Here are 12 businesses I look for in any neighborhood when I need free Wi-Fi to surf the Web or access something 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 Internet 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 get online.
Some people have suggested that I look into purchasing hotspot services, but I’m looking for free wireless. It’s no secret that cell-phone companies are making a fortune charging for data access, but why pay when you can get it for free?
National Chains with Free Wi-Fi
The coffee giant recently partnered with Google to bring free and unlimited Wi-Fi access to each of their 7,000 locations throughout the country. Finding a Starbucks near you shouldn’t be a challenge regardless of where you live, but remember: Just because you’re using the network doesn’t mean you have to shell out $5 or more for a latte or Caramel Macchiato. Stick to the basics (a tall cup of coffee is under $2) and surf freely.
Over 11,500 McDonald’s locations offer free wireless access to customers…along with download speeds that are twice as fast as many other national chains.
Although their food can be questionable, the coffee is hot, the soda is cold, and you can often find a quiet corner to hide out in. To see if there’s a location with free Wi-Fi available near you, check their website and restaurant locator.
3. Panera Bread
I make Panera Bread a regular stop on lazy mornings when I’m on the road; their food prices are quite reasonable for the quality that you receive. Not only that, but nearly every Panera location in the United States offers free Wi-Fi to its customers. You can find details on their wireless access on their website, along with a restaurant locator.
Word to the wise: If you’re looking to spend extended amounts of time online, avoid Panera during rush hours when Wi-Fi access is limited to 30 minute sessions.
4. Dunkin’ Donuts
You’ve probably heard that “America runs on Dunkin’” but you may not have known that this doughnut and coffee chain also offers free Wi-Fi to customers at thousands of locations. Check this page to see if your local Dunkins offers wireless access.
5. Buffalo Wild Wings
Buffalo Wild Wings offers a pretty affordable happy hour, along with a free wireless connection at most locations. (And if you’ve been hesitant to cut your cable service because you love live sports, Buffalo Wild Wings offers all major games and free viewings of pay-per-view events.)
6. Apple Store
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.)
7. Marriott Hotels
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 because I know from experience that their service is good.
Other Marriott hotel locations, including Fairfield Inn and Springs, SpringHill Suites, Residence Inn, and TownePlace Suites, also offer free wireless, as well as a good rewards program for frequent travelers.
Ironically, budget hotels and motels are more likely to offer complimentary Wi-Fi than more expensive ones. For a complete list of the best and worst hotels for free Wi-Fi, look at this report from HotelChatter.
8. Whole Foods
While you may know it as “Whole Paycheck,” this organic and health-food grocery store does offer value in providing a reliable and free wireless connection. Most locations have a cafe and dining area with reasonably priced organic coffee and tea so you can unwind online. (And don’t blindly rule it out for grocery shopping, either: Check out this list of food items that are actually cheaper at Whole Foods than at conventional grocery stores.)
9. Staples and Office Depot
Although they don’t offer the most relaxing environment, Office Depot and Staples locations almost always have wireless access available and work well enough for quick access when you’re trying to figure out a product to buy or just want to fire off an email. 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.
Although you likely won’t be able to browse the web for an extended period of time at Target, you can save your data while shopping at the superstore by connecting to their free Wi-Fi hotspot.
Afraid of overspending? Many locations are now also building Target cafes, so if a store near you happens to have one you can enjoy the Internet and abstaining from shopping.
11. Barnes & Noble
Most Barnes & Noble locations have a Starbucks cafe, which offers complimentary Wi-Fi. Though this varies by location, the remainder of the store may not have an open wireless network. Still, if you can find a quiet nook near the cafe, you can enjoy reading your book and browse the web completely free of charge!
12. Best Buy
Although it’s inconvenient for sitting and browsing over a long period of time, using the free Wi-Fi at Best Buy works just fine for a quick stop to send an email or check a website, and their download speeds were, like McDonald’s, among the fastest at any big chain tested by OpenSignal.
The best part is that you don’t even need your computer or smartphone — wander in and go online using the latest gadgets without having to pay a dime.
Other Free Wi-Fi Options
I find it worthwhile to keep my eyes open for specific chain businesses for my wireless access. However, if you can’t find any of these chains, here are some alternative free Wi-Fi ideas:
1. Public Library
Using the free Wi-Fi available at the public library near you is an even more frugal alternative to connecting at a cafe or fast food establishment, where you will feel pressured to purchase something. At most libraries the most you’ll need to get online is a valid library card (if that!), which is very simple to obtain.
- Related: The Frugal Magic of Subsitution
Not all airports let you connect to their hotspot free of charge, but if you’re traveling through one of these hubs, you can kill time waiting for your next flight by browsing the Web at no additional cost to you.
3. Gyms and Yoga Studios
If you’ve decided to pay for a gym or fitness studio membership, opt for one that also offers free wireless to members so you can listen to a streaming music service like Pandora or Spotify without wasting data.
The local YMCA gym near me has a free open Wi-Fi hotspot as well as ample seating, allowing customers to do work and work out in the same space — it makes paying for the membership a better deal.
4. Trains and Buses
Megabus, Boltbus, and Amtrak are among the several transportation lines offering free wireless connections to their customers. Choose to ride with one of these companies (and if you book early enough, you may even be able to snag a $1 ride!) next time you have to do business and buy yourself free Internet access for the duration of your trip.
5. Public Parks
If you enjoy working or just spending down-time outside, you’ll be pleased to learn that many cities are now introducing free open Wi-Fi networks in public parks. To find out if there a park in your area with free wireless, check this list.
If the event that you have to spend any time at a hospital for whatever reason, you can take small comfort in knowing that most hospitals offer open free Wi-Fi access to patients and guests.
Going online probably isn’t why you went to a museum in the first place, but if you need to send a quick email or map your next destination as you’re touring a new city, museums typically have the wireless access to let you do so.
Public Wi-Fi Safety
Public Wi-Fi networks are great, but they aren’t always safe. Sharing a network with other people means that your personal information is in danger of being seen or accessed. Protect yourself by taking the following precautions:
- Don’t enter sensitive information. Do your banking and online shopping at home to avoid exposing yourself to identity theft or credit card fraud.
- Use ‘https’ (secure) websites as much as possible. While most frequented websites such as Facebook and email providers will automatically convert the URL to a secure connection, keep an eye on the URL to make sure. Chrome users can also install an extension that will encrypt your data with major websites to make your browsing safer.
- Forget the network. Unless you specify otherwise, your computer or device will likely remember the Wi-Fi network and reconnect to it whenever you are in range. Doing this can leave your information exposed while you’re not browsing. Avoid this by unchecking ‘Connect Automatically’ in your network settings.
- Enable two-factor authentication on frequently visited sites. By adding an extra layer of protection (i.e. entering your phone number or selecting an accompanying icon) to any password protected website, you are effectively reducing the likelihood of a hack.
More Online Safety Resources:
- Credit Card Fraud Protection
- Simple Steps to Avoid Identity Theft
- What Is Private Browsing and Can It Protect Me Online?