Upsides of recession: Luxury hotels finally start giving away Web access

For years, it was a standing paradox in the travel world. The expensive hotels hit you for every extra thing while the low-cost hotels tend to throw everything in for free. Web access was the canary in the coal mine of a wallet-draining hotel stay. Take your laptop to a Sheraton or a Hilton, and you'd pay $10 to $25 to get online for a day. One London hotel deigned to charge me the equivalent of $40 a day. But for brands charging a third of their room rate, and even for small-time, family-run B&Bs, Internet access was free.

Not anymore. Business travel is drying up and expense accounts are tightening, and the old rules are changing. Now big hotels are having a change of heart. Finally, they are recognizing that if you pay a lot for your room, the least they can do is throw in Web access, the way they throw in shampoo and sewing kits.

I spent all last week traveling in two different time zones, and for the first time in my memory, free Internet was true across price points. At the Montage Beverly Hills, a luscious two-month-old property geared toward the affluent where rooms cost upward of $500 a night and a couple dozen gummy bears from the minibar smack you for $6, connecting to the Web is entirely free. And that's in Beverly Hills, where nothing is free, and cocktails at the hotel bar are $16.
At the Trump International, a new property towering within Chicago's second-tallest building, the story is the same: Wi-Fi, no charge. Those are two independent properties that can set their own service standards, but the trend has spread throughout the industry. At Chicago's historic Blackstone Hotel on Michigan Avenue, now a Marriott property, getting online costs nothing. The posh Shangri-La hotel chain, most prevalent internationally, recently announced that it, too, would be cutting the cord on high Web prices.

It used to be you had to book at a lower-priced chain such as Hampton Inn to get yourself online for nothing. New hotel brands are being created specifically to entice business travelers with one-price-for-all deals. Andaz, by the Hyatt brand, recently opened its first American property in West Hollywood, where Web access, shirt laundry, non-alcoholic minibar, and in-room movies are all part of the price. That follows the company's no-fuss Hyatt Place concept, which is similarly all-inclusive but at a price point around $100 a night.

True, the more we as a society get online, the more the Web access becomes a necessity like running water. And the more we check in with Web-enabled phones and other devices, the more we develop an expectation that having Web access should simply be a part of the cost of doing business. But I'd also like to think that the ultra-luxe hotels, the ones that bled us for every charge when the bleeding was good, are finally chagrined enough to meet guests as the bartering table.

I consider it a victory for the everyday traveler. We get few enough of those. Now, can we talk about that $47 parking rate at the Blackstone?

Update: When I checked out this morning, the Blackstone, a Renaissance property, tried charging me $13 a day for in-room Web even though the browser sign-in screen said it would be free. When I pointed out the contradiction, the charge was wiped from my bill without a clear explanation. So it would seem that this transition to free Web has not been gracefully managed by all the big companies, and guests should comb their bill for charges--even for stuff that they thought would be free.

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