Travel Tips: Finding an Internet Connection

Assuming you’ve already figured out how to keep your laptop powered on your next major jaunt across the continent, staying connected to the Web is your next major travel hurdle. After all, Solitaire and a handful of movies can keep you entertained for a bit, but what you really brought a laptop for is e-mail, Web surfing, Skype, and all the other niceties of connectivity. So, how do you tap into the Internet when your friendly home Ethernet cable is dangling under an empty desk 1,000 miles away? Read on.

Find free Wi-Fi

This option will undoubtedly be the most tempting to a majority of people, since it doesn’t require any special hardware (assuming you have a Wi-Fi card) and costs nothing. The trick, of course, is locating that oasis of free Internet connectivity in a desert of impossibly weak connections and password-protected private routers.

Sites like or, which map Wi-Fi access points, can be a good start, but only if you’re absolutely sure of where you’ll be needing the Web. For instance, if you know the location of the hotel you’ll be staying at, these tools can be a handy way of seeing if there’s anything free nearby. But be warned: getting on-site will likely turn up all sorts of unforeseen problems, like when you realize you can’t connect unless your huddling in the doorway, or perched halfway out the window. Access points also spring up and close down frequently, so it’s best to do your Wi-Fi searching on the fly.

In a dense city, a walk down the street, checking for new networks or stronger signals every other block or so, will usually do the trick. Best bets usually include routers with unaltered names like “default,” “linksys,” and “belkin54g,” which almost always indicate an open door to the Web. In smaller cities, or more suburban areas, a car is a better idea to cover the distance between hotspots, and gives you a place to sit as you surf, too. Try, if you can, to put the notebook toward the windshield to minimize interference from the car’s metal body.

If you’re unable to stumble upon something, it might be better to pick a destination where free Wi-Fi is likely to be and head straight there to minimize wasted time. Motels and hotels often offer it free with rooms, and many coffee shops and cafes offer it free to lure in latte-sipping Web surfers, too.

Buy Internet access

If you’re not one for “the thrill of the hunt” and would rather just pay for Internet and be done with it, a number of locations make that a possibility, too. Several large chains like Starbucks and McDonalds offer paid Wi-Fi standard in their stores, which are nearly ubiquitous across the U.S. You can also buy subscription-based Wi-Fi from carriers like Boingo, AT&T and T-Mobile, offering you access to a whole network of hotspots (Boingo has over 100,000 worldwide) for a monthly fee. These services are far preferable to paying just one vendor, like a convention center, which will probably only offer you a couple hours of access for $10 or more.

Get a wireless card

True road warriors know that the best road to mobile connectivity isn’t cheap at all, but it gets the job done better than any of the others. Buying a wireless Internet card from a carrier like AT&T, Sprint or Verizon will allow you to pull down info from the Web wherever you have cell signal using a ExpressCard or USB modem. This nearly eliminates the hunting-for-signal game altogether, and unlike paying for a hotspot, you’re not out of luck when you wander outside to grab a bite to eat or leave for the day.

However, keep in mind that those blazing fast 3G speeds you hear about everywhere, aren’t everywhere. Though exact areas of 3G coverage vary by carrier, generally they only exist in metropolitan areas. So while you’ll be zinging along quickly at that Manhattan hotel, you’ll barely be crawling at the Motel 6 off Route 70 in Kansas. In most cases, the modem will retain connectivity, so you won’t be off the grid entirely, but if you’re a frequent rural traveler, you might need to reevaluate whether the price is really worth hanging onto the Web by a thread.

Look to the sky

Going really out of the way? No, we mean really out of the way. When even the nearest cell phone tower is laughably distant, you need a whole different breed of wireless connectivity: the type that only satellites can deliver.

Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) service, provided by the British company Inmarsat, can connect you pretty much anywhere on the planet, from the Sahara to the Amazon. Ever wonder how CNN reporters push live reports out of warzones? This is the same technology.

As you might expect, it’s not cheap. Just the most basic hardware to even connect your laptop to the satellite system runs for thousand dollars (at least), and pushing or pulling a megabyte might run you anywhere between $5 and $10. For the wealthy explorer who needs to send off a few boastful e-mails from the beach in Angola, though, it’s not an unreasonable option.