Wi-Fi on the road can be free, but not necessarily secure. Before looking into how to get free Wi-Fi on the go, let’s first attend to the “secure.”
Security while using a public Wi-Fi service is a paramount consideration. When in doubt, don’t log on. Receiving and broadcasting in the open without the protection of a VPN like Surfshark is the equivalent of chatting on an old-fashioned telephone party line.
First Things First: Security
The risks of using a public Wi-Fi service are heightened by so-called “man-in-the-middle (MITM)” attacks. This attack occurs when a spying hacker gets between a two-party transaction on the web—for example in an unprotected public Wi-Fi network at a coffee shop. The MITM spoofs one or both parties gaining access to the information they are transacting. The MITM then uses the intercepted information for fraudulent purposes.
This is where a MITM attack gets especially dangerous as online stalkers actively surveille unprotected public Wi-Fi servers. A victim might be doing an online banking transaction when the MITM sitting across the room uses spying software to step in live.
The attack could consist of deploying fake Wi-Fi networks. When a user logs into an unsecured public Wi-Fi network, the MITM intercepts the connection and the victim is routed to a bogus website or platform, usually with a realistic looking commercial logo.
The MITM coopts the user’s credentials for later use or inserts malware to do all sorts of harmful things. During a live session, the hacker could also send fake messages to one or both parties that could result in fraudulent fund transfers, for example.
Tools of the MITM’s Trade
To carry out that attack, hijackers typically use the following strategies:
• using a so-called “web pineapple” device to detect and access unsecured networks
• domain Name Server (DNS) spoofing. This ruse sends the user to fake websites.
• stealing session cookies, which consist of unencrypted login information, even when the site is secure. A user might log into a webmail account at the same time the intruder intercepts a browser login cookie. The user’s webmail account is now open to the intruder.
• employing software can “sniff out” online activity and intercept the data going to and from the victim.
• using a spoofed web application. The MITM sends a user to a hijacked web application controlled by the attacker.
Protecting against MITM attacks
Of course, the best safeguard against attacks is to never connect to public Wi-Fi routers. There are alternatives that provide a more secure way to get on the web while traveling:
• For users who have lots of available mobile data, using a smartphone as a Wi-Fi hotspot for a laptop Internet connection is a safe method. It’s called Wi-Fi tethering, but it’s not free, because it taps into the mobile data charges.
• Then there is the portable Wi-Fi router, which can be a safe and secure alternative to logging into someone else’s slow, insecure system. For a small upfront investment (around $100 or less), the traveler can log on anywhere in the world.
However, when public Wi-Fi is the best option for the traveler, using a stand-alone version of a virtual private network (VPN) like Surfshark and employing sensible security practices will shield the user against intruders.
What a VPN does, and why “free” isn’t necessarily the best option
A VPN like Surfshark provides an encrypted connection to the Internet. That connection channels all activity through a “tunnel,” and even the service provider cannot detect that the user is online or where the connection is going.
There are other benefits of a subscription-based VPN service like Surfshark. In addition to online anonymity the user can:
• bypass geo-blocking and access out-of-area restricted web services
• access better travel deals and consumer prices
• avoid government censorship
Caution: There are many so-called “free” VPN services. Those services provide the encryption connections and might be a short-term solution. There are downsides of free VPN services. Free VPN services use logs to monitor users’ web activity. All that user data is a treasure trove for web analytics marketers use to target customers for adware.
7 Ways to access free Wi-Fi While Traveling
Armed with a secure VPN and up-to-date malware protection, a traveler can access free wireless services on a laptop or smartphone using the automatic detection of their respective operating systems.
However, there are some effective strategies away from home that will save time for efficient access to better performance and free services. Below are 7 common ways to find free Wi-Fi while traveling:
1. Be aware of the businesses and municipalities that offer free Wi-Fi. Not widely known, the following business have been known to offer free Wi-Fi:
• Auto Service and dealerships
• Best Buy Electronic Stores
• Fast Food Restaurants
• Grocery Stores
• Hotel Lobbies
• Gyms and Yoga Studios
• Local parks
• Some bus lines
• Airports and Train Stations and on the trains
Look for the “Free Wireless” signs around popular public businesses and transportation centers. Be aware, however, that those public services will typically operate at slower speeds because of the high number of users. Those free public spots are typically limited to big cities.
2. Find Wi-Fi hotspots with a database search app. We-Fi.com has apps for both iPhone and Android users with a database of over 80,000 Wi-Fi hotspots worldwide. Also, popular apps like WifiMapper, Wiman, and Avast Wi-Fi Finder can provide quick answers to the question, “Where is the nearest Wi-Fi service?”
3. Extend free time on public Wi-Fi. Often free public Wi-Fi can be for a set amount of time, say 15 minutes. One way to get back online after the time expires is to clear the web browser cookies and log back in to begin a new session. This will often work.
4. Access an Internet provider’s affiliated Wi-Fi hotspots around the country. The user is already paying for the service at home, but the ISP could also be offering Wi-Fi hotspots at public locations or even in entire communities.
Access those hotspots and get a better deal and higher connection speed for streaming of movies, web browsing and accessing email. According to Lifewire, the following Internet providers’ websites listing their Wi-Fi hotspots:
• AT&T Wi-Fi Hotspots
• Spectrum WiFi
• Xfinity WiFi
• Optimum WiFi Hotspots
• Cox WiFi Hotspots
5. When traveling, book hotels that offer free Wi-Fi. Many less expensive hotels will charge around $15 for a low-powered Wi-Fi connection. Triphackr guru Clint Johnston has written a useful “Ultimate Guide to Free Hotel Wi-Fi”. Use that list to avoid Wi-Fi charges completely.
6. Leave your computer behind and go to the public library. Free Internet Access on a library’s bank of computers with comfortable chairs is an option. That service is not ideal for video calls or video streaming, and the hours are limited. Likewise, be aware of privacy and security issues. Do not conduct financial transactions under any circumstances.
7. Use other public computer access establishments. Internet Cafés or other public computer access services are still available in developing countries where computers and Internet access are not widely available. As web access becomes easier through the worldwide popularity of smartphones, Internet cafés have seen a dwindling number of customers.
Note: Follow these suggestions on basic Internet security in Internet cafés.
Conclusion and takeaways
Free Wi-Fi can be just the thing in keeping travelers connected to home and jobs. The first consideration, however, has to be security and public Wi-Fi is insecure.
Never log on to a public Wi-Fi network without 1) security awareness, 2) malware detectors, and 3) a secure VPN connection like Surfshark.
Once those security conditions are met, follow the 7 suggestions above to find that free Wi-Fi service.