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Best Locations To Find Free Wireless Internet Access (WiFi Hotspots)

Published 7/3/08 (Modified 3/8/11)
By MoneyBlueBook

While I have my own convenient and jack-rabbity-fast high speed broadband connection at home, sometimes I just want to get out of the house for a change of scenery. Ever since I began the gradual transition from traditional office life to the work from home routine, I've noticed that it can sometimes be pretty boring working from the confines of one's own house or apartment all the time. While working from home on the computer is great because it's nice to be your own boss, loneliness and lack of human contact can become troubling issues, especially if you are working by yourself all the time. While it's certainly very convenient to do business related work from one's home office (necessary supplies, kitchen amenities, and even bathroom conveniences are only a few steps away), the work at home experience can be plagued by boredom and frequent feelings of isolation. Once in a while, I just want to pick up my laptop and head out to some cafe, restaurant, or public location, and momentarily work at an Internet accessible place where there's random people milling about. That way I don't feel so cut off from the real world.

One's Home Office Can Be Any Cafe, Restaurant, Or Public Park With Free WiFi and Electrical Outlet Access

Since I'm trying to transition into running my own home based businesses full time and no longer work frequent contract attorney projects as a result, I no longer have an Internet equipped office computer outside of my home that I can go to everyday to get me in the right day job mindset. Sometimes it's difficult to work from home because it just doesn't feel like a real work zone and it's so easy to get distracted and sidetracked. After all, my bedroom, home office desk computer, and television entertainment gadgets are only a few feet apart from each other. So at least once or twice a week, I enjoy driving out to local public places to swap my home office for a more productive working environment.

As a savvy saver and frugal fellow, I prefer to seek out suitable local neighborhood businesses and public work spaces that offer free but necessary business amenities like convenient restroom access, proximity to drinks and food, and most important of all - free or very affordable wireless internet access. While not all places provide truly free wireless Internet for customers (instead requiring them to purchase usage time or limiting free surfing to only an hour or two), there are places that do provide this particular perk. Free Wi-Fi hotspots are everywhere - at the mall, the park, in public places where people gather - you just need to know where to look. Many major fast food chain restaurants and many sit down coffee cafe shops provide free wireless hotspot services for customers to enjoy. Often times they don't even require you to purchase anything - although I'd recommend that you at least buy a coffee or a light snack. You don't need to purchase a three course meal, but on principle, you don't want to be a freeloader do you? Speaking of eating and working at the same time, I do however at times question the wisdom of placing an expensive laptop in very close proximity to food and drink. Just be careful - your laptop and your caramel macchiato drink don't mix!

The last few days, I purposely visited various popular WiFi hotspot locations to confirm and inspect the business' free wireless Internet service offerings. Below, I've listed the places I've found to be the most widely available and easily found free wireless Internet locales. So long as you have a portable notebook computer that is WiFi enabled that you can suitably lug around, you are good to go for free web surfing. All you'll need to do is run the wireless signal manager, search for the target business' public wireless network name (also called the SSID), and you should be able to connect instantly to the WiFi service. For habitual free WiFi hotspot seekers who browse the Internet for hours at a time, I recommend investing in extra long lasting laptop batteries. Some of the places below either don't offer electrical outlets for customers to use, or simply don't have sufficient numbers to go around.

Some Of The Top WiFi Hotspot Places To Enjoy Free Wireless Internet

1) Panera Bread - This place is one of my favorite free wireless hotspot destinations for unlimited use. Panera has become a very popular choice for young professionals and home business types who want a relaxing place to access the web for free, while enjoying a tasty sandwich, hot soup, or one of their delicious salads at the same time (please bring back the Fuji apple chicken salad). There are lots of tables and electrical outlets available, but single Internet users should focus on the small tables, and leave the bigger ones for groups. The cafe is a common meeting location for small businesses and sometimes you'll see such meetings take place in corners - as the place has sort of a trendy, Internet cafe vibe to it (at least that's the case for the one near where I live). Panera Bread is a popular choice for free WiFi seekers but its popularity also causes greater strain on the shared Internet connection. I found the WiFi access speed to be very slow during peak usage times. Avoid using the WiFi from 12 pm to 2 pm if you can since that is when most people try to get on. Panera also heavily filters out many (ahem) questionable websites - I'm sure some of you hanky panky web surfers are disappointed.

