In-Flight Internet: Is Your Phone Or Laptop A Better Choice?

In-Flight Internet: Is Your Phone Or Laptop A Better Choice?

Yes, I know — in Australia we still don’t have in-flight internet of any description on domestic flights. But now, when you land in a country that does offer it, there’s a new issue you need to consider: which device are you going to use?

To forestall the obvious whining: no-one is obliged to use in-flight Wi-Fi, and the world won’t stop turning just because we don’t have it. There are plenty of productive things you can do on a plane without an internet connection, and there is value in lying back and doing sweet FA.

That said, if you travel a lot for work, being connected can definitely make the experience less stressful. I almost always find myself using in-flight Wi-Fi on domestic flights in the US, and it helps me stay on top of a busy workload. Back when I first tried this out in 2010, I suggested that it might be too expensive for short-haul flights. Since then, I’ve been to the US often enough to decide that in many cases, it’s worth the money. (You can see which airlines in the US offer the service in our comprehensive guide.)

However, one key element has changed. Since late last year, flights in the US have allowed passengers to use handheld electronic devices (such as phones and Kindles) throughout the entire flight, rather than banning them during take-off and landing. (Australia followed suit with a similar change in August this year)

That creates a new issue: should you connect your smartphone or your laptop? On previous trips, I’ve always used the laptop: I can get more done on it, especially since as a writer my main task is bashing a keyboard. However, with the smartphone you’ll potentially get a somewhat longer connection, since you can use it for virtually the entire trip — the laptop still can’t come out until you’ve reached cruising altitude, and has to go away as soon as your descent begins.

That won’t give you coverage for the whole journey. Gogo, the in-flight Wi-Fi provider I routinely encounter in North America, claims to not work below 10,000 feet, and you certainly can’t use it on the ground. But going the smartphone route can potentially give you a lot of extra time, especially on shorter flights. The last two domestic trips I’ve made in the US were from Los Angeles to San Francisco and Los Angeles to Las Vegas, so the amount of laptop-usable time is already quite tight.

To add to the temptation, the prices are slightly cheaper. Connecting on the phone for the whole of either of those flights is $US7.95. On the PC, it’s $US9.95. (I did try the recent method we highlighted for scoring free access to some Google apps, but couldn’t get it to work.)

So when would the phone make more sense? For me, the collision of two circumstances made it the right choice:

  • I knew that an urgent work email was likely to come in during the flight, and I wanted to deal with it as soon as possible.
  • I was seated in an exit row, which meant I couldn’t have my laptop handily within reach under the seat in front of me. Retrieving it from the overhead bin (and returning it) would waste more time, especially given the battle for baggage real estate that always characterises flying these days.

On other occasions, I’ll still be happy just to connect the laptop while at cruising altitude (especially on a longer cross-country flight). And if there’s no Wi-Fi, I’ll do something else. But keeping in mind that a different device may be a more sensible choice will have to be part of my travel routine from now on.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman would buy a monthly subscription to in-flight Wi-Fi in Australia if anyone offered it. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears regularly on Lifehacker.


  • For banging out text, what about a foldable bluetooth keyboard and you could use that to work on a smartphone until you can pull out the laptop – if you are on wifi just work on something cloud based and resume with the other device.

  • This probably isn’t legal and I’m not sure how steady the connection was, but last time I flew domestic (a couple of weeks ago), the guy next to me used his mobile on 3G as a Wifi hotspot … and tethered his laptop.

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