I am writing this from Room 216 of the Econo Lodge in Macon, Georgia. The place looks a bit rundown, but it's well-situated (about a mile north of downtown), has large rooms, and - with the exception of the guy who started yelling, "fuck off, ho - find another ride home!", repeatedly at around 3 in the morning last night - is fairly quiet for a motel off the side of the interstate.
It's cheap, too - less than 40 bucks a night. When I was doing my original search for a place to stay in Macon, it was the cheapest option that came up. While driving to the motel, though, I did see a cheaper option - an extended stay place that was $25 a night, or $99 for the week, which is ridiculously cheap. I noticed the place because I had no choice but to stop next to it - a school bus was in front of me, dropping off 7 or 8 kids who started making their way to the extended stay place's entrance. That sight ended up really bumming me out, which is why I stuck with my original reservation instead of switching to the cheaper-but-holy-crap-how-depressing-would-my-weekend-end-up-being option.
As I was checking in at the Econo Lodge, the front desk clerk gave me the usual spiel about breakfast hours, laundry room availability, and check-out time. She also told me that the WiFi was free and didn't require a password - just find the network called 'EconoLodge' and connect.
Once in my room, I opened up my laptop and checked the WiFi options. There were two relevant options - 'EconoLodge - Main' and 'EconoLodge5'. I tried both. They both sucked - incredibly slow connections that would drop off frequently, bringing up the painful specter of a Netflix-free weekend. I wonder how fast the WiFi is at the extended stay place? Do they even have WiFi? God, that place looked so sad.
My laptop showed a third option. It was generically-called 'NETGEAR', and also required no password. I gave it a shot - it works wonderfully. Look Who's Talking Too on Netflix, here I come!
Now, I read enough of Lifehacker to know that an open, unsecured WiFi network - especially one whose source is unknown - should best be avoided. 'NETGEAR' could just be another one of the motel's WiFi networks, added to compensate for the suckiness of the other networks, but never renamed to indicate as such. OR some nefarious being could have set up shop at the abandoned Chinese restaurant next door, established an open network by [insert technical computer jargon here], and is currently hoovering up every letter I type, snatching all my passwords when I check my bank account and credit card statement, and laughing along with me when Eddie tells baby Mikey to beware of Mr. Toilet Man.
Should I be concerned about this? Yeah, probably a little bit, at least.
Do I care? Not at all.
And why not, dum dum? Because a nefarious being at an abandoned Chinese restaurant probably won't get much out of stealing the personal information of people staying at a $35-a-night motel. In other words, there are juicier, more fruitful (or juicy-fruitful) targets out there, so I ain't losing sleep over this.
That's naive of me, I know, but - after so many years of using unsecured motel WiFi without incident - I'm comfortable with my choice.
What about you, though? What if you're the paranoid type who (foolishly) thinks my blasé attitude towards open WiFi networks is a disaster waiting to happen, and who wouldn't dare do likewise?
Here's my advise to you, nutjob, which can also apply to situations outside of cheap motels (coffeeshops, fast food restaurants, and the like):
1) Consider a VPN (Virtual Private Network). These will encrypt your data so no one can scoop it up. Most of them have a monthly fee. Most will also slow down your connection, though whether you notice it or not will depend on the speed of your connection. Lifehacker can explain this better, though it will also end up increasing your paranoia about the issue. Have fun with that.
2) Consider a mobile hotspot. Your phone carrier probably sells one. It likely has an annoyingly-small data cap, which means no Look Who's Talking Too for you. If you travel a bunch, you also know that it doesn't work in every city (I've used a Clearwire hotspot in the past, which works great at home in Nashville, but is useless when I visit my folks in Tampa).
3) Do all your internetting through your phone's 3g/4g connection. Read up on how to tether your phone so that your laptop can pick up you cell connection (also prepare to get really frustrated as you read about how mobile carriers try to stop you from doing this, or at least try to make you pay extra for the option even though its built in to pretty much every smartphone these days). Because most cell companies hate us (here's where I mention that switching from Verizon to T-Mobile has made me so happy and has cut my monthly phone bill by over $50 and I can't believe that Verizon's misleading advertising campaigns have been so effective in making people think that smaller carriers are garbage when the opposite is true), you're most likely going to deal with data caps here as well.
4) Just go without internet. Listen, I know we're not alike - instead of spending months at a time in cheap motels like me, you're likely only there for a night or a weekend. If you're paranoid about using an unsecured wireless connection, then maybe just watch TV all night or grab one of the complimentary USA Today's from the lobby and read it front-to-back or . . . well I don't know what else one can do without the internet these days (read a book?).
Because I'm totally fine with whatever connection I can find. You probably should be, too. Places like this Econo Lodge and the Extended Stay Of Sadness down the road offer up all sorts of unpredictability (stains, bugs, that guy in the parking lot who's just standing there, muttering to himself) - if you're the worrying type, an unsecured wireless connection at a cheap motel will likely be the least of your worries.
The picture at the top of this post is of the curtains at my motel room in Macon. More pictures from the motels I stay at on my travels can be found at Motel Interiors. If you have any questions for me, send 'em over to firstname.lastname@example.org.