Sure, you can do a lot on a smartphone, phablet, or slate, but there are times when only a laptop will do. Unfortunately, situations like this always seem to pop-up while I’m on the road with no obvious Internet access.
But have no fear, weary traveler. This is no time to cave and start paying for Wi-Fi. Instead, put this three-step plan for finding free(ish) Wi-Fi into action before you even think about paying for that Boingo or Gogo day pass.
When you’re on the hunt for free Wi-Fi the first thing to do is ask yourself if you’ve got default access to free hotspots already. If you’re a Comcast subscriber, for example, you’ve got access to millions of free Wi-Fi hotspots across the U.S. Verizon FiOS subscribers also get free Wi-Fi access at thousands of locations, as do AT&T customers.
Check with your wireless carrier, Internet service provider (ISP), and your cable company to see if you’ve got free access to Wi-Fi hotspots as part of your service. Then see if any of those spots are near where you’ll be traveling.
Beyond your own subscriptions, there are also numerous major and regional chains with free Wi-Fi, such as Panera Bread, Starbucks, and many McDonald’s locations. You can also often find free Wi-Fi in libraries and public parks in larger cities.
If you come empty after scouring for national chains and free access from you’re various service providers, then it’s time to turn to your smartphone.
There are many apps that will help you find free Wi-Fi. A popular choice is WiFi Finder for Android and iOS. This app has a database of 650,000 Wi-Fi hotspots worldwide.
Comcast subscribers can also grab the Xfinity WiFi app for Android, which tells you where the closest Comcast hotspot is. WiFiFreeSpot.com maintains a comprehensive list of public Wi-Fi hotspots, though its database is largely US-centric and more clunky than the other Wi-Fi-finding options.
So you’ve exhausted your search for free Wi-Fi. There are no chains with free Wi-Fi and your home ISP hasn’t got a nearby hotspot, but you absolutely have to get online with your laptop. Now is the time to consider using your smartphone or broadband-enabled tablet as a Wi-Fi hotspot or USB-connected tether.
Most modern smartphones allow for tethering. The iPhone definitely does, and most modern Android and Windows Phones do too—though some carriers may make you pay extra to tether to your phone, depending on the specifics of your mobile plan. Third-party tethering apps can help you sidestep that, though.
But here’s the thing about tethering: It’s a great solution in a pinch when you have no other option, but it’s often not a sterling experience.
Many people complain of frequent dropped connections and slow performance, not to mention the hit your phone battery takes even when it’s getting a bit of a charge from your laptop.
Beyond the technical considerations, however, there’s also the issue of your carrier and data plan. If you don’t have an unlimited data plan, or at least a generous serving of monthly data, you can go way over your bandwidth limits pretty quickly.
You can offset this a little bit in Windows 8.1 by setting your tether as a metered connection, as well as turning off any sync apps like Dropbox and OneDrive. If you end up using your tethered connection a bunch, consider a proper mobile hotspot like a MiFi or a laptop card instead.
Just pay up
Finally, if I can’t get free Wi-Fi and tethering won’t work, then it’s time to look at paying for Wi-Fi. Sorry to break it to you.
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Ian is an independent writer based in Israel who has never met a tech subject he didn't like. He primarily covers Windows, PC and gaming hardware, video and music streaming services, social networks, and browsers. When he's not covering the news he's working on how-to tips for PC users, or tuning his eGPU setup.