Holiday travel: How to keep your PC connected on the road

Weird cranberry sauce recipes, rambling stories from drunken uncles, and crowded freeways aren't the only perils of traveling away from home for the Thanksgiving holiday. Finding a working Wi-Fi connection can be a pain even in these widely web-enabled times, and that holds true even if you're walking around a major metropolitan area.

Indeed, you can't even be sure your relatives will have a wireless router.

So what's a poor, laptop-lugging traveler to do? Fear not: You don’t have to wander the streets searching for a signal like a nomad seeking the next oasis in a desert. In this story, we'll cover everything you need to know about jumping online while traveling, whether that means paying a cellular provider for a Wi-Fi connection in your pocket, or searching for that next Wi-Fi hotspot on the road.

Tethering your smartphone

iPhone tethering options.

For most travelers, simply tethering your PC to your smartphone is the most economical and straightforward option for staying connected on the road. "Tethering" means broadcasting your phone's cellular data signal (3G, 4G, whatever) as a Wi-Fi signal, letting other electronics (like your laptop or tablet) siphon off your data connection. If your phone supports tethering, you basically have a Wi-Fi router in your pocket.

Many cellular providers charge extra for tethering, but if you’re a Verizon Wireless customer, you’re in luck. Thanks to a recent FTC ruling, Verizon Wireless can’t charge extra for third-party tethering app usage anymore, though the company still charges $20 per month to use your phone's native tethering capabilities. Other providers charge similar $20 to $30 premiums for this feature, or bundle it with more expensive plans. The shared data plans offered by AT&T and Verizon, for example, include hotspot functionality for phones.

Both the iPhone and Android phones have tethering options built-in, as long as your carrier allows you to use tethering. To enable this feature on an iPhone, go to the Personal Hotspot screen (Settings > General > Cellular Data > Personal Hotspot). On an Android phone, you'll find a similar feature in the Portable Wi-Fi hotspot screen (Settings > Wireless and network > Tethering and portable hotspot).

Third-party tethering options require downloading a separate app. FoxFi and PdaNet are two popular Android tethering programs. Third-party tethering apps are available for the iPhone, but they will require a jailbroken phone.

Once you're up and broadcasting, tethering your PC or tablet to your phone is usually as simple as looking for the new Wi-Fi signal. Our iPhone and Android tethering guides cover connecting to your smartphone in much greater detail.

Connecting to a mobile hotspot or USB modem

Image: AT&T
The MiFi Liberate 4G

Mobile hotspots or "MiFi" devices work the same as a tethered phone, tapping into a nationwide 3G/4G network to create a workable Wi-Fi signal for auxiliary devices like PCs and tablets. Pricing usually starts at $50 a month for data service, though you can find discounts if you sign up for a subsidized data plan when you buy your hotspot. (You'll obviously need a carrier data plan—either subsidized or prepaid—to use a mobile hotspot.)

A dedicated mobile hotspot is a solid option if your smartphone doesn't allow tethering or burns through battery charges. Mobile hotspots also work well if you want to connect to a different cellular network on the road—for example, grandma's house may be a dead zone for your particular smartphone—or you simply need more robust signal-sharing options. Most mobile hotspots offer the ability to configure secure networks and allow you to connect multiple devices so that you can hop online with several laptops, tablets, and smartphones at once. The best can handle 10 simultaneous connections and last hours and hours on a charge.

A USB modem, meanwhile, plugs into a USB drive on your computer and provides a cellular data connection for just the single PC to which it's connected. A USB modem is a good option if you only need to provide data to a single laptop, and don't want to burn through your phone's battery by tethering to it. They start around $100.

Tethering considerations

Because tethering devices tap into a cellular data connection, they're generally subject to data caps and overage fees, just as a normal smartphone would be. Consider this carefully: All the data used by your tethered devices will count toward your monthly cellular data total.

Providers generally sell mobile data by the gigabyte, and mobile data costs a lot more than its landline counterparts. Even if you can find “unlimited data,” you’ll often find that your provider will throttle your connection speed after a few gigabytes.

Image: Verizon Wireless
Tony Bradley, a PCWorld columnist, found that Verizon's coverage map hides unseen gaps.

If you think you're going to use more data as a result of your wanderings, call your carrier and see if you can pay for additional data for a brief duration. For example, Verizon lets its "Share Everything" subscribers add an additional 2GB of data to their plans for $10 per month—but only if they log into the Verizon Wireless website and pony up before hitting their cap. Otherwise, data overage fees for the plan cost $15 per 1GB.

If you’re traveling outside the country, bear in mind that you’ll probably pay roaming fees, which can be exorbitantly expensive if you're not prepared. In the past, people have been shocked to return from a foreign country to find a bill for roaming fees costing tens of thousands of dollars. Many major carriers offer international data plans, so check with yours ahead of time about possible fees and roaming plans for your destination.

You likely won’t be using a cellular tethering option to stream high-definition videos on Netflix or download large files, but it’s a great way to have access to your email and important websites anywhere you have cellular reception. Speaking of cellular reception, note that while it's widespread, it isn't universal, and speeds can vary greatly—especially in foreign countries and rural areas.

