Upgrade Your Life

How To Get Free Wi-Fi Almost Anywhere

Becky Worley
Upgrade Your Life

You work in your car; you practically live in it. And when you need to maximize the mobile office otherwise known as the front seat, sometimes you need to access Wi-Fi without schlepping all your papers and gear into a cafe. But how can you tap into the best signal from the parking lot? Plenty of tools can help with this road warrior's dilemma, including the big issue — finding Wi-Fi.

Where To Find Free Wi-Fi
For Android and Windows phones, there's an app called Wefi; and for both Android and iPhone, there's one called Wi-Fi Finder. Apps like these use your location to find the nearest hotspot — and even tell you if it's free or if you'll need to pay or get a code.

And even if you don't have a smartphone, here are some of the chains that generally offer free Wi-Fi:

  • Starbucks: somewhere near 10,000 locations with Wi-Fi in the US alone
  • McDonalds: over 11,000 US locations, 1,000-plus in Canada and the UK

Other chains that often, but not always, offer free Wi-Fi:

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  • FedEx
  • Whole Foods
  • Office Depot
  • Panera
  • Corner Bakery Cafes
  • Denny's
  • Dunkin' Donuts

And even — not necessarily endorsing this one — Hooters.

This site has a pretty good list of chains offering Wi-Fi by state.

Do You Have To Go Inside?
Sure, you can always go in and get a coffee, but I know there are plenty of times when I need both Wi-Fi and a reasonably private place to make a phone call.

So the real question: if you don't go inside, how's the signal? This surely varies according to the individual franchise, what kind of transmitter they have, and how close you can park to it. But I spent a day driving from parking lot to parking lot, verifying the signal in the parking lots of local (Dublin, California) chain establishments. The results as read by my laptop's Wi-Fi connection:

  • Starbucks: 5/5 bars
  • McDonald's: 3/5 bars
  • Panera: 4/5 bars
  • Fedex: 4/5 bars
  • Hooters: 2/5 bars

Enhancing Reception
Add-on antennas, can increase your computer's access to Wi-Fi. I tested this antenna from Hiro and it worked well, improving my signal by about 2 bars in some of the parking lots. Also, try switching plugging your laptop in instead of going off battery. If you use an inverter that powers your laptop from your car's cigarette lighter, it will switch your laptop out of power-saving mode. This is important, because on many laptops, battery mode settings reduce the power allocated to the internal Wi-Fi antenna — and that can reduce your access to a signal.

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