Whether on a trip or just out and about in town you can find free WiFi just about anywhere, especially if you check out these tips and tricks:
Check out the Chains: From Panera to McDonalds to Starbucks or Barnes and Noble, getting online for free in metropolitan areas can be as simple as driving down the street. If you're on unfamiliar terrain, check out this detailed list of free WiFi options on WiFiFreeSpot. You can start with the huge list of multi-location chain stores that offer free WiFi nationwide, or select your state for an alphabetical city list of individual providers.
Check Local Spots: Many public libraries offer free WiFi -- not to mention a quiet atmosphere to enjoy it -- or hop online at one of the hundreds of airports that offer free Internet across the country. Click on the "Airports with Free Wi-Fi" link on WiFiFreeSpot's homepage for an alphabetical list by state, as well as tips to avoid hidden fees. For example, beware of networks named "Free Public WiFi" in airports as it's likely a scam, unsecure network set up to siphon personal information from unsuspecting travelers.
Check out the Unexpected: Free WiFi is available in many unexpected locations. Several bus lines now offer free WiFi, including Megabus and Bolt, as does Amtrak. Many laundromats are adding WiFi hotspots to make waiting on your laundry more bearable and gyms often provide free WiFi to let you surf while on the treadmill. You may even find a free hookup where you get your oil changed or in the courthouse when you're stuck with jury duty. Make sure to call ahead to confirm availability, or if you're in a major metropolitan area check out www.openwifispots.com to search by address or zip code.
The inside track on Hotels: When it comes to finding a hotel with free WiFi, going with a budget or smaller chain sometime proves to be the better choice than a luxury brand. You may think paying more for the room will get you more perks, but many of the "high-end" places (like Hyatt, Marriott, Waldorf-Astoria, Crowne Plaza, etc) charge $10 or more per night for Internet while their "budget" brands (like Courtyard, Fairfield Inn, Holiday Inn, Hyatt Place, etc) offer WiFi for free. Check out the annual report released by Hotel Chatter for a list of best and worst hotel WiFi by cost and reliability.
Unexpected Perks: Being part of the "in-crowd" can also save you a bundle. Airline priority clubs and hotel loyalty programs often provide free WiFi to members. While some of these programs require a minimum number of stays or miles traveled, some offer free Internet access upon sign-up.
Use a program like iStumbler for Mac or WeFi for Windows to plan ahead for WiFi near your destination. WeFi, for example, has an exhaustive list of millions of hotspots around the world, even in places you wouldn't expect like rural areas. They also have an app you can download to your iPhone or Android for hotspot searches on-the-go.
Foursquare devotees can take advantage of the affiliated free app 4sqwifi (available for iOS devices through the iTunes app store). It shows nearby venues that offer Wi-Fi and their passwords, anywhere in the world. Wifi Tracker is a good option for Android users ($1.56 through Android Store). It uses Google Earth to pinpoint your current location and show free Wi-Fi in your area.
If you subscribe to cable Internet, you may have access to their WiFi hotspots around town. Some companies even partner with other cable providers to extend their network. Check with your cable company for availability.
When all else fails, try asking for the WEP password if your mobile device finds a network you'd like access to. Many store and restaurant owners are happy to oblige.
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Andrea Eldridge is CEO and co-founder of Nerds On Call, an on-site computer and laptop repair service company for consumers and businesses. Andrea established the company with her husband, Ryan, from a spare room in their home in Redding, Calif., in March 2004. Andrea is the writer of two weekly columns, Nerd Chick Adventures in The Record Searchlight, and Computer Nerds On Call for the Scripps-Howard News Service. To ask your puzzling tech questions email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.