A public Wi-Fi access point is like a public restroom. All kinds of businesses along travel routes offer restrooms to bring in customers. They offer free Wi-Fi for the same reason. The fact is, finding Wi-Fi on the road has become a lot easier over the past ten years. You just have to know where to look for it.
Ronald will hook you up: As you get out into the sparsely populated areas on the way to grandma's house, the McDonald's at the end of an interstate off-ramp might be your best chance for connecting to the Internet. The chain offers free Wi-Fi in more than 11,500 of its restaurants. In some cases, you need only pull into the parking lot to get in range of the network. In most cases you'll reach a McDonald's splash page, and just have to click through to connect.
It's no surprise to find a McDonald's within the cluster of gas stations, hotels, and truck stops at many interstate off-ramps. But over the past five years, I've noticed a lot more Starbucks along interstates and freeways. There are now 7,000 Starbucks stores offering free Wi-Fi from Google or AT&T.
McDonald's and Starbucks might be your best bet on the road, but there are other choices. You can also find free Wi-Fi at KFC, Taco Bell, Denny's, Dunkin' Donuts and Burger King.
Practice good Wi-Fi karma: Some businesses are getting more sophisticated about doling out free Wi-Fi, asking for a little more in exchange for access. You might be required to fill out a short survey or watch a video in order to connect to the network. Others go so far as to ask you to click through a number of partner websites, or sign up for an account.
Some businesses ask that you buy something in exchange for the Wi-Fi, and you should. It's an age-old unspoken rule that when you use some business's restroom, you buy something. It's just fair play, and a good way to avoid a hateful glare from a store clerk. There's such a thing as good Wi-Fi karma too. If you use somebody's network, you should buy something, even if it's just a cup of coffee.
Look for cable company hotspots: The cable companies own a huge number of Wi-Fi hotspots around the country--about 150,000 and growing fast. In 2012, five big cable companies made a deal to pool all their Wi-Fi hotspots so that the customers of any of the five could use any of the hotspots. So if you buy cable service from Bright House Networks, Cablevision, Comcast, Cox Communications, or Time Warner Cable, you can log on to the Wi-Fi hotspots of any of these companies using your account credentials. The network might pop up on your screen labeled "CableWiFi."
The power of independent trucking: Our road-tripping reporter Jon Jacobi found that large truck stop chains such as Flying J, Love's, Pilot, and TA are another reliable source of Wi-Fi, catering to a new generation of truckers who operates their business almost completely online.
In most cases, you'll have to pay for the service, Jacobi says, but you can easily scrape up in change the $2 that an hour of Wi-Fi will cost you, and the service is usually pretty fast. Independent truck stops usually feature free Wi-Fi as a way of drawing truckers away from the large chains, and auto-oriented stops often have it as well.
Hotels and motels: Another place to find free Wi-Fi is in the parking lot of a motel or hotel. Since such places are in the business of selling convenience, they frequently leave their networks unprotected, so you can just drive in and connect. Even if the network is password protected, the friendlier places will often provide a password if you ask nicely and explain why you need it. With some people relying on mapping software on their phones, tablets, and other devices these days, saying you need to figure out where you're going is a decent excuse.
Bring your mobile hotspot: You may be surprised at the reach of national 4G networks like those from AT&T and Verizon. When I go out to visit my parents in the great state of Nebraska, my Verizon LTE hotspot works just fine. Most of the time. Although I haven't tested this, I suspect that the mobile hotspots in LTE phones work just as well or better. Just keep in mind that you are eating away at your cellular data allotment.
There's an app: Actually, there are a number of well-known Wi-Fi hotspot detector apps you can use to find open networks during your travels.
WiFinder runs on Android devices and uses your Wi-Fi radio to scan for hotspots around you. When it finds one, it displays the network's method of encryption, channel, strength of signal, and whether the network is locked or unlocked. The app will also search for public, unlocked networks if you tell it to.
Use protection: If you're on a laptop, open your OS settings and make sure your firewall is on before hitting any free Wi-Fi love out on the open road. For mobile devices, you can install free antivirus and firewall apps like those from Lookout or Kaspersky Lab.
The most secure way to connect to public Wi-Fi networks is over a VPN, which effectively hides the identity of your device from any potential bad actors on the network. TechHive recommends the Hotspot Shield VPN app for iOS and Android.