5 ways to find free Wi-Fi wherever you go

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When you're on the go, you want the ability to email and access important documents in the cloud with your smartphone, tablet or laptop. Maybe you just want to find a quiet spot to scan the news and sports headlines of the day.

At a free Wi-Fi hot spot, you can connect with little hassle, and you won't be using your cellular data plan and risking overage charges.

Unfortunately, finding free Wi-Fi hot spots isn't always easy. Spending just a few dollars a day for Wi-Fi access can add up pretty quickly and shoot a hole in your budget.

With the right tools, however, you'll never be too far from a free hot spot. You might have to walk another block or two, but the money you'll save will be worth it.

You may even find a new favorite coffee shop or restaurant! Just remember to stay safe. You want to turn off file sharing and be smart about mobile banking and shopping. Click here for ways to use public Wi-Fi safely.

1. Think outside the Wi-Fi box
Everyone knows they can get free Wi-Fi at McDonald's and Starbucks. But if you're trying to cut back on fries and cappuccinos, there are unexpected places you can try.

Truckers are some of the most connected workers on the planet, and they make sure their truck stops have speedy Internet access as well as decent food. Some independent truck stops offer free Wi-Fi to lure truckers away from the chains, which may charge a small fee.

Does your car need a wash or an oil change? Many auto shops offer free Wi-Fi to keep customers happy while they wait.

Don't forget libraries and other public places. City halls, courts and even parks frequently offer Wi-Fi connectivity. So do some grocery stores, which often have fine coffee bars and cafes of their own. Department stores and shopping malls are other options.

If you're in a new city or neighborhood, tap the Yelp! app on your tablet to summon a list of nearby restaurants and shops. Reviewers on Yelp! often point out which businesses have Wi-Fi available.
2. Join hotel loyalty programs and use coupons

Cadging a motel's open Wi-Fi network as a guest - or from the parking lot - was easy a few years ago. Not anymore. Many inns password-protect their networks and charge guests $10 or more a day for Wi-Fi access.

However, some chains offer complimentary Wi-Fi if you belong to their loyalty programs. Even if you're not booking a room, a sympathetic desk clerk or server might give you a password if you're a loyal customer.

You can also snag free Wi-Fi coupons from your favorite hotels at RetailMeNot when you're ready to book a stay.

3. Tap into Wi-Fi databases
When possible, it's best to look up free Wi-Fi hot spots in the area you plan to travel. That's where Wi-Fi databases come in handy.

The Wi-Fi FreeSpot Directory has thousands of free spots. It organizes hot spots by state or business and has special sections for airports and hotels. You can even find RV parks and campgrounds with hot spots. Instead of listing sites as a directory, the JiWire website lets you search by city, state and ZIP code and see hot spots plotted on a map. You can organize results to list paid hot spots, as well, though free is always going to be the best place to start.

On the road, the JiWire App will tap into your phone's GPS to find you the closest free or paid hot spot. You can even navigate to it once you've picked it. If you find a location that isn't listed, you can submit it to JiWire's database right from the app.

4. Free Wi-Fi access from your cable company
If you use cable for Internet access at home, you may be surprised to know that many providers have dedicated hot spots in third-party businesses. You can sign on to a hot spot run by your ISP at no charge.

Check your provider's website. Most of them have handy maps where you can search for hot spots. Just enter a nearby ZIP code and take a peek. Some providers even have apps you can download that give Wi-Fi locations.

Even better, five major providers allow each other's customers to sign onto hot spots for free: Bright House Networks, Cox, Optimum, Time Warner and Xfinity. Called the CableWiFi project, this alliance opens up more than 100,000 free hot spots nationwide.

5. Tether your phone
Tethering allows you to turn your smartphone's cellular Internet connection into a Wi-Fi hot spot for your tablet or laptop. It doesn't cost anything extra to tether if you have a shared data plan from Verizon or AT&T. If you never looked at saving money by switching to a shared data plan, use my data plan calculator.

Tethering is slower than regular Wi-Fi, and it'll use up your smartphone's battery and data. But it's great when you need a few minutes to securely send or receive a file from a tablet or laptop.

Android users who aren't on a shared data plan can try free third-party tethering apps like FoxFi or Easy Tether.

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Kim Komando hosts the nation's largest talk radio show about consumer electronics, computers and the Internet. To get the podcast, watch the show or find the station nearest you, visit: www.komando.com/listen. To subscribe to Kim's free email newsletters, sign-up at: www.komando.com/newsletters.