service, and it's no surprise that $15 for the internet is a decision from the 'nickel and diming' higher ups (and no surprise that there's no coffee maker in my room). These higher up's may benefit, however, from doing the math equation which will inevitably appear on the bill for a longer term stay. A week of internet would cost $105 for one device, and two weeks on two devices would cost a customer $420 (+ applicable taxes). These numbers are obscene, and the savvy traveler would never recommend such a hotel (the internet is no longer a convenience, it's a necessity).
And what does it say about a hotel if the receptionists are telling customers to sit in McDonald's to use the internet? To me it says the hotel's brand has a modest personality disorder. I'm doubtful the relationship is an official collaboration between the hotel and McDonalds (although I'm sure Ronald appreciates the extra boost in business -- and their coffee was delicious). It also tells me the hotel is out of touch with modern times and out of touch with client satisfaction.
A second hotel right down the street (from my work stay the previous month), answered my question of how often do customers complain about the internet charge, with "It's the number one complaint I take." Hopefully that general manager I spoke to is 'taking' the complaint to those who make the nickel and dime decisions.
There are several things you, as a savvy traveler, can do to help hasten the demise of insulting and obnoxious hotel internet fees, the simplest among them being don't book a hotel that charges for the internet. In some cases free market economics still works, and customers can still vote with their wallets. It's possible the "4" star hotel I'm sitting in right now (at prices under $100) may not be securing as many bookings due to its internet policies.
If you find yourself in a hotel charging for the internet, mention your feelings to the reception desk or manager; I always do (remember though, it's not his or her policy, so be kind to the employees themselves and unkind to the policy). Don't think your comments don't make a difference. I saw the Hilton in Prague back away from its fee-internet policies partially due to incessant complaining (in that case the hotel was charging $38 a day for wireless internet and $100 a day for wired service -- your computer could act as if it was paying for its own room).
In addition to mentioning it to staff, mention it in your online review (which I know you write because you're a savvy traveler). It's ironic that hotel managers sometimes ignore the complaints lodged in person, but give much higher weight to bad press publicly displayed on the websites they're trying to get you to pay them to use.
And lastly, you can always take a trip to McDonald's (or any of the dozens of other businesses which have implemented the ideology that free internet = repeat business). I personally setup my phone or tablet as a hotspot and use the system I'm already paying for each month as my internet (it shouldn't surprise hoteliers that this technology exists, however it's very annoying to be forced to do).
Few things in life get cheaper over time, and it's a celebration when you find one. Soon paying for the internet in your hotel room will be as obsolete in modern times as placing a coin into a television.