Here are ten businesses I look for in any neighborhood when I need to surf the web or access things online. This additional service is a big draw for a penny-pincher like myself: I have no interest in paying for such access, so instead I look for businesses that offer free wireless to their customers. Since chain businesses appear in many neighborhoods and are easy to find, I often look for these first, as I can just wander in, fire up my laptop, and find some ‘net access. In fact, as I write this, I’m browsing the ‘net from a comfortable chair at my local Panera Bread.
Some people have suggested that I look into the T-Mobile Hotspot service, but I’m looking for free wireless. If I get desperate, I know I can turn to a Starbucks or a Borders or a Kinkos if I want to pay for the service, but why pay when you can get it for free other places?
Speaking of Panera, I make it a regular stop on lazy mornings when I’m on the road. Almost every Panera location in the United States offers free wireless to its customers. Panera’s website offers many more details on their wireless access, along with a restaurant locator. Also, their food prices are quite reasonable for the quality that you receive; it’s a great place to pick up a delicious sandwich and a bowl of soup on a cold winter day.
Most Caribou Coffee locations already have wireless access and according to a recent press release, they’re in the process of rolling things out nationwide. It also helps that Caribou Coffee has much better coffee than other popular chains *coughStarbuckscough*. You do have to keep buying beverages if you sit there for hours, though, as their access code changes on the hour; thankfully, their prices are fairly reasonable and the coffee is quite tasty.
Courtyard by Marriott
When travelling, I try hard to get into a Courtyard by Marriott if at all possible. Why? The prices are reasonable and every room has wi-fi access. If I’m driving on the interstate and my eyes are starting to get heavy, the Courtyard logo is one that I keep my eye out for. Other chains are starting to offer this, but Courtyard has been offering it everywhere for quite a while and I know from experience that their service is good. Some locations offer only free wired connections, but a Courtyard is a sure bet for finding internet connectivity.
Although it’s not the most relaxing environment, Office Depots almost always have wireless access available. I find, though, that if I go to an out-of-the-way corner, I can usually surf and email for as long as I want and I’m left alone by the staff. Usually, I’m not alone in this endeavor.
A large percentage of McDonalds have free wireless access available to customers. Although their food is sometimes questionable, the coffee is hot, the soda is cold, and you can often find a quiet corner to hide out in. Not all McDonalds have wireless access yet, so you might want to check with their website and restaurant locator first; it tells you whether a certain location has wi-fi or not.
Unsurprisingly, CompUSA offers pretty universal wireless access. The stores usually don’t offer convenient places for browsing, but it works well enough for quick accesses when you’re trying to figure out a product to buy or just want to fire off an email. If you’re in a quiet corner, you can usually stick around for quite a while.
Schlotzsky’s is a delicious place to eat lunch – plus they have a great free wireless program. If I see one of these places and it’s lunchtime (or especially mid-afternoon and I’ve not eaten lunch yet), I’ll make a beeline for the place. Yum.
Even though their web sites doesn’t advertise the fact, I almost always find open wireless access at Staples and at CompUSA. Although it’s incovenient for sitting and browsing over a long period of time, it works just fine for a quick stop to send an email or check a website quickly.
Another chain that doesn’t advertise their wi-fi but often has access is Fazoli’s. I’ve had so much success with wireless access at these fast Italian eateries that I basically expect them to have wireless, even though their chain does not advertise having the service. Plus, they have unlimited free breadsticks and their food, while not spectacular, is about as good as it gets for fast and cheap Italian.
Many “upscale” malls have an Apple Store, which all have a wireless point in them. I often sit outside of these stores and access the wireless; they seem not to mind (or even notice) inside the store. As with the other computer-oriented chains, they likely have such access so they can demonstrate and test wireless applications to customers. Also note that many upscale malls have wireless in their food courts as well.
If you can’t find any of these chains while on the road, you can always check WiFiFreeSpot before you leave and download a list of hotspots for your use. Although this resource is useful, I find it very worthwhile to just keep my eyes open for specific chain businesses for my wireless access.