For those who are still waiting to be ushered into the future, think about this: we live in a world where we can surf the Internet while 30,000 feet in the sky, and a world where we can use our smartphones and tablets to provide wireless Internet access to our laptops. Folks, the future is here.
If you're the proud owner of a smartphone or tablet with a cellular radio in it (hint: look for "3G" or "4G"), chances are you can use that to get your laptop (or any other Wi-Fi enabled product) online without having to find a nearby hotspot. I'll start with the iPhone. Believe it or not, it's possible to turn your iPhone into a portable hotspot, enabling the data plan on your phone to be accessed wirelessly by your nearby laptop. Just visit Settings -> General -> Cellular -> Set Up Personal Hotspot.
Once activated, you'll be able to create a hotspot name and password. Imagine that your iPhone is now your router, because that's exactly what's happening. I'll provide just two bits of caution here. First, you may want to ensure that your iPhone is plugged into a power source. Using it as a mobile hotspot will drain the battery in just a few hours. Second, make sure you aren't doing any heavy downloading or uploading unless you're okay with overage charges on your phone's data plan. Even though your laptop may be using the data via your phone, your carrier is still keeping track of that usage.
It's also important to remember that both AT&T and Verizon Wireless offer this mobile hotspot function free of charge if you're on a shared data plan; otherwise, utilizing it will run you around $20 per month. While you may have been avoiding the transition to a shared, tiered data plan in order to keep your grandfathered unlimited plan, saving $20 per month on this may help soften the blow.
For those who purchased an iPad with a cellular radio (you'll have a black antenna bar at the top of your iPad's backside), you too can accomplish this feat. But, there's a huge catch: you'll need a Verizon Wireless iPad. For some reason, AT&T has disabled this Mobile Hotspot feature entirely on its iPad units. Truthfully, Verizon's LTE coverage is superior anyway, so if you're in the market for a new iPad or iPad mini, make sure to reach for the Verizon version.
On Android, it's a bit murkier. Select phones and carriers have disabled the Mobile Hotspot (or Internet Sharing) features, but you can check for yourself by visiting your Settings menu. Those who just want to sidestep all of the investigations can download this Portable Wi-Fi hotspot Widget, which gives you one-tap access to turning your phone or tablet into a hotspot.