I am often asked for tips for operating HF radio on the amateur bands from hotels. This is something that I have done a lot of in the past and it can be good fun. It always gave me something interesting to do in the evenings. This article is about operating from hotels and motels as part of business trips - not extended vacation DXpedition operating. These are two different scenarios and often demand different solutions.
Operating ham radio from hotel rooms (especially HF) could be hazardous to yourself and others. Do not be tempted to take any risks. If it's not safe, just watch the TV like everyone else.
Choice of Room
I have tended just to take whatever room I am allocated but as a rule don't get a ground floor room and always ask for a room on the outside of the hotel - not one overlooking some internal courtyard. The ideal room is often one overlooking the hotel's grounds (car-park, or gardens if you are lucky). If you have to have a room overlooking a street, then height will be very important - get the highest floor possible.
VHF and UHF
I suppose for many people the first thought might be whether you can operate with your antenna inside the room. This is certainly possible and, for VHF and UHF with a handy, it's by far the easiest way to get on the air. All you need to do is to make sure that you have details of the local repeaters (plenty of mobile phone apps will do that for you). VHF and UHF operating from a hotel is not that challenging, and is often disappointing. Far more fun is HF operating.
On the HF bands, an external antenna will usually give far better results than anything you can rig up inside the room. My experience of internal antennas has been that they pick up lots of noise often making it impossible to hear anything. This is not a show-stopper though. If you end up in a location where an external antenna is not possible and the noise is too great to hear anything, you can't get on the air right? Wrong; use it as an opportunity to have some fun with a WSPR beacon. That can make for an interesting experience - and you can check how it's doing on your phone while you enjoy a drink in the bar too.
For an internal antenna, a loop of some sort is a good choice. Magnetic loops can be efficient (for their size) and pack up small. They are directional which sometimes helps in reducing noise pick up. Mounting the antenna close to the window will give you an interesting problem to solve in some hotels.
A quick word about power levels: I found that much above 10 Watts had the providential to cause havoc to the various electronic systems in hotels. 100 Watts would be very anti-social in most hotels, especially with an internal antenna.
HF Outside - the gear
The vast majority of my hotel operating has been done with external antennas. As you never know what opportunities will present themselves, I assembled a kit of useful items that could be pressed into service as needed. The kit consisted of:
- small antenna tuner with patch lead
- a reel of thin insulated brown wire
- a reel of fishing line (about 8 kg breaking strain)
- cable ties - various sizes
- drawing pins (thumb tacks)
- insulating tape (black)
- gaffa/duck tape (black)
- camouflage nylon braided cord
- fishing weights (sinkers)
- fishing swivels
- tent pegs
- wire cutters
All these items, together with a transceiver,power supply and mains extension lead (hotel mains electricity sockets are never in convenient locations) all fitted in a cheap black hard briefcase. In addition to these items I also carried a short telescopic fishing pole which packed down to less than 50cm but was about 4m long when extended.
Running through the items;
The wire was for the antenna and was often simply thrown away at the end of my stay. Thin brown wire was chosen to make it hard to see (most of my hotel stays were just one night and thus the antenna was often put up and taken down in the dark. Note that for minimum visual impact I almost always used an endfed wire antenna.
The fishing line is great for extending the wire to a suitable attachment point. It is so thin that it is invisible in most situations.
Cable ties are useful for attaching things together and can also be used as loops.
Drawing pins are very useful. If you want to attach your fishing line to a tree, just wrap it once round the tree, push two drawing pins into the tree and tie the line off by wrapping it in a figure of eight motion around the pins a few time. Finally push the pins firmly into the tree - no knots required: fast and virtually invisible.
Tape - useful for all sorts of attachments including attaching the end of the wire inside the hotel room.
Cord - useful for loops and extending the wire in some cases.
Fishing weights - great fro throwing lines over trees etc.
Fishing swivels make useful "pulleys".
Tent pegs are sometimes useful to anchor the end of an antenna.
