Drive-by Wi-Fi: Staying connected on the road

Once upon a time, it was a real adventure to try to find Wi-Fi as you tooled about the countryside in (or on) your vehicle of choice. Snagging free Wi-Fi was even harder. These days, however, local and national merchants are competing to draw customers in by providing wireless service, and chances are good that you’ll find a source of free Wi-Fi at any freeway exit or town. But you can still save a lot of time if you know where to look, and the best places for Wi-Fi might surprise you.

Want fries with that?

You’re probably aware of some of the national chains that usually have free Wi-Fi (and are typically close to highway exits), such as Denny’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Hooters, and Starbucks. Other chains offer the service, too, and I found that a large number of the local businesses at the end of the freeway off-ramp now provide free Wi-Fi as well. Usually Wi-Fi is prominently advertised, so you won’t have to look too hard.

McDonald’s is your Wi-Fi friend on the road. Image: Jon L. Jacobi

Although it might rub some foodies the wrong way, the most prevalent free wireless throughout the country is found at McDonald’s. Personally, I think McFries (in moderation) are one of the best things ever created, but the fast food giant’s embrace of Wi-Fi ranks right up there too. In my cross-country travels, I found that at McDonald’s you usually can get online access simply by clicking through a portal page, but on occasion you might have to ask an employee for a password. Coverage is also quite good in the drive-through and in parking-lot spaces that are close to the building.

Far less consistently, I’ve been able to find free Wi-Fi at other off-the-interstate places such as Sam’s Club and Walmart, and at local shopping malls (no doubt to pacify bored husbands waiting for their wives outside the shops). You can also find free Wi-Fi at many auto-repair shops, where customers typically endure a lengthy wait.

Draft that semi

Travel America now offers for-pay Wi-Fi service at all of its truck stops and travel centers.

No, don’t pull up directly behind one of these beasts, where a disintegrating retread could ruin your day (or worse). Just notice where they stop. Large truck-stop chains such as Flying J, Love’s, Pilot, and TA are another reliable source of Wi-Fi, catering to a new breed of trucker who operates his business almost completely online. In most cases you’ll have to pay for the service, 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.

Truck stops and ‘travel stops’ are good places to find free Wi-Fi. Image: Jon L. Jacobi

If you don’t need fast Wi-Fi, you can find a Mickey D’s or some other fast food chain nearby for a free (if a little slower) connection. So don’t resign yourself to the pay service immediately.

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.

Motels and hotels

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. I’ve even pulled up and used a motel’s Wi-Fi to book a room at the Internet rate, which is sometimes lower than the rate available at the front desk.

Even if the network is password protected, the friendlier locales 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. Just remember that some businesses may block certain sites, like Facebook, to prevent their employees from wasting time at work.

For a number of years, one of the best places to find free Wi-Fi has been the public library. You might have to ask for a passcode, but many times not. Years ago I parked next to one in Alabama at 11 p.m., and got online just fine.

Mind your Wi-Fi karma

Most roadside stops don’t mind your using a small amount of their bandwidth for a short period of time if it’s for a good reason. Just remember that someone else is paying for what you are using, so it’s good practice to go inside and give your wireless benefactor a little patronage—buy some fries, coffee, gas, or whatever the business happens to be selling. Call it good Wi-Fi karma: You’ll be helping to ensure that the Wi-Fi will remain available and free for the next person.

Wi-Fi finder apps

Apps for both Android and iOS, such as JiWire’s Free Wi-Fi Finder, can tell you where to grab free Wi-Fi. The catch is that you need at least a marginal data connection to use them, and their coverage is rather urban-centric.

JiWire’s free Wi-Fi finder app. Image: JiWire

WeFi Pro runs in the background of your Android device, connecting automatically to the strongest available open Wi-Fi network. It logs in and reconnects automatically, even turning your device’s Wi-Fi feature on if it’s off.

WiFi Manager lists available connections, as well as their signal strength and security status. It also displays the channel each network is using so that you can choose a network that isn’t stepping on others. (Networks in close proximity running on the same channel may create interference.)

Most users can do just fine with the Wi-Fi utilities built into the operating system of their device.

Last but not least, if you really want to get the most from your Wi-Fi-enabled devices while you’re exploring the scenic beauty that’s to be found across the United States, turn those gadgets off and leave them in the trunk. You may miss them for a day, but you’ll soon experience the curious sense of freedom that comes with a life unburdened by the need for constant communications.

This story, "Drive-by Wi-Fi: Staying connected on the road" was originally published by TechHive.

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