Internet access is almost as essential as water, power and sewer access for RVers - 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 remote banking.
The options for keeping online while RVing 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.
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 with a little pre-planning and understanding your unique needs.
This 24-minute video and following article is a quick overview of the options. Follow the links to more detailed information offered here on the RV Mobile Internet Resource Center.
Question: What is the BEST way to keep connected while RVing?
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.
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 will change each time you change locations.
In one spot Verizon might work best with a booster, in the next it could be the campground's WiFi if you have a long range antenna and in the next it could be T-Mobile with a directional antenna.
Which means you'll have to weigh how many options are practical for you to bring along with you 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.
- Bandwidth caps.
Ways Mobile RVers Keep Online:
Cellular and Public WiFi (such as at campgrounds) are the primary internet options for those who keep a mobile RVing lifestyle. Satellite internet is an option that has compromises, 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 at an RV Park.
Here’s a quick grid that shows the trade-offs of these options. Continue below for a re-cap of each option:
Many mobile RVers who rely on internet assemble an arsenal made up of at least a couple of these solutions (see 'Assembling a Mobile Internet Arsenal' below). But first, let's talk further about the options:
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). More than likely you’re already carrying a cellular-equipped mobile internet device – such as a smartphone or tablet. And those devices may be able to get your computer and other devices online by tethering or using a personal mobile hotspot.
You have to choose which carrier(s) you want, which plans make sense, what equipment to purchase, and how much speed and data you actually need.
And you might need extra equipment or boosting gear to optimize utilizing cellular in remote locations.
Cellular coverage now reaches into some pretty remote places and has gotten amazingly fast. You can even see speeds in excess of 50 mbps (and you can also get speeds slow as molasses)!
In the US, the four major nationwide carriers are:
If you were living stationary in one city or neighborhood, you could ask friends for their experiences with their carriers to determine which would serve you best. But as a traveler, you will be moving around a lot – and in different locations, different carriers excel.
You need to pick carriers & plans that are well suited not just to your home turf, but also for all the places you plan to go.
For most RVers, Verizon has the most nationwide coverage, with AT&T following closely behind. T-Mobile has become an interesting secondary carrier with their unlimited data plans and coverage in Mexico & Canada - but their coverage is still far behind Verizon. And Sprint can really only keep an RVer online who sticks close to bigger cities.
For more information: Guide to the Four Carriers - Which is Best for RVing?
Affordable Cellular Data Options
All of the carriers now offer unlimited data plans, however they are typically intended for 'on device' usage only. In other words, there are restrictions on using the data to get laptops, TVs and other devices online via mobile hotspot. If you need a lot of data to replace a home/office connection while you're on the road, it can get quite spendy to buy mobile hotspot data by the gigabyte.
We're constantly tracking the most affordable options for cellular data, including true unlimited and high data cap data plans - here's our current top picks:
- Verizon - A grandfathered/legacy unlimited Verizon plan is by far the best option for most RVers who need lots of bandwidth and nationwide high speed coverage. The options for obtaining these plans are a bit complex and always changing (and Verizon is actively trying to shut these plans down - be sure to understand the risks). Monthly rates vary from $45-$299. For more information: View our: Guide to Verizon Unlimited Data Plans.
- AT&T - AT&T's 25GB for $60/month and 50GB for $100/month 'Wireless Home Internet & Phone' plans are mobile, but much cheaper than their direct cellular plans. And if you ask for the Rural version, you can get 250 or 500GB for the same price. Also, sometimes you can snag a 'Connected Car' unlimited data plan for $40/month direct from the carrier. There are also rental unlimited data plans to be found.
- T-Moblie - T-Mobile started offering their T-Mobile One smartphone & tablet plans back in September 2016. These plans include unlimited everything, including data - but with some restrictions on mobile hotspot use. For many, their One+ plan with unlimited 4G mobile hotspot use is a suitable internet connection. Reseller Millenicom still offers the older style 'Simple Choice' data only plans that include unlimited video streaming for as little as $35/month, as well as unlimited mobile hotspot plans.
