This is the chicken and egg problem. You don't have the wifi equipment so you don't see how it works.
In short, my Linksys has a "discover network" feature and that's all I use. Then I can use the web browser and if your ISP allows outside use of the email, then you can do email.
I know you may ask more questions, but it has been that simple for me.
With many hotels and cofee shops advertising free WiFi, I am confused. If I get the hardware for my laptop, do I also need some special provider? I use Earthlink dial-up and now use that when traveling but WiFi sounds interesting. What do you need to use this free internet?