The Best Tool for Finding Free Wi-Fi On the Road: Resourcefulness

If you don't have tools like MiFi or satellite Internet, you may often have to go to other businesses to get your WiFi. Although this may sound like a daunting task, it is possible to do work from the road using only WiFi provided by local businesses as proven by todays guest bloggers, Sue and Joel from Canfield of Dreams.

Like most people, our primary experience with Internet access has been our own DSL/Cable/whatever at home and office, peppered with the occasional trip to Starbucks. When we chose to become a nomadic family, finding Internet access on the road hit our radar. We're both virtual workers conducting virtually all our business over the Internet and telephone. Our plan as nomads is three weeks house sitting here, four weeks with friends over there, with short trips in between. Most of our Internet needs would be met wherever we're staying. Since we're hopeless email addicts and occasionally have client deadlines that won't wait, we realized we would have to find Internet access while we were on the road.
I'm sure you would love a link to a website where you could enter your zip code and find all the free wi-fi in that area. I don't have it. I suspect no one does. The Internet is in its infancy and free wi-fi is embryonic.
At this early stage in its development, the best tool for finding free wi-fi as you travel is your own resourcefulness. If you're used to the stability of your own Internet connection at home or in the office, it might not occur to you to simply drive through residential areas with a laptop looking for a connection. And yet, that is an extremely effective method of finding Internet access.
We're certainly not advocating trespassing or any kind of sneaky, unethical behavior. In the past most wireless networks were secured. This was partly to prevent the bad guys from getting in; but mostly because in those days Internet access was metered. Yes, folks, there was a time when you could not buy unlimited Internet access. What that meant was a single neighbor casually watching a movie over your Internet connection could use up your month's allocation of bandwidth in 90 minutes. It just made sense to limit access to a limited resource. Metered Internet access is almost impossible to find in the U.S. these days. Unlimited access is becoming the norm most places, thus removing the primary reason to secure a wireless connection.
A note about security. As a 20-year veteran of computer networking and security, I would suggest that you have someone that knows what they're doing check the security configuration of your personal computer. It's just good sense. There is a difference between securing your computer and locking down the inherent sharing capabilities of your wireless equipment. It's also my personal belief that if the bad guys want into your machine or network, they'll get in. Ease of use versus security is always a trade off. When it comes to sharing wireless networks, I lean strongly toward openness. I depend on the configuration of my individual computers to protect me from casual unfriendlies.
Most of my acquaintances leave their wireless networks open and unsecured. They're not afraid of hackers and actively encourage others to share their unlimited Internet usage. If you're driving through a small business area or residential neighborhood and notice an open, unsecured network, chances are very good that its owner has left it open with the intent of sharing it. We are bombarded with information about security almost daily. I personally find it hard to believe the average person could accidentally leave their wireless network unsecured. However, if for any reason the idea of what was once known as 'war driving', cruising a neighborhood looking for an open network, bothers you, there are alternatives.
If your travels take you through a large city, you will find a Starbucks, a Perkins Family restaurant, a Radio Shack or some other small business offering free wi-fi. If you Google the words 'free wi-fi' and the name of the place you're in, I'll be astonished if you get less than a dozen possible options. Again, for those of you who might, like me, be a little hesitant to 'take advantage', I have been delighted by the welcoming attitude of the folks who've given us free wi-fi along the way. The Wired Monk in Surrey, BC, Canada, the Starbucks in Rapid City, South Dakota, the Northern Exposure Computer Center in Torrington, Wyoming--all thanked us for visiting them and encouraged us to use their free wi-fi even if we didn't buy a thing. In today's economy, generosity is rapidly becoming an important marketing tool. If you're passing a Starbucks, need Internet and don't need coffee, they'll welcome you with open arms. You're not taking advantage; you're simply accepting the generosity they offer.
We found Internet connections in unlikely places. Driving across the wide open spaces of South Dakota we stopped in a small town, parked outside a classic car museum and connected to the Internet while Sue checked on a client project. Before shutting down she realized the wireless connection was from an RV Park we couldn't even see, not the building we were parked in front of.
The Radio Shack in Torrington, Wyoming was a surprise. We drove through this small town looking for our usual suspects, major chain coffee shop or restaurant, Internet cafe advertised as such, and saw nothing. Sue walked into the Radio Shack and asked where we might find a wi-fi connection, assuming that the local geeks would have it wired. And we were invited to use theirs--absolutely free. They even gave our little girl two scoops of ice cream for the price of one. So there's another angle. If you can't find an Internet connection on your own, stop anywhere that people are used to being asked for directions or where they may know the local computer landscape and ask. We've had excellent results every time.
Sometimes it's just a matter of trying. My mother has never owned a computer and may never own a computer. We expected during our three-day stop with her to find Internet access elsewhere. But when we opened our laptops we found an excellent connection while sitting comfortably in her living room. It was stable and powerful for our entire visit. I hadn't even planned on checking.
There are websites which are trying to aggregate real life information about open wi-fi hot spots. If you like, contribute the hot spots you found to one of these, or use them to find wi-fi near you. But your most powerful tools for finding wi-fi on the road are a little bit of resourcefulness and the willingness to try.
Joel D and Sue L Canfield and their little one, Fiona, are conducting a nomadic experiment. September 30th of 2010 they gave up their fixed place of residence to travel the U.S. and Canada and they hope eventually the world. You can read about their adventures as they happen at where you can also pre-order the book they're writing and the movie they're making and even make arrangements for them to come visit you.