2) Corner Bakery - Right around the corner (pun very much intended) is the Corner Bakery, which offers free WiFi for unlimited use and is also a great place to relax, eat, and surf the web for free. There is no obligation to buy anything either, although Corner Bakery offers quite a selection of pretty decent pastas, sandwiches, and soups. Corner Bakery franchises seem to be located mostly in the major states. As for the WiFi, I think few people are aware that Corner Bakery offers free wireless Internet for patrons, which probably explains why there's less connection crowding. The WiFi speeds were much faster and less congested than that offered by other restaurants, including Panera. Electrical outlets are not plentiful, but they are available at certain tables.

3) McDonald's - While McDonald's used to charge for extended wireless Internet usage at participating restaurants, they've recently started to offer free unlimited WiFi use. Free WiFi access is now being offered at most McDonald locations. There is no obligation to buy - just power up your laptop computer and surf to your heart's content. However, you might want to get used to nosy people peeking at your screen over your shoulder - McDonald restaurants are usually filled with all sorts of interesting characters. Also, aside from the unhealthy aspects of McDonald's fast food choices, one other big problem with McDonald's is that their restaurants lack electrical outlets. I wasn't able to find a single outlet for my laptop.

4) Starbucks - While Starbucks coffee shops have started to offer free wireless internet access for coffee and tea drinking customers, this top free WiFi hotspot needs a little asterisk next to it. While WiFi use at Starbucks is indeed free, it's only currently free for a single use of two consecutive hours at a time. Since Starbucks switched from T-Mobile to AT&T, customers must now register their Starbucks Card and use it at least once a month (buy a drink with it), to receive two consecutive hours a day of free internet use. While it's not unlimited use, I needed to mention Starbucks, if only because of the fact that they have locations almost everywhere.

5) Caribou Coffee - I like Caribou coffee drinks much more than the unremarkable ones brewed at Starbucks, so I prefer to hang out at Caribou more often than I do at Starbucks. However, Caribou locations are not as widely available as Starbucks. But at Caribou, WiFi internet use is completely free and usage is unlimited. There is no demand that you actually purchase a drink, but it's probably advisable to do so as a courtesy. If you want to use your laptop in a trendy environment decked out in wood to look like some type of ski lodge, Caribou's the place to be. Plus, their daily trivia questions are not only whimsically interesting, but getting them right can also help you save a few cents off your drink!

6) Schlotzsky's - Schlotzsky's, like the slogan says, has a funny name, but provides serious sandwiches. If you enjoy relatively healthy deli sandwiches, subs, and wraps, this is a nice place to hang out. This New York style deli sandwich chain provides free wireless Internet access for its customers through its Cool Cloud wireless network. Most locations also provide free computer workstations for laptop-less customers to jump online and browse.

7) Public Library - While there seems to be plenty of odd and quirky folks who hang out at public libraries, not to mention the hordes of kids everywhere, I like public libraries, mostly because of the comfortable presence of people that it affords work at home entrepreneurs like myself. Most local libraries provide a wealth of free county sponsored services, including free wireless Internet access. Your tax dollars pay for them so you might as well take full advantage when you can. Most public county libraries also have free computers for patrons to use although sometimes you'll need to sign up for a library card to access them. Because there are usually a large number of simultaneously connected users, public library connections are notoriously slower than average. I recommend bringing along electrical extension cords in case available electrical outlets are not conveniently located next to your desired table. Based on my observations, public libraries seem less strict about patrons stringing cables and cords around anyway.

8) Local University Library or Study Lounge - I recently returned to my alma mater's university library to see if I could still access the library's internet connections for free. Unfortunately my old school doesn't provide free WiFi access for non active students, even for an alumnus such as myself. Students are required to log onto the network with secured passwords, and unauthorized laptops are denied Internet access. However, at another local college, I was able to access the school's free wireless signal from a study lounge area, despite not being a student there. While not exactly publicly available, the signal wasn't restricted. If you're lucky to find a free university library WiFi signal, you're quite fortunate. University wireless signals tend to be extremely fast and rarely congested - perfect for home business workers who want a change of scenery.

