What's the BEST Way to Get Internet while Traveling the US in an RV or Boat?

Internet access is almost as essential as water, power and sewer access for RVers, cruisers and nomads - some would even say it's more essential.

It's an amenity that is vital in keeping in touch with loved ones, earning an income, remote learning, entertainment, making new friends, travel routing and managing finances.

The options for keeping online while traveling are quite different than those available while living in a fixed location. It is not going to be anywhere near as easy as just "plugging in" to cable or DSL like you might in a fixed location home.

Most mobile options are wireless, which presents a host of new challenges to understand with variable signals and performance.

 

Can you get online everywhere, reliably, with high speeds, and for cheap? Probably not.

But being online nearly everywhere and most of the time
for an affordable price is within reach.

This guide is meant to give you an overview of the considerations and options, as well as an introduction to all we offer here at the Mobile Internet Resource Center.

About the Mobile internet Resource Center

We strive to be an unbiased resource center for RVers and Cruisers.

We do not resell products, gear, plans or services and we do not have 3rd party advertising or sponsors. We are community funded - all of our content is supported by our premium memberships and sales of The Mobile Internet Handbook.

We research, test the options, and analyze industry news... so you can focus on what drives you.

In this Guide:


Mobile Internet Video Overview

We've created a quick 16-minute overview video - we recommend starting with watching this and then proceeding to the further details in this article (video brand new for March 2018!)


The Challenge of Mobile Internet

Question: What is the BEST way to keep connected while traveling?

Answer: Whatever works best at your current location.

If you're staying in one place for a long period of time - the choice is easier. You find what works best in that location and optimize for it. It's not much different than moving into an apartment or house in a new location.

Mobility, however, presents some unique considerations, and that's what we focus on here.

If you want or need to be moving locations fairly often, you need to be prepared for the reality that what works best may change each time you relocate.

Which means you'll have to weigh how many options are practical for you to bring along to best meet your needs and travel style.

On the road, you will be encountering:

  • Intermittent and variable connections.
  • Varying speeds – from frustratingly slow to blazingly fast.
  • Data caps.

Ways RVers & Cruisers Keep Online:

Cellular and Public WiFi (such as offered by campgrounds & marinas) are the primary internet options for those who keep a mobile lifestyle. Satellite internet is an option that has considerations, but provides coverage for those really going off into the boonies. For those staying places seasonally, there might also be options for subscribing to cable or DSL right at your site or slip.

Here’s a quick grid that shows the trade-offs of these options:

Did you know that the term 'Wi-Fi' doesn't necessarily mean internet access?

To learn more, here's our quick guide to understanding these basics:
What is the Difference between WiFi and Cellular?

There is currently no one single best solution for keeping online that is appropriate for everyone. Each traveler usually ends up with a slightly different approach that best fits their travel style, internet needs, technical comfort level and budget.

And this stuff changes quickly - even if we could recommend a best solution for today, tomorrow there may be new options to consider.

The key to successfully staying online while being mobile is having multiple options to try at each stop. We call this a Mobile Internet Arsenal - the tools you carry with you.

It might consist of multiple cellular carriers, signal enhancing gear, WiFi equipment and perhaps even satellite. And the costs can add up, as can the complexity.

Guide: See our Assessing Your Mobile Internet Needs to better understand the considerations to make when deciding the options you need in your setup.


Here are the primary mobile internet options:

Cellular WiFi Satellite Alternatives

Cellular Data

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 4.51.28 PMCellular data is probably the easiest and most accessible option in most places across the USA. Many RVers and cruisers depend on cellular data as the core of their mobile internet connectivity.

It's truly mobile, can be extremely fast (sometimes even faster than cable modems!) and is much more secure & reliable than public WiFi hotspots.

Cellular data allows you access to the internet anywhere your devices can get a cellular signal from your carrier(s).

You have to choose which carrier(s) you want, which plans make sense and what equipment to purchase that will serve you best.

Nationwide Carriers

The first choice to make is which carrier, or carriers, you should get service with to best cover your mobile data needs.

You need to pick carriers & plans well suited for all the places you plan to go.

