Tips: Finding free wi-fi on the Holiday Road
How many Americans would you guess will be traveling next week, either heading to the airport or taking to America's safe highways for a get-together with friends and family for Thanksgiving?
Well, I don't know. But I bet it's a lot.
And if you're one of them, there's a good chance that at one time or another you'll be looking for a way to get online while you're on the road.
Pretty everyone knows they can find free wi-fi at a Starbucks. They're usually pretty good about providing power outlets near their tables and chairs, too, if you need to top off the battery on your phone or laptop.
But our photographers have learned that most McDonald's restaurants — 11,000 of the 14,000 across the nation — offer free wi-fi these days, too. That's proved pretty useful when we're covering tropical storms, since those hotspots are usually left powered and broadcasting even during evacuations. To send their photos from the field, our photogs can pull up in the parking lot and get online without getting out of their car. (A Miss Manners wi-fi etiquette tip: If you're using a business's free wi-fi, it's good manners to buy something. I'd suggest a cup of coffee or an apple pie — but something.)
Many hotels and motels provide free wi-fi as well, and even those whose networks are password-protected are often friendly enough to share logon instructions if you ask nicely.
In a pinch, I've had good luck using wi-fi at truck stops, too, although they'll usually charge you a a few bucks an hour. It'd be nice if you could pay for a day's access at one location and use it at any other location in the same chain — and maybe you can, but I've never had that experience.
If you have some time before you leave, you should explore activating the portable hotspot feature on your phone, too, if one is offered. I usually pay Verizon an extra $20 to activate the feature on my iPhone 4S for a month. It's pretty steep, but the 2GB of cellular data it adds to my plan is worth it, too.
(They're clever about how they structure that pricing, aren't they? The basic 2GB of data a month is almost always going to be too little for me; the next plan up is way too much. Activating that mobile hotspot feature is a good middle ground, in my case.)
But if you're using a wi-fi hotspot you find along your travels to do anything that involves your personal information — shopping, banking, possibly email, etc. — be sure to keep security in mind. Your best bet is to use a VPN service (it stands for virtual public networking) to keep snoopers from eavesdropping on your data. If your employer offers VPN for traveling employees, your friends in IT might be able to help you set it up. Otherwise, there are paid services like WiTopia that can set you up for $5 or $6 for a month.
If you find yourself doing a lot of your banking or online shopping while sipping coffee in public, you should probably consider signing up for year-round VPN service and using it whenever you're away from home. (You've already secured your home wi-fi network, obviously, right?) But even if not, that $5 or $6 is definitely worth it while you're headed home for the holidays.