Staying wired: Where to find hookups on the road

It was 1996. Doug Lansky was in a phone booth in South America, trying to hook up a tele-coupler — an ancient, bizarre-looking device intended to connect a computer to the Internet using suction cups attached to a telephone's headpiece — and pumping coins into the phone.

"Meanwhile," says Lansky, a travel writer, "the line at the pay phone gets long and everyone thinks you're some sort of CIA operative."

Thankfully, these days it's much easier to get online - no matter where you are.

The odds of getting Internet access in the U.S. definitely favor those with their own devices, says Deb Mangas of Menno Travel Service in Goshen, Ind.

In this wireless age, most major U.S. cities have numerous wireless hot spots where travelers with devices such as notebooks and PDAs can get connected. Some of these are free, such as those provided by municipalities. For example, the city of San Jose, Calif., provides free wireless access in key commercial districts; New York offers free WiFi in City Hall Park and Battery Park, among others. Seating may be an issue, though; in San Jose, Internet users with laptops occasionally share the pavement with buskers.

Many airports, too, have added wireless - though usually for a fee. You're most likely to find it in Asia or Europe, says Bert Sperling, president of Sperling's Best Places, a research firm. Some airports also have Internet kiosks.

Travelers who want to multitask have options too — like bagging up their dirty socks and finding a wired self-service laundry. Businesses of all types, from Laundromats to workout gyms, have hung banners advertising "Free Wifi for Customers." Would-be Web surfers searching for free wireless should be cautious, though. It may be illegal to use a private wireless network without the owner's permission.

Throughout the U.S., Starbucks coffee shops offer WiFi; you have to have or set up a T-Mobile Hotspot account to use it. (No, you don't have to use T-Mobile as your cellphone provider.)

Worldwide, most mid-range and deluxe hotels today offer some Internet service, whether it's in a business center or in your room via a hard-wire or wireless connection. Pricing varies widely - some are free, some charge $25 or more per day — so it's worth asking before you book.

"From a hotel perspective, the coverage is really good — I almost don't have to check anymore," says Eric Zines, a Denver-based sales engineer who travels with a laptop. "Over the last three or four years, it's become easier and easier to use."

In Europe, many hotels also have a free Internet station in the lobby for quick e-mail checks.

And in busy backpacker destinations, Internet cafes are plentiful and relatively cheap. It's sometimes possible to hook up your own laptop, but it's usually easier to use the equipment provided.

In Vietnam, for instance, "It seems like every third clothing stall and souvenir stand has a computer in the back room with a connection," says Lansky, author of "Rough Guide to Traveling Around the World." "And the prices are pretty reasonable." In Bangkok, an hour online costs less than $5.

Finding an Internet cafe can be tougher in a cosmopolitan city like Stockholm or L.A., where many locals have computers in their homes. But when you can find an Internet cafe in the West, you generally get more than just a seat at a terminal — you get a hangout. "Here, there's coffee and people," says Bryan Markkannen, part owner of the Alpine Internet Cybercafe in Park City, Utah.

For a cheap connection in the U.S., try the public bookstacks, says Lansky.

"The cheapest way is usually the library, where there's often a free connection," he said. In the U.S., almost 99 percent of them provide computers with Internet connectivity for free. But the service can be quite popular, and some libraries enforce time limits on Web browsers.

Colleges are another option. "Some universities have computers scattered around the campus and set up for browsing as well," says Lansky.

If nothing else suits, hit Kinkos.