Business Travelers – Skip In-Flight Wi-Fi To Increase Productivity And Save Money

Originally in ForbesI travel a decent amount. I don’t mind flying, but I’ve always struggled with the loss of productivity. Hours waiting at the airport. Even more hours in flight. But with the advent of in-flight Wi-Fi, I thought my productivity problems were solved. I was wrong.

I’ve instead concluded that by nixing slow and unpredictable in-flight Wi-Fi altogether, we can save money and use flight time to more productive ends (like reading, writing and resting) better suited for that environment.

My initial plan was to use in-flight Wi-Fi to slay the email dragon. That way, I could land knowing that nothing had slipped through the cracks and that there were no surprises waiting. I might even allow non-urgent emails to pile up for a couple days if I knew I had an upcoming flight. Unfortunately, the strategy was a miserable failure.


Why It Doesn’t Work

For starters, I can’t use my most efficient email slaying tool—my laptop—for a meaningful portion of the flying experience. Although we can finally use phones and tablets on airplane mode throughout the flight, the “use of laptops and larger electronic devices” is still prohibited from the time we leave the gate until we hit 10,000 feet—and then again on descent.

That’s a significant amount of lost, potentially productive time. Even if you have something else to do during those seemingly interminable intervals, you’re likely fidgeting, shuffling other media around and listening for announcement to free you from the prison of non-productivity. Yes, you may speed up the process by using a tablet, but good luck convincing me that you can send, categorize and stash emails as fast as you can on a laptop (with the same level of response quality).

Next, it’s going to take another several minutes to connect to the service. You’ll probably have to pull out your credit card and then labor through entering your payment information.

More time lost.

Most importantly, in-flight Wi-Fi is notoriously slow and predictably unpredictable. Yes, some airlines and some planes are better than others, but you never really know what you’re getting until you boot-up your device and connect.

Invariably, I’d sit there stewing, watching my emails battle to leave my outbox. Sadly, some never did, left to languish in electronic purgatory indefinitely. All that waiting can double or even triple the time it takes to clear an inbox, depending on how slow the connection is.

Some planes don’t even offer in-flight Wi-Fi, so now you’re scrambling for another way to utilize your time and stressing over the pile of emails you expected to crank through.

Again, time is lost. Stress is increased.

I mention the cost of in-flight Wi-Fi last, but not because of its insignificance. At an average of $10 per day to boot-up a connected computer, it’s not a trivial expense. Indeed, in the 50 days I’ll likely fly in the coming year, what I would spend checking my email mid-air could buy me a whole round-trip flight. I mention it last, however, because, in relative terms, the cost of in-flight Wi-Fi is not as great as the lack of productivity.

So you’re paying premium prices for substandard service. More importantly, you’re expending time on a task that we can surely agree would be more productively accomplished if you were sitting at your desk with a solid internet connection.

What Works Better

How better, then, could we spend our time and money? Just to name a few…

  • Reading – Whether it’s the newspaper, a professional journal, an annual report or a book you’re excited to crack, from the moment you sit down on a plane and tighten your seatbelt, you’re in an environment no less productive for the task of reading than anywhere else. In fact, an airplane is likely an even more productive environment because no one is interrupting you—no emails, phone calls or co-worker queries. Reading makes you better at what you do, regardless of what you do.
  • Writing – You may not be cranking out novels like John Grisham, but few of us are employed in a professional pursuit that requires absolutely no written communication. Again, because of the lack of disruptions, airtime offers enhanced productivity for writing, especially in the longer form. If you’re a blogger, blog. If you’re a manager, write employee reviews. If you’re in sales, take along a stack of cards to write hand-written notes to send customers when you touch down.
  • Resting – You may not be able to sleep on an airplane, but you can rest. Resting has been proven to reduce stress, which, in turn, makes all of us more productive. Nap, listen to music, read mindless fiction, pray, meditate (in your seat, please) or simply close your eyes and process the last 24 hours or the day ahead.

On Oct. 29, I made an unexpected pledge on Twitter. I promised I would not use in-flight Wi-Fi for the remainder of the year, instead, using the time to read and write.

My colleague, Carolyn McClanahan—a former doctor, current financial planner and fellow Forbes contributor—reiterated my commitment. And then we took it to the next level. We extended our pledge through the first quarter of 2015 and promised to send one another a $20 Starbucks card if we failed.

Since that day, I’ve spent 28 airborne hours entirely Wi-Fi-free. It hasn’t been without temptation—especially since hitting enough miles to earn free Wi-Fi—but it’s been blissful. Flights feel like rewards, and I actually look forward to them. I’ve read more than 500 pages, written thousands of words and enjoyed a few stints of doing absolutely, positively nothing. And interestingly, knowing that I don’t have Wi-Fi as an option has made me more disciplined at processing email before and after flights.

If you’d like to join Carolyn and me—or raise the stakes—let us know on Twitter, @CarolynMcC and @TimMaurer.

I’m a speaker, author and director of personal finance for the BAM Alliance. If you enjoyed this post, let me know on Twitter or Google+, and click here to receive my weekly post via email.