HF - Outside, erecting the antenna
Typically on arrival I would first look out of the window to see what possibilities there might be. to get the wire outside, Often there as a suitable tree - or more often a shrub that could be used to attach a wire to. To get the wire out of the window I would attach a weight to the end of the wire and feed this out over the top of the window and down to the ground. Tip - I wrapped my weight in self-amalgamating tape to stop it breaking windows! Once the weight was on the ground, i would go outside and attach the far end of the antenna. Having the wire on a small drum allows you to pull the wire from outside. Back inside I would tension the wire ready for operating. Clearly the wire needs to be high enough to be above the height of people walking, cycling or driving by; play safe.
Tip - in some installations I looped the wire back so that at the end of an operating session I could retrieve the wire from back inside my room without going outside. Then I just needed to collect the attachment assembly outside in the morning before leaving.
When using a "long wire" system, I always tune it against a quarter-wave counterpoise wire that I placed around the hotel room.
This brings me to the use of the ightweight telescopic pole: in city-centre hotels different challenges arise. I worked for a while in central London and stayed in a hi-rise hotel. It was fine for VHF but I wanted to do some HF operating. Dangling a weighted wire out of the window did not work well. It was against the building and, because the windows only opened a few centimetres I could not see where the lower end was so I was concerned that it would be knocking on the window of some other guest on a lower floor. I needed to get the wire away from the hotel. All the windows looked out over the street so sloping wires to ground were not possible. I then hit on the idea of a top-fed inverted L. I measured out my antenna (in this case 3/8th wavelength on 20m) and taped to to the extended pole so that end of the antenna dangled down off the end of the pole. I measured the length so that the weight could not swing back into the hotel. foxing the pole in the room in a manner that was safe was difficult but I managed it. This top fed inverted L worked surprisingly well - yielding many QSOs and even enabling me to crack a big pile-up for a station on South Korea.
...more fun than the contacts
Thinking back I recall that in most cases the challenge of getting on the air was far more interesting than any of the contacts that I made. It turned every overnight trip into a mini radio adventure. Give it a go!
Comments received - thanks!
These are all good tips for hotel operating. I would add a few comments.
Clearly, hotel operating can be tricky at best. Hotel selection is critical. Those with only inside access are very problematic, as more often than not the windows will be sealed shut! If you are lucky enough to find a hotel with balconies, that's good, even if you have to pay a few extra bucks for that kind of room.
This past summer I had occasion to operate a good bit from hotels/motels. My preference was to find one with outside access, upper level, and a room at the end of a row. That last requirement is to minimize "traffic" in front of your room where you might have your antenna or feed line coming in through the front door. Room selection can be critical as well.
If you are lucky, there may be a tree conveniently located nearby. Parking lot light posts (often 30 ft. high or so) are another possibility. I can usually negotiate those easily with a small slingshot and some cotton/nylon twine. This will give you access to your "far end" support.
In my case, I have a very substantial (but also very portable) 40 ft. collapsible pole ("Wonderpole"). It collapses to about 6 ft. Any collapsible pole will do, but mine is particularly handy, and very sturdy. I mount it at the rear of my vehicle, using the trailer hitch receiver and a support attachment. Takes only 5 minutes to have the pole up and functional. All I have to do is to conveniently locate my vehicle in the parking lot. You just have to hope management doesn't complain about a wire running overhead!
I used my KX3, and either a small battery or power supply. The antenna of choice ended up being an end fed half wave (PAR 40/20/10 QRP model). An ATS-3B is another favorite of mine. I got surprisingly good reports.
By all means carry an 8 or 10 ft. extension cord with multiple outlets! Too many hotels are very skimpy about outlets and their location.
I've had little success with portable antennas inside a room. Usually the hotel's construction makes a perfect shield. The antenna needs to be outside! However, small antennas like the MP-1, a magnetic loop, etc. can work for you if you can just get it outside the room and more or less in the open. They do work, and pretty well, particularly if you are up off the ground floor. Do not skimp on the number of radials! An MP-1 makes a pretty decent mobile antenna (for your rental car?) if you just have a trunk lip mount with you. Easy on, easy off! I've done that more than once!!! All of this is easy to include in your luggage.
If you are flying, and not driving, the pole is probably not coming with you. However, bring the slingshot! Don't underestimate the usefulness of having one.
There are lots of "hints and kinks" about hotel operating. However, if you plan ahead a bit, you will hopefully be prepared for many of the uncertainties that are apt to confront you. Unfortunately, luck plays a big part!