I know how it is – you‘re about to take a flight and wondering if you‘ll have free internet access in the air.
As a fellow traveler, I‘ve asked that same question many times! I want to watch Netflix, get some work done, and surf the web on long flights. But will it cost me an arm and a leg?
The answer unfortunately is usually no – airplane WiFi typically isn‘t free. Most airlines charge $7 to $50 per flight for internet access. A few offer it free in first class or business, but not us economy flyers.
But don‘t worry! In this guide, I’ll break down everything you need to know about inflight WiFi. I’ve done the research so you have the facts to decide if paying for internet is worth it for your upcoming trip.
By the end, you’ll be a WiFi-in-the-sky expert! Let’s get started:
How Does Airplane WiFi Actually Work?
First, it helps to understand the technology that makes internet possible at 35,000 feet!
There are three main systems airlines use:
Air-to-ground: Uses cell towers on the ground that beam signals up to planes flying by. Kind of like how your cell phone picks up service when near towers. This is the most common.
Satellite-based: Leverages a web of satellites orbiting in space to transmit data to and from the aircraft. Provides better coverage since satellites are everywhere!
ATG-4/5: This is an advanced form of air-to-ground that offers faster speeds by using directional antennas to better link up with cell towers down below.
So in essence, signals are sent to planes from either ground towers or satellites to give you that sweet, sweet internet connection. Pretty cool that we can browse at 500mph!
To make this work, airlines install special equipment and antennas on planes to receive the signals. It’s expensive tech, so most make customers pay to access it.
Now, on to what I know you’re wondering most…
Which Airlines Actually Offer Free WiFi?
I wish I could tell you all airlines offer it gratis! But the truth is, only two major US airlines provide free inflight WiFi as of 2023:
JetBlue – They advertise having free WiFi on every plane through the “Fly-Fi” network. It’s satellite-based and seems pretty reliable from what I’ve read.
Delta – Partnered with T-Mobile in 2022 to start offering free WiFi on most domestic flights. Uses air-to-ground and satellite to provide connection.
Those two are the exception though. Here’s what major US airlines charge for WiFi, according to 2021 data I found:
|Airline||Cost for WiFi|
|United||$8–25 per flight|
|American||$10–40 per flight|
|Alaska||$8–17 per flight|
|Southwest||Free texting only, $8 WiFi|
|Spirit||$7–13 per flight|
As you can see, pretty much all other major airlines charge for WiFi on a per flight basis. Prices range from $7 per flight on the low end up to $40 for premium internet on some airlines and routes.
The Costs of Streaming Video and Music Inflight
I don’t blame you for wanting to stream Netflix or Spotify on the plane. Inflight internet definitely opens the door to binge-watching and music streaming at 35,000 feet.
But fair warning – streaming eats up a LOT of data. Most airline WiFi packages only include a limited amount suitable for general web browsing:
- American’s basic WiFi plan permits 75MB of data
- United’s base package has 100MB
According to researchers, watching 1 hour of Netflix uses up to 230MB, and streaming Spotify can eat 150MB per hour.
So you can see those basic internet packages wouldn’t even cover a single TV episode or album!
If you plan to stream, you’ll want to pay extra for premium “Streaming" or “Unlimited” packages that airlines offer:
- American’s Streaming Pass gives 1GB for $22 per flight
- United charges $29.99 per flight for Unlimited Plus
These packages let you watch a few movies or shows, but can still be restrictive. Downloading content before flying is really the best way to save money and avoid frustrations from buffering or surprise data overage fees.
Of course, free options like the inflight entertainment systems many planes offer are always there too!
Tips from a Travel Pro for Getting Free or Cheap WiFi
I get it – we all want to save money but stay connected up there. Here are my best tips as a seasoned travel writer for scoring free or affordable airplane WiFi:
Fly with Delta or JetBlue – These truly are the only US airlines offering complimentary, no-strings-attached WiFi at this point. All passengers get free access on most flights, even in economy.
Use Gogo with a T-Mobile Plan – If you have T-Mobile phone service, connect to Gogo WiFi and you’ll get a free 1-hour internet pass on every flight! Gogo is available on Delta, American and Alaska.
Connect through a VPN – By hiding your location using a Virtual Private Network app, you may be able to trick an airline’s portal into providing free access to their basic service. No guarantees, but could work!
Leverage credit card perks – Many premium travel credit cards offer statement credits to offset inflight WiFi costs. Some also provide free Gogo passes annually as a cardholder perk.
Achieve elite frequent flyer status – Reaching top-tier membership in an airline’s loyalty program sometimes earns you free Gogo passes or WiFi time as an elite perk.
Purchase monthly subscriptions – For frequent fliers, buying a monthly unlimited use pass may save money compared to per-flight costs. Gogo offers these for $49-$69 monthly.
Inflight Entertainment Without WiFi
You’ve probably noticed those seatback screens airlines are increasingly installing with movies, TV shows, and other programming. These inflight entertainment (IFE) systems are a solid WiFi-free option to pass time on the plane.
Many airlines also stream entertainment options to your own device. And good old fashioned diversions like books, magazines, games, music playlists and podcasts downloaded to your phone or tablet will never let you down up there.
Here’s a breakdown of the percentage of airlines globally offering different types of inflight entertainment in 2022 according to Statista:
|Inflight Entertainment Type||Percentage of Airlines Offering|
|Streaming to own device||34%|
|Overhead TV screens||33%|
With most airlines worldwide now providing screens or streaming entertainment, WiFi isn‘t 100% necessary to make the time fly by (pun intended).
Can I Make Calls and Text Inflight?
Even with internet access, don’t get any crazy ideas about making voice calls or sending texts from your phone mid-flight!
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations prohibit this:
Airplane mode must stay ON to disable cellular signals, even if using WiFi
Voice calls and text messages are blocked since cell signals can interfere with aircraft systems
The same goes for VoIP (Voice over IP) calls through apps like Skype, WhatsApp, FaceTime, etc. Most inflight WiFi networks block this type of voice/video calling.
So browse away and stream media with the WiFi, but direct communication via calls and texts will have to wait until landing. Safety first!
While WiFi in the air isn’t free for most of us flying economy, you now have the knowledge to decide if purchasing it makes sense for your needs and budget.
With the ability to be productive getting work done, stream endless entertainment, or just stay connected, inflight WiFi provides a lot of value on long flights. But costs can add up, so assess your options carefully.
My advice? Only buy if you’ll truly use it. For shorter hops, the free stuff like IFE screens or your own media may be just fine. Mix in napping and socializing, and before you know it, you‘ll be back on solid ground!
I hope this insider guide helps you fly smarter. Safe travels, and don‘t hesitate to reach out with any other questions!