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Frequent Flyer Travel Technology

Coming from Starwood: Free Wi-Fi, with Strings

Beginning next year, members of Starwood’s Preferred Guest program who book direct with the hotel will be treated to free standard Wi-Fi. Nice, but questions do arise.

It’s been just over a month since Marriott announced that, beginning next year, Marriott Rewards members will be treated to free standard Wi-Fi at most hotels in the chain’s network.

This week, Starwood matched Marriott’s offer:

Beginning February 2, 2015, an SPG Member that books a Stay through a Starwood Website or an SPG App will receive: (i) complimentary standard in-room Internet access during the Stay if he/she is not a Gold Preferred Guest or a Platinum Preferred Guest at least 24 hours prior to the Stay; or (ii) complimentary premium in-room Internet access during the Stay if he/she is a Gold Preferred Guest or a Platinum Preferred Guest at least 24 hours prior to the Stay.

Free WiFi obviously trumps the alternative. But as with Marriott’s upcoming free Wi-Fi offer, Starwood’s raises two thorny questions.

First, since Starwood makes a point of distinguishing between “standard” and “premium” Internet access, what exactly is the difference? Travelers don’t just want free WiFi, they want free fast WiFi. If it turns out that Starwood’s standard WiFi delivers anything less than a fast ride on the information highway, non-elite SPG members may judge the new benefit more irksome than rewarding.

Second, the requirement that bookings be made directly with Starwood is a significant downgrade to the overall value proposition. Many Starwood loyalists travel on business for companies that require employees to book through agencies with which they have preferred relationships. And many other travelers want to use online travel agencies like Expedia and Hotels.com to comparison-shop rates, amenities, and locations.

Hotel companies’ financial interest in encouraging their customers to book direct is clear. The bookings are commission-free, and the hotel has the opportunity to cross-sell other services and up-sell to pricier rooms. But tying together free WiFi and direct booking is heavy-handed at best.

Reader Reality Check

Is booking direct too high a price to pay for free Wi-Fi?

This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.

By Tim Winship

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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