Traveling light-years

Free wireless is hard to find. It’s especially difficult at the airport, where rates for Wi-Fi can reach up to $10 for a day’s access–and more than double that if you’re at an overseas airport. With wireless available at virtually every airport, the question is: where is it free?

The bad news is that in America, it’s rare to find free wireless access at major airports. Only four of the 20 busiest airports in the U.S. offer free wireless access: Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Orlando, Florida, according to, an online provider of hotel reviews and personal travel blogs. Second-tier airports offer free access much more often, simply because they have fewer travelers and a smaller infrastructure. The good news? Internationally, free wireless is growing as more business travelers demand it.

In a recent study by iPass, a publicly traded provider of mobile technology management services, airports were responsible for 49% of global wireless use, an increase of 40% from the first half of 2006. American airports comprise the top five for the most usage, with London Heathrow, Narita Tokyo, Singapore’s Changi Airport, and Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in the top 15.

In terms of Wi-Fi connection costs, where to log on seems to be more important than how. “Europe has the highest [fees]; Asia probably has the most free; the U.S. charges, but the prices are reasonable; and Latin America is spotty in terms of what it offers,” says Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing at Gartner, a Stamford, Connecticut-based research analysis firm. Obviously, the cheapest airports are free of charge, but many American airports charge only $7.95 per day. In Europe, travelers can expect to pay up to 27.90 euros for a day’s access at Berlin’s Tegel International Airport, and in Latin America, El Dorado Airport in Bogotá, Colombia, costs $24 a day.

With mostly free wireless systems, Asian airports are among the best in the world for business travelers. Singapore’s Changi Airport continually gets rave reviews for its free wireless service, and others are following suit. Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur airport has just completed a major network upgrade and offers free access, as do Japan’s Osaka and Tokyo Narita airports, and Hong Kong International Airport.

In the U.S., frequent fliers can access free Wi-Fi at some airline lounges, including Northwest Airlines and Continental.

Matthew Barnes, a grant officer at Houston Endowment, takes about10 business trips a year but uses his Sprint-powered Palm Treo 700p at the airport because of Wi-Fi costs. “I have worked with the assumption that wireless access was not free,” he says. “I don’t even think to use Wi-Fi now–I just leave my laptop in my travel bag.”

Barnes is not alone. Many travelers use handheld computers, mainly because they don’t want to pay for wireless access. Handhelds operate on the same premise as cell phones–they work anywhere for a monthly fee. The downside is that they are much smaller than laptops, making it more difficult to do complicated work.

Another option is a 3G card. This third-generation