The Wired Snowbird II: Hotel Connections

Summer 2005 CSANews Issue 55  |  Posted date : May 20, 2007.Back to list

The long day's trek is behind you and at last you haul your suitcase into your hotel room, lie back, put your feet up and let the travel tension drain away. If you're like me, the next thing you do is read your e-mail and check tomorrow's weather on the Internet.

There was a time when this meant connecting your laptop to the room phone and dialing your Internet Service Provider (ISP), often a long-distance call at inflated hotel rates. If you were lucky, you would get a connection and then the messages would slowly trickle in. If your nephew in Canmore had thoughtlessly attached a large photo to his e-mail, you could easily write off the next hour with the phone tied up as the file downloaded.

This stone-age scenario is fast disappearing as hotels increasingly offer high-speed Internet access for their guests, with connections that are 10 times the speed of dial-up, and faster. Wireless "hot spots" in many hotel lobbies also provide convenient fast access. No more expensive phone calls tying up the line, no more pokey connections.

Wired high-speed access is often free in your room. If there's a fee, it's typically around $10 USD per night. Though the free service may seem like a good deal, sometimes connection speeds are less than stellar, making the faster fee-based services more appealing.

For a wired service, you'll need an ethernet cable. Don't confuse these with telephone cables, which have similar-looking but narrower connectors; they are not interchangeable. If you don't have a cable, most hotels will provide one. For wireless service, you'll need a Wi-Fi interface card or built-in wireless capability, which now comes standard with most laptops.

Start by making the physical connection to the hotel's local network. For a wired connection, simply use your ethernet cable to connect your laptop's network interface to your room's ethernet port. For wireless services, your laptop's wireless software will find the hotel's network automatically, and you just tell it to connect. In Windows XP, from the Start menu select Settings, then Network Connections, then Wireless Network Connection. Click on View Wireless Networks, then select the hotel's network and click Connect.

Next, start up your browser and go to any web page. Unlike dial up, in which you connect to your own ISP, high-speed connections use the hotel's ISP. Your browser will be directed immediately to their sign-on page. Follow the instructions – you may be asked to enter your name and room number and agree to some legal conditions – and voila! You're online.

But being online at a hotel isn't exactly like at home. Your own ISP may not allow you to send mail using your e-mail program (such as Microsoft Outlook) via their outgoing mail server if you're not on their network, so you may only be able to receive e-mails. Some hotels' ISPs block access to your ISP's e-mail servers completely. Some may offer an alternative server for outbound mail. If not, try a web-based system such as Hotmail. You may be able to forward your regular e-mail to your Hotmail account. Alternatively, to bypass their mail servers completely, your ISP may provide a secure e-mail web page so that you can read and send mail using your web browser.

At home, you've enabled your wireless router's security features to protect your privacy. Public wireless networks, however, are mostly unsecured and are therefore open to eavesdropping. Online banking and shopping sites generally protect you by encrypting messages between your laptop and their servers. The addresses of these web pages start with "https:\" rather than the usual "http:\". Also, look for a little locked padlock icon at the bottom of your browser screen, indicating an encrypted web page. For all other online activity, however, assume that someone can be listening to all your traffic, including the userids and passwords you enter and the e-mails you send and receive.

Your laptop should be running a software firewall, such as the one in Windows XP Service Pack 2. And of course, your anti-virus software should be up to date.

One more essential step before you join the hotel's local network – disable file sharing on your laptop. On the Start menu, select Settings and then Network Connections, then Wireless Network Connection. Click Properties. Under the General tab, uncheck File and Printer Sharing for Microsoft Networks.

A bit of trip preparation can really simplify your online experience; find out from your hotel which high-speed services they offer, which wireless security they've enabled (most have none) and whether they provide an outgoing e-mail server. If they can't answer these questions, ask them who provides their Internet connectivity, then visit their provider's website. Armed with this information, you can easily manage your high-speed Internet sessions while you're on the road and you'll always be able to stay in touch.