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Six Ways to Get Free Wi-Fi When You Travel

Rob Lovitt, NBC News contributor
Thursday, 15 Nov 2012 | 11:54 AM ET

With the holiday season right around the corner, hotel rates are rising and airfares promise to be prohibitive. Do you really want to put another dent in your travel budget by paying for Wi-Fi?

Paul Eekhoff | Photographer's Choice RF | Getty Images

Of course not. Fortunately, you don't have to as it seems there are more ways to get free Wi-Fi all the time. Here are six paths to the Internet that won't cost you a dime (although you may have to endure an ad or two):

1. View via Windows

Traveling to New York or San Francisco this holiday season? If so, the folks at Microsoft and Boingo have teamed up to offer the gift of free Wi-Fi to support the launch of Windows 8. Through the end of the year, signal seekers can bring up Boingo's app or Wi-Fi locator and log on near several major tourist attractions in San Francisco and at more than 200 hotspots in New York.

(Read more: Which Airports Will Be Busiest This Thanksgiving?)

"Brands like Microsoft are looking to get in front of consumers and a great way to do that is to link the brand to giving away a benefit during the holiday season," said Jeff Orr, a senior practice director at ABI Research. It's worth noting that the promotion is being offered on all platforms, which means that more than a few of those Windows 8 ads will be viewed on iPads and Android devices.

2. Eat, drink and surf freely

Regardless of how you feel about their menus and impact on local, independent businesses, it's hard to dismiss the increasingly ubiquitous Wi-Fi provided by Starbucks and McDonald's . The former offers complimentary access at 7,000 company-owned stores; the latter, at more than 12,000 outlets in the U.S. alone. With free access seemingly on every other corner, perhaps other companies will be prompted to follow suit.

3. Opt for low-cost lodging

It's one of the ironies of modern-day travel: Most budget and economy hotels offer complimentary Internet access while most high-end hotels charge $10 to $25 per day. Conventional wisdom says the reason is that guests at the former are more price-sensitive while those at the latter are more likely to be business travelers with fat expense accounts.

But other factors may also be at work. According to Bjorn Hanson, divisional dean at the Tisch Center at New York University, less-expensive hotels are usually run by franchisees who don't participate in the profit on extra charges while higher-priced ones are run under management contracts based on a percentage of gross revenue. "If they charge fees," said Hanson, "they get more money."

4. Join a loyalty program

While most high-end hotels continue to charge for Wi-Fi, a few are recognizing that nickel and diming guests is no way to build loyalty. The solution? Add free Internet access to the list of perks provided to loyalty plan members. Members of Omni Hotels' Select Guest program get complimentary access in their rooms; those in Kimpton Hotels' InTouch program get it hotel-wide, and both programs are free to join.

5. Choose your airport

You could pay $4.95 for 30 minutes of Internet access at Miami International Airport — or you could fly out of Fort Lauderdale, where the Wi-Fi is free, free, free. Factor in the latter's smaller size (less stress) and the presence of several low-cost carriers and the savings can be even greater.

For years, a similar scenario played out in Los Angeles, where Long Beach and John Wayne airports offered free Wi-Fi but LAX didn't. In September, however, the latter joined the free Wi-Fi club; unfortunately, complimentary access is limited to 45 minutes. After that, it's $4.95 for one hour, $7.95 for 24. (Read more: Want Free Airport Wi-Fi? LAX Says Yes With a Hitch)

6. Connect through cable

In May, five major cable companies — Bright House Networks, Cablevision Systems, Comcast, Cox and Time Warner — unveiled CableWifi, a program that allows their high-speed Internet subscribers to access each other's hotspots. The service is currently up and running in select metro areas in California, Florida, Missouri, New York, New Jersey and North Carolina, with more than 50,000 hotspots expected to come online in 2013.

(Comcast is a part-owner of CNBC and NBC News.)

"People want access where they want it, when they want it and on whatever device they want it," said Todd Smith, director of media relations for Cox Communications. "If they can get it outside the walls of their home or business, we're thrilled to be able to provide it."

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