Where to Charge Up Your Phone for Free

The charge on most smartphones is designed to last about one day, but social media apps, video streaming, and mobile web surfing often require more frequent phone charging. No matter how much punch the newest phones pack, that red depleted-battery icon will have you scrambling for the nearest power outlet for a free recharge.

If you live in a big city with rapid transit, check the subway stations. Many have outlets on the wall along the platform, as does the Canal Street stop in New York City. (The outlets supply power for cleaning equipment, such as high-pressure water hoses aimed at platform soot.) Washington, D.C.'s Metro system also is peppered with outlets in stations and on trains, although riders report that power under the select seats isn't always flowing. Still, passengers have been spotted charging devices and even an electric wheelchair.

Fast food restaurants, coffee shops, and other dining establishments are often a source of free power. Newly renovated locations, such as the McDonald's in New York City's Chinatown, provide sleek, high tables with six to eight outlets running down the middle for customer use. But don't count on access to power at lunchtime or at always-busy chains like Starbucks. A quick scan of one outpost on Manhattan's west side turned up no free recharging outlets.

Instead, scout out smaller cafes with a workspace vibe. These spots usually have more outlets designated for customer use, free Wi-Fi, and a mellow air about them. In other words, you can hang for hours, recharge, and stay connected. For example, Yelp reviewers report that customers at the Argo Tea shop near New York University enjoy a spacious seating area filled with giant tables and plenty of power outlets. Remember, though, there's a price to be paid at food/drink-based locales in the form of a purchase in exchange for the chance to juice up.

Public venues, such as libraries, usually have free power outlets for patron use. Parks, beaches, and other outdoor locations are typically less well equipped, although business-sponsored power kiosks are popping up here and there. AT&T, for example, launched an initiative in New York City in 2013 that involves placing dozens of free solar charging stations scattered around the boroughs.

There's access to free power for airline passengers, as well. Samsung has installed charging kiosks at major airports, and outlets often are planted in pillars and near the desks at boarding gates. (Don't try this if an arrival or departure is imminent.) Travelers with an Android device can turn to the Airport Power app, which is crowdsourced and tells you where to find power sockets within 10 miles of your location. IPhone users can try Plug Finder, an app that claims to instantly locate the nearest power outlets wherever you happen to be.

If you don't enjoy the hunt and your smartphone is equipped with a removable battery, consider purchasing replacement power cells and carry a spare at all times. A Samsung-issued battery for the Galaxy 5S, for example, costs $17.99. Just swap out the empty to quickly return your phone to a 90-plus-percent charge. Or, try a substitute such as the Caseology S5 Battery (2,800 mAh). For $22.99, you get two batteries and a portable charger. Always check the specs to verify compatibility with your device.

A cheap external battery pack that works with all your devices is another inexpensive recharging option. When a device runs low on power, you can charge up immediately by plugging it into the portable power bank. The lipstick-shaped Anker Astro Mini starts at $17 and has impressed thousands of reviewers commenting on Amazon. Another highly touted Anker Astro model, starting at $26, packs 6,000 mAh and weighs less than 5 ounces. (Note: External batteries need to be charged regularly, just like your devices.)

Being tethered to a power supply can be a drag, though. About the only alternative is to buy a smartphone with proven battery longevity. Laptop names the HTC One M8 as one of the models boasting a battery with exceptional staying power. These phones feature power-saving modes that enable functions like text messaging, calling, and emails to run while everything else is shut down.

Of course, not running short of juice at inopportune moments is partly your responsibility. Adopting daily habits such as periodically shutting down background apps, turning off data/Wi-Fi when not needed, and dimming the brightness of your screen extend the life of your device's battery.