9) Unsecured Wireless Router - This one is controversial, but another interesting way to work somewhere besides from your home computer is to find a public work space where you can obtain a freely available WiFi signal from some random person's wireless router. While most home network owners are getting better at securing and protecting their wireless broadcast signals, there are still some people who either purposely choose not to or neglect to do so (like my neighbor). If you don't have ethical qualms about doing so, it's an option. Be careful though, open wireless networks make it easy for hackers and evil-doers to access your computer and intercept data that you submit through the connection. I don't think it's very likely as it requires some fancy knowhow, but it's a possibility. Keep in mind, while I've done this before in the past, this grey area practice is fraught with debatable legal issues.

10) Public Parks or Certain Downtown Areas - In the downtown city area close to where I live, my local city government has decided to shell out money to provide free public WiFi access for all city residents that frequent the heavily trafficked area. The wireless signal area is populated by restaurants, shops, and lots of open sitting spaces - perfect for those who desire to work on the Internet and enjoy the great outdoors at the same time. In major metropolitan areas like New York City, there are lots of public places where the city government has provided complimentary wireless Internet signals for free public use. The only drawback with these places is that electrical outlets are usually nonexistent.

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11 Responses to “Best Locations To Find Free Wireless Internet Access (WiFi Hotspots)” 

  1. Michele says:

    I love Panera for free wi-fi. I drove cross country a couple of years ago, and they leave their wi-fi on at night, so at midnight, I could pull into the parking lot, park close to the outdoor dining area (the wifi extends out there) and check my email right in my car. It made it a lot easier than tracking down which hotel had free wifi. I made liberal use of libraries during that trip as well.

  2. Raymond says:

    Michele,

    Panera is definitely one of the old free Wifi favorites out there for many. Too bad they're now becoming a victim of their own success. So many customers try to use the Panera Wifi network now, that Internet congestion is becoming a major problem. Of course, browsing their wireless Internet signal in the middle of the night from the parking lot is one way to get around this problem :)

  3. Julie says:

    Lots of hotels offer free wifi in the public areas too (even if they charge for it in the guest rooms, the lobby is usually free). There's often an abundance of comfy, lounge-type seating too. If there are public outdoor areas, such as patio space, the free wifi often extends there.

  4. Doug says:

    Ah yes, free wifi. As a traveling salesman who seldom knows how far he is going to get on a particular day. I like to use wifi to find a local hotel. Now that Hotwire will accept late night reservations for same day I can pull into any church parking lot and usually find a signal to make a quick reservation in the next town. They are normally high speed and seldom protected. Along with Pres Bush the good Lord can censor my messages. Travel safely.

  5. Hops says:

    Great list! I pay for my own internet access at home, but sometimes I just need to get out of my apartment before I go stir crazy. (I freelance, btw.) There's a Panera and a Starbucks within a few blocks of my apartment, but I always go to Panera because I never want to mess with all the red tape at Starbucks. Plus, I don't need to be spending $5.15 for coffee anyway.

  6. Rebecca says:

    OMG! Thanks for the list of WiFi Hot Spots! I write from home and as Hops says "I just need to get out of my apartment before I go stir crazy." I never even thought to go Panera Bread or the library and utilize their WiFi. I just stay in my apartment and type away on the computer. Well, no more! You inspired me to get out there and test the WiFi waters. I better buy a computer case.

  7. Guest says:

    A good list of wifi hotspots can be found at http://localwifisearch.com

  8. Trevor says:

    Use Schlotzsky's all the time. At lunch, in between we enjoy great food and catch up on email, news, etc. Most of the stores in Dallas, Tx have access so we have flexability also.

  9. tiresias says:

    also, try "coffee bean and tea leaf" for unlimited free wifi

  10. WIFI!!!! says:

    my mom wont let me go to anyplace HELP!!!!!111

  11. Raymond says:

    WIFI!,

    You can always try piggy backing off of your neighbor's free wireless internet signal. The ethics and legality are somewhat questionable by some standards, but it might be worth a try perhaps. Haha I know I'm going to catch some flack for suggesting this for sure.

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