- Sprint - There are options for Sprint unlimited mobile hotspot data plans starting at $10/month (yes, $10 - we didn't miss a 0) via some Non-Profit Organizations like Calyx Institute and 4G Community.
For more options & information: Understanding Unlimited Cellular Data Plans
Member Exclusive: Selecting Cellular Data Plans – Pricing & Carrier Guide
Selecting Your Cellular Devices
After picking your ideal carriers, you next have to choose what equipment you're going to use to access your cellular data to use it for keeping your laptops, computers, TVs, game systems and other devices online.
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.
For more information: MiFi/Jetpack, Smartphone Hotspotting or a Mobile Router?
Cellular Signal Enhancing
They can turn a frustratingly slow connection to a very usable and fast surfing experience.
For more information:
Public & Campground WiFi
Many libraries, coffee shops, RV parks, 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.
In some cases, the upstream connection may actually be little better than old dial-up modems. In some remote places, the upstream connection may actually BE a dial-up modem!
Campground 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 RVers have discovered that this is often not the case.
Generally, if the WiFi is managed decently enough, it is common for RV park WiFi to be good enough for checking email and doing some basic surfing – generally all that most RV campground patrons are assumed to really need.
It's rare to find campground WiFi capable of supporting video streaming, large file downloads (such as OS updates, back-ups to the cloud), VPN connections and other things that more and more RVers are needing to do from the road.
Just one or two people streaming movies over a shared WiFi network can grind the entire network down to a halt for everyone else. More and more parks are placing restrictions on high bandwidth activities to maintain a usable network for all.
Extending WiFi Range & Mobile Routers
Tip: Before investing in WiFi repeating gear, take your laptop or tablet closer to the access point. Your signal will probably improve, but do some speed tests and some surfing - does your experience improve? If it does, then in that particular location an extender might help you at your RV. If it doesn't improve, then the internet provided at this location likely isn't good to begin with.. and there's nothing you can do to improve it.
The other major limitation of WiFi is range. Most WiFi hotspots fall off to unusably slow connections just a hundred feet away from the base station - or 'access point'. Many RVers want to utilize WiFi in their RVs - which is where extending gear can assist.
There are inexpensive products that can just sit in a window and perhaps increase your range just enough. Some just plug into your laptop, and some can create their own new WiFi hotspot for your RV (a feature called 'WiFi as WAN').
For even further range, there are stronger antennas that mount on your roof, ladder or a pole outside your RV.
There are also options for mobile routers that can bring multiple internet sources together (such as cellular and WiFi), and connect all of your devices. Most routers intended for home or office use don't have features that support WiFi as WAN or cellular inputs.
There's a whole range of packaged equipment with solid firmware & customer support (pricier), to do-it-yourself configurations for those not afraid to experiment (cheaper).
For More Information:
WiFi Extending Guide (coming soon!)
Other WiFi Options
There are, of course, other places to pick up WiFi than a campground - such as when driveway surfing with friends & family, in the parking lot of a business that offers it to their customers (please do be a customer if you utilize this option - buy a coffee, beer or sandwich), or if you hold a subscription to a WiFi network like Boingo, Xfinity or one offered by your cellular carrier.
First: Satellite TV and Satellite Internet are DIFFERENT
The internet bundles you might see advertised by DirectTV and Dish Network are actually usually partnerships with local cable or DSL companies (or stationary satellite service from Excede), and meant for stationary use only. Your satellite TV package will not be able to deliver two-way internet connections that are mobile.
Second: Most Home Satellite Options are NOT Mobile
There are many satellite internet options that work great as a stationary option. But, options that you can move around the country easily are limited due to spot-beam technology that requires the provider to re-install & re-program equipment if it is moved.
Before cellular internet and prevalent WiFi hotspots became the norm, satellite internet was the ultimate option for getting online at better than dial-up speeds while mobile. Satellite internet took a bit of a hiatus as cellular connectivity took over, but several satellite internet options are once again becoming viable options that we are closely tracking.
There are currently two mobile satellite options available capable of delivering usable internet speeds for those who really want a solution for going off the beaten path.
- The MobileSat DataSAT is