This article is part of our Internet and Phone Report series.
General Availability: Very High
Quality of Bandwidth: Excellent if signal strength is high
Frequency of internet in hotels: Very High
Frequency of internet in campgrounds: Very High in RV parks, Medium in other campsites, Low in national parks
Average cost to connect: Usually free. Places with fee usually charge $1/hour or $5/day. But cost can go as high as $10/hour.
Compared to the rest of the world, finding free wifi in the USA is easy. However, it does help to know where to look. Here are a few lessons we learned while on the road in the US.
It has become practically mandatory for RV parks, hostels, motels, hotels and resorts to offer internet access. Thankfully this service is free at most touristy places in the US. In business hotels, cities, or remote areas, this might not be the case. It is safe to say that our experience in the western US has been much more positive than, for example, the Australian outback.
When it comes to internet availability we’ve often found that the guidebook is wrong. Internet and cell phone networks are expanding faster than new editions can be printed. It is highly likely that your campground or motel will have added wifi access even if the guidebook doesn’t list it. A quick phone call or look at their website will confirm.
Watch out for hotels and campgrounds with limited signal strength. The five bars you get in the lobby may not reach your room, or your campsite. It’s not a big deal if you just need to check emails. But take it from me, spending all day in a cramped plastic chair next to the manager’s desk isn’t fun for anyone.
Where there is coffee and chairs, there is wifi. In our three weeks on the road we have yet to find a coffee house that doesn’t have internet access. Combination café/internet cafés are the best, because they are expecting you to whip out your laptop and sit there all day.
It is debatable if these places are actually free. Since I’m addicted to coffee anyway, I consider it two great things for a price of one.
Always remember good internet café etiquette. If the wifi is free, a drink every two hours is polite. If there is a charge, don’t feel compelled to order anything, but use your judgment. Most places offer free wifi with a purchase. But sticking around all day, skipping lunch and ordering one short cappuccino isn’t good karma.
I know they are an evil chain putting quaint hometown coffee shops out of business since 1971. But if your GPS says there is a Starbucks in town, you know for sure there is free wifi. McDonald’s tried out free wifi in Australia and recently brought it to the US. Throughout the recession, more and more chains have added free wifi in hope of attracting customers: Barnes & Noble, Panera Bread, Buffalo Wild Wings, Whole Foods Market and Walmart all offer free internet.
Almost every public library in the US offers free internet access. Most are starting to add wifi as well. If you need to use a computer terminal, it is likely you will have to make a reservation and your time will be limited. Assuming you have your own laptop, connecting to the wifi and finding a nice quiet place to sit will be easy. Just don’t go making Skype calls, that’ll get you an angry “SSSHHHHHhhhhh” from the librarian.
Like a lot of travelers we are drawn to out-of-the-way places. Often these attractions don’t draw enough attention to warrant the variety of lodging options as more popular destinations. You’re lucky if there is one overpriced “luxury” lodge and a dust-hole of a campground.
We’ve discovered that the luxury lodges almost always have internet, but never a room we could afford. The solution: stay in a cheap campground and visit the lodge’s café, restaurant, or lobby for a few hours. Most places will require a password, and occasionally a small fee. Politely asking the receptionist or barista will usually get you the info you need, regardless of where you are staying.
Let’s face it, sometimes you’re in the middle of a 10-hour drive and you just need to download one stupid file so you can finish a project. Who wants to search for a café, stop and order an espresso, or figure out whether that access code contains capital letters?
Find the main road in the town, drive down it as slow as possible, and constantly hit the refresh button on your wifi search box. You will find an open network, and it won’t take long. Connect, download, and get on with your day.