Our own Tony Bradley recently took a road trip and found that you can't rely completely on mobile broadband options. Fortunately, booming Wi-Fi availability means you might not need to lean on cellular tethering at all.

Finding free, public Wi-Fi

Image: Ian Paul
Starbucks offers free Wi-Fi for weary travelers (and hipsters).

If you’re looking for free Wi-Fi, your best bet is to find a coffee shop. Starbucks locations commonly offer free Wi-Fi, and you may not even have to buy a product to use it. (Of course, if you’re camping out in a coffee shop to use their Wi-Fi for a while, it’s only polite to actually buy something.) In some cases you may have to buy something first and request the password to the shop's Wi-Fi network. Businesses offering Wi-Fi often have a Wi-Fi sign on their window or door.

Luckily for us, free Wi-Fi is spreading to other types of businesses. For example, you’ll find free Wi-Fi in McDonalds, Starbucks, Panera Bread, some grocery stores, many bookstores, and even some car dealerships and gas stations. Of course, if you’re planning on pulling out your laptop and staying a while, you’ll probably be better off finding a cafe or restaurant rather than sitting in a grocery store’s parking lot.

You may also find free Wi-Fi in public spaces. Free Wi-Fi is spreading to public parks in various major cities, and public libraries also often offer free Wi-Fi. This will vary by location.Indeed, while you can find free Wi-Fi in public parks in New York City and Paris, you probably won’t find wireless Internet access in small-town parks.

WiFiFreeSpot.com offers a solid list of open Wi-Fi spots, but the most comprehensive list of Wi-Fi hotspots we've been able to find comes courtesy of the JiWire Wi-Fi Finder app for iOS and Android. Its database of hotspots is massive, and the app sorts hotspots by free and for-pay status. Even better, JiWire Wi-Fi Finder works offline, guiding your way to the Web in otherwise Internet-deprived locales.

Buying Wi-Fi Access

Boingo maintains thousands of global Wi-Fi hotspots.

If you’re staying in a hotel, be sure to check if it offers Wi-Fi ahead of time. Believe it or not, some hotels still do not offer Wi-Fi! Many only offer a wired Ethernet connection, while others offer no Internet access at all. If you're in a cable-only destination, the free version of Connectify can turn your Windows PC into a Wi-Fi hotspot for your phones, tablets, and other devices. (The premium offering unlocks other helpful tools.)

Some hotels offer Wi-Fi for free to all their guests, while some charge extra for the privilege—usually about $10 to $15 a day. You can often pay for Wi-Fi access while booking your room. If you don’t buy Wi-Fi access ahead of time, you can generally contact the front desk when you’re there and purchase Wi-Fi access, assuming the hotel actually offers it, of course.

Airports often offer Wi-Fi, too. Some airports offer free Wi-Fi. Others offer time-limited Wi-Fi and charge you for additional time. And still others charge for all Wi-Fi access entirely. You can check an airport’s website for information before you go if you’re curious. Any time spent off the cellular networks saves you data and, by extension, money.

Many airports and other locations that offer paid Wi-Fi access use Boingo. While you can buy hourly or pay-as-you-go Wi-Fi access at these locations, you can also easily connect to paid Boingo Wi-Fi hotspots and get unlimited usage if you’re paying for a Boingo subscription. The cost varies by location, with unlimited access to Boingo hotspots costing $10 a month in North America, $35 a month in Europe, and $59 a month globally for two devices. If you’ll be travelling near a lot of Boingo hotspots—you can view Boingo hotspots by location on Boingo’s website, and download their location for offline use—this may be a good deal, particularly in North America.

Alternatively, you could always go the tried and true "Internet cafe" route, though they may be difficult to find away from larger cities.

Wi-Fi On Your Journey

Many Amtrack trips and stations offer free Wi-Fi for customers.

You can also go online while travelling. If you’re flying within the US, you’ll be happy to know that in-flight Wi-Fi has become fairly common, although it’s not free and not available for all routes. A Gogo in-flight Wi-Fi pass for a single day will cost you $14 if you buy before you fly. If you’re a frequent traveller, you can pay $40 for a monthly pass. These prices go up if you wait until you’re on the plane to pay. However, in-flight Wi-Fi is still fairly rare in other parts of the world, so don’t count on having it if you’re flying out of the US.

Wi-Fi is also becoming more common on trains, such as Amtrak in the United States, where Wi-Fi is included free of charge. As with airlines, Wi-Fi is not available on all routes. Look ahead of time to see if you’ll have Wi-Fi on your train journey.

Free Wi-Fi has even spread to some bus lines, such as the BoltBus that travels between major destinations in the northeast and Pacific northwest.

Bear in mind that Wi-Fi on planes, trains, and busses is in its infancy and may not work perfectly. You may experience slowness or connection drops during some parts of your journey, so don't plan on nailing that crucial frag in a championship gaming round while you're in transit.

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