Travelers' charge: Keep calm and carry on with outlet hunt


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Hey, you, over there stretched out on the floor by the boarding gate at Pittsburgh International Airport craning to see under the chairs -- yes, you, today's traveler, bristling with smartphones, iPads, laptops, bluetooth keyboards -- we know exactly what you're looking for.

Have you tried the outlet down the hall by the ladies room?

Even as travelers brace for another summer of higher airfares, crowded flights and longer lines, they are also contending with a problem that seems to have reached critical mass: connectivity -- or lack thereof -- in many airports, hotels, trains and planes, or, as a recent survey by Intel Corp. called it, "outlet outrage."

The Intel poll found that 46 percent of responders said they had compromised personal comfort or hygiene to keep their devices charged, and 15 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds said they would search public bathrooms for an outlet if they had no choice.

The survey, dubbed "Tech Norms for Travelers," found that U.S. vacationers felt anxious if they weren't traveling with their smartphones even if it meant pleading with a bartender to borrow the outlet next to the Jack Daniels or sitting on the floor near an outlet. Even more terrifying, 64 percent of survey respondents said they'd give up hair dryers, toiletries -- even shoes -- to make room for their devices in their luggage.

"I feel like if I'm traveling on a workday, I always want to read my email," said Kara Tershel, a 37-year-old Burgettstown native who works at the Georgetown University Law Center's department of communications in Washington, D.C. "If my battery goes down and my phone isn't working, I feel antsy. I follow a lot of websites for my work, and I feel like I need to know what's happening."

"Now, me, free: Those are the three things that drive demand," said Jan Freitag, senior vice president of Smith Travel Research. Travelers need outlets and Wi-Fi "right this minute. They need it when they need it, and ideally it has to be free. We're definitely seeing the hotel industry react to the need for travelers to have more outlets," he said, noting that the latest generation of Courtyard Marriotts, for example, "has outlets everywhere."

The same is true for La Quinta, Hilton Garden and Hampton Inn chains, at least in the newer buildings, he added. "They have one goal in mind, and that is to attract the business traveler, who wants four things: Wi-Fi, a comfortable bed, outlets and ESPN."

And yet, all that texting, posting, surfing and streaming takes up precious bandwidth, which is perhaps why Marriott Corp. announced last week it would be installing a two-tiered Wi-Fi system in its hotels.

While basic Wi-Fi will remain free, those who want a lot of bandwidth will have to pay for it.

The problem, spokesman John Wolf said, were those who use Wi-Fi to watch movies or listen to music online, on demand (Amazon, Pandora, for instance), as opposed to checking email. More and more guests, the hotel chain found, "are bringing their own media with them, and there's an impact on every other guest."

As Americans grow more attached to their devices, the Intel survey of 2,500 travelers also found that nearly half expressed anxiety about being without their phones, iPads or other gear, and nearly three quarters said losing their device would be more stressful than misplacing their wedding ring.

That anxiety is familiar to Brian Kelly, a travel blogger at ThePointsGuy.com, who flew 200,000 miles last year with a laptop, smartphone and tablet.

While he counts Los Angeles International Airport as among the worst when it comes to available outlets, he notes approvingly that Delta seems to be ahead of the pack. Not only does it have the largest fleet of Wi-Fi-enabled planes, in 2010 it started installing charging stations at its passenger gates in 19 airports, with six 110-volt outlets and two USB ports, which allow iPhone users, for example, to plug in with an Apple USB cable.

In Pittsburgh, outlets can still be scarce, depending on where you are, but Delta has installed charging stations there, too, and extra outlets and seating have been installed on A and B concourses near Southwest and US Airways gates, spokeswoman JoAnn Jenny said. Near gate A4, there are a dozen chairs with 14 outlets, she noted, and 11 chairs and 10 outlets near gate B33.

Don't get Mr. Kelly started, though, about what happens when he leaves the airport and checks into a hotel.

"You've got a whole amenity kit in a bathroom, but there are no outlets that aren't already in use near the bed. I have to pull the mattress out to find the outlet behind the bed, which just drives me insane."

Aha, but the Fairmont, Downtown, is way ahead of him.

"Welcome to guestLINK," says a brochure touting "the latest in-room technology that allows you to interact with your personal electronic devices through your guestroom flat-panel HDTV."

A recent inspection of one small but luxurious hotel room revealed two outlets on either side of a king-sized bed and a media panel that pulls out of the desk to connect laptops, DVD players, iPods, iPads, PlayStations, Xboxes or cameras to view on a big-screen television.

Marriott thought of that already, countered Mr. Wolf, along with "outlets up high so our guests don't have to crawl under a desk to find them."

If it's an older hotel, it probably won't be as well equipped to take on the Internet addict, but here's another trend to look for, Mr. Freitag said -- the "socialization of the lobby," complete with free Wi-Fi. "That means more people will want to hang out there, giving the lobby atmosphere and life."

Even as hotels and airports scramble to install more outlets, there are predictions that soon all of that retrofitting will become obsolete, as electronic charging is replaced by magnetic charging panels a traveler can place all his devices on.

lifestyle - interact

Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949. First Published June 27, 2012 4:00 AM


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