Whether you're travelling or just trying to get out of the house a bit more, there's one thing that plagues us everywhere we go: Wi-Fi. We may not have that cloud of Wi-Fi covering the planet yet, but you can find free Wi-Fi almost anywhere, if you know how to look. Here's what you need to know.
Take Advantage Of Retail Chains
When you're out and about, fast food joints, cafes and stores can be your best friend. The most obvious local players in this space are McDonald's, Hungry Jack's, Officeworks and IKEA. Many independent cafes also offer Wi-Fi, though you'll often need a password and in those contexts you'll more or less be expected to buy a coffee.
Use A Hotspot Database
If you don't have one of those stores around — or if you can't stand the smell of coffee — it's time to turn to a hotspot database like WeFi. They have a huge list of over 100 million Wi-Fi hotspots around the world, including rural areas you might not expect. The coverage for Australia isn't spectacular (no ), but it's an additional resource that may be worthwhile. The site also has apps for iPhone and Android, so you're never without a search engine to find yourself a connection.
Check That Your Hotel Offers Wi-Fi
Hotel chains vary hugely in what they offer (and perversely, the cheaper hotels are often much more generous when it comes to providing Wi-Fi services for free). Check when you book if the hotel offers internet services and how much they charge. This will often require a phone call or email, since many hotel information pages and booking sites don't get into specifics (such as what you'll pay). Another trap to look out for: some hotels only offer Ethernet cables, which can be a nuisance if you're toting a MacBook Air or just want Wi-Fi for your tablet.
If you're travelling domestically with any regularity, then getting a dongle or Wi-Fi hotspot will almost certainly prove cheaper than paying for even a couple of nights of in-room access. However, for overseas trips hotel access can be your best bet. One final tip: schedule your use if possible. Hotel internet often gets very slow around 8am and around 5pm, when lots of people return to their rooms. This is especially evident at hotels close to major conference venues.
Get Around Time Limits With MAC Spoofing
Sometimes you find free Wi-Fi, but you're only limited to a few hours. If you don't want to get up and find a new hotspot, you can do some simple MAC address spoofing to extend your time.
Search For Hidden Networks
If you aren't near a documented hotspot, that doesn't mean you can't sniff one out. We've shown you a number of apps that will help you find free, hidden Wi-Fi networks. Some obvious targets? Electronics retailers and premium airport lounges. With a little bit of searching, you can bring all the hidden hotspots out of the woodwork. Just don't tell too many people, or they might start protecting their network.
Tether Your Phone
If you have a smartphone, one of the more obvious — but always useful — options is to tether your 3G connection to your computer. Compared to the US — where tethering is often subject to restrictions and additional fees — most carriers in Australia are relatively generous. If your phone supports tethering (as current iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone 7 devices do), then it shouldn't require too much effort. Just make sure you do have reasonable data inclusions on your phone: if not, it can get very expensive very quickly. For the same reason, tethering overseas isn't recommended unless you've switched to a local SIM; the roaming charges make hotels look cheap by comparison. Photo by Paul Irish.
Hack Into Protected Networks
If you're in a Wi-Fi emergency and you absolutely have to connect, you can take some desperate measures and do a little hacking. We've shown you how to crack both WEP and WPA passwords, and all you need is a live CD. However, it may take a bit of time, so it may or may not work in a bind, and it probably isn't worth getting in trouble over. We don't really recommend doing this, though it can be useful to do it to your own network so you know how to protect yourself. You've been warned.
With all of these tips, it's very important to remember that when you connect to a public Wi-Fi network, you're opening up a lot of your data to the world. So be sure you're also doing everything you can to stay safe on public Wi-Fi networks. Got any of your own Wi-Fi hunting tips to share? Let us know in the comments.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman can't get enough of that free Wi-Fi, baby. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.