The major difference for each of the carriers is how widespread their coverage is nationwide. And for those relying on mobile internet, 4G & LTE coverage are the most important for the fastest speeds.

In the US, the current four major nationwide carriers are:

  • Verizon - has the most nationwide 4G coverage, but their most attractive plans are grandfathered and can be more difficult to get.
  • AT&T - close second to Verizon but with limited options for high bandwidth users, and in the year ahead will be gaining a lot of new capacity as they implement their FirstNet network.
  • T-Mobile - the carrier to watch with a rapidly expanding network as they roll out their new 600 Mhz network and currently has the only directly offered smartphone plan with unlimited high speed mobile hotspot use.
  • Sprint -  coverage generally only useful when close to bigger cities and along interstates, but has attractive plan options.
    • In May 2018, T-Mobile & Sprint announced their intentions to merge. There is still a lengthy approval process to go through that won't be complete until at least early 2019 - and then it's a couple years of implementation if approved.

Below is a quick comparison of the four carrier's 4G coverage maps:

Screenshots above taken from the May 2018 map update to our app Coverage?
- showing just non-roaming 4G and better coverage for each carrier.

Although we can go to each carrier’s maps online to scout out ahead if our next location will have coverage for our carriers, we decided to make it even easier. We wrote an app for that!

coverage_new_iconCoverage? (available for iOS and Android) overlays our versions of the four major carriers maps, so you can create a personalized coverage map for the carriers you travel with, and plan your travels around connectivity!

Coverage? Lite is also available on iOS as a free trial (the Android version starts out as a free trial).

The maps are stored on device, so you don’t need to have coverage to find out which direction to head.
Get it on Google Play

We're constantly tracking the most affordable options for cellular data, including unlimited and high data cap data plans - here are our current top picks:

Quick Video Overview with our top picks:

Top Pick Plans:

Last update: 6/15/2018

There are several options that will convert your cellular data to your own personal WiFi hotspot, or even an ethernet hardwired network:

  • Dedicated cellular modems like mobile hotspots (Jetpacks, MiFis) and USB modems.
  • Hot spotting off a smartphone or tablet.
  • Mobile routers for more advanced networking capabilities.

There are pros and cons to each approach.

For more information:  MiFi/Jetpack, Smartphone Hotspotting or a Mobile Router?

You may find that cellular signal strength can vary quite a bit while traveling, which can impact the speed of your data and reliability.

Enhancing cellular signal and data performance is a tricky subject, and sometimes requires trial and error at each location for each type of device & cellular carrier.

You should also focus on measuring performance instead of concentrating on how many bars your device is showing. Run speed tests using apps like Speed Test.

For more information:

Understanding & Optimizing Your Cellular Performance

Mobile Cellular Boosters for RVs Overviews

Selecting a Cellular Antenna

For information on cellular data:

Guide to the Four Carriers - Which is Best for RVing?

Tips for Finding Cellular Coverage & Planning Your Travels

Understanding the Limits on Unlimited Cellular Data Plans

Selecting Cellular Data Plans – Pricing & Carrier Guide

Cellular WiFi Satellite Alternatives

Public & Campground/Marina WiFi

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 4.52.11 PM
Often the cheapest, and easiest way to get online is to use public WiFi networks.

Many libraries, coffee shops, RV parks, marinas, stores, breweries (yay!), motels, municipal parks, and even fast food restaurants now offer free WiFi. There are also plenty of paid WiFi networks to be found, such as Boingo and Xfinity.

Though WiFi has the potential to be blazingly fast, some shared networks can be horribly overloaded. A public WiFi hotspot is highly dependent upon their upstream source of internet (cable, DSL, satellite, etc.) and on how many people are sharing that connection.

More often than not these Wi-Fi sources are disappointing.

Campground & Marina WiFi Realities

Although you would think that a campground that advertises “Free WiFi!” as prominently as it does 50A power hook-ups would actually have worthwhile WiFi, many have discovered that this is often not the case.

Generally, if the WiFi is managed decently enough, RV park or marina WiFi might be good enough for checking email and doing some basic surfing – generally all that most patrons are assumed to really need.

Think about what would happen if a park ran a garden hose to fill everyone's water tank at once. There's just not enough flow or water pressure and everyone would just get a trickle.

Unfortunately, that's what happens with internet - many RV parks and marinas only have a small internet pipe coming into their park for everyone to share. And then it just takes a few streaming video to bring the entire network to a halt.

Tip: Before investing in WiFi extending gear, take your laptop or tablet closer to the access point. Your signal will probably improve (5 bars instead of 1), but do some speed tests and some surfing - does your experience improve? If it does, then an extender might help you bring that performance back to your RV or boat.

If it doesn't improve, then the WiFi provided at this location likely isn't suitable to begin with... and no amount of gear you install is going to help.

For More Information:

Getting Better Wi-Fi – Selecting Long Range Wi-Fi Extending Gear (Antennas, Routers, CPEs)

Selecting a Mobile Router – Bring Mobile Internet Options Together and Creating a Local Network

Cellular WiFi Satellite Alternatives

Satellite Internet

First: Satellite TV and Satellite Internet are DIFFERENT

Satellite TV equipment is designed for one-way delivery of television content. Internet is a two-way street - sending & receiving of data. It takes a different equipment to provide internet connectivity. You are not going to be internet service with a Dish TV or DirecTV satellite dish.

Second: Home Satellite Options are NOT Mobile

There are several satellite internet options that work great for stationary homes. But, options that you can move around the country on your own are limited due to spot-beam technology that requires the provider to re-install & re-program equipment if it is moved.

In other words - you need to purchase service specifically for mobility.

satellite-internet-for-rvers-guideThere is something magical and futuristic about being connected in the absolute middle of nowhere. Where only a satellite in space can keep you online.

While there are fast mobile satellite services available, today’s satellite options come with tradeoffs to consider.

Satellite internet has higher latency (600 ms) and requires requires bulky gear to get connected that requires setup at each stop.

If you plan to focus your travels on being way out in the boonies, the challenges of satellite internet might be worthwhile.

If you are hoping for a simple go-anywhere
solution, satellite will likely frustrate you - at least for now.  There are currently only two satellite options that are able to be used in a mobile lifestyle that are accessible to consumers - HughesNet Gen 5 (and only if provisioned by special resellers for mobility) and RVDataSat.

For more information, our guide:

Mobile Satellite Internet Overview

Cellular WiFi Satellite Alternatives

Other Internet Alternatives

With some creativity and compromise, you may find other ways to stay online that include:

  • Subscribe directly to Cable or DSL internet from your RV site or slip if available
  • Borrowing bandwidth from friends as you driveway surf.
  • Co-working spaces in more urban areas - rent a desk for a day or a week and utilize high speed bandwidth galore!
  • Amateur Ham Radio for non-commercial communication

For more:

Thinking Outside the Box: Non-Mobile Internet Options

 


The Mobile Internet Handbook
For US Based RVers, Cruisers & Nomads

For much more information about mobile internet for RVers & Cruisers, check out our book on this subject. It's the textbook that goes along with this resource center.

It goes into more depth on each of these options, and expands to talk about adjusting your expectations, assessing your needs, shopping for plans and bringing these solutions together.

Book Update: The 5th Edition for 2018 is now available!

Available in PDF, Kindle, iBooks and Print.


Special Use Cases

Here's some specific guides we have with further tips for popular things our members and readers tend to be setting up for on the road:

Ready for more?

This article is part of our 'Mobile Internet University' classroom, an included benefit for our premium Mobile Internet Aficionados members.

The course is designed to be self paced, walking you through our content on selecting cellular data plans, equipment, signal enhancing, Wi-Fi, satellite, routers and more.

Check out the course at:

Is internet essential to your mobile lifestyle?

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We welcome you to utilize our free resources - like our news Center, discussion group, videos, glossary and basic guides.

We could not provide any of this without the support of those who chose to become members  funding this resource center. We do not accept sponsorships, third party advertising and we do not resell products or gear. We strive to be an unbiased community funded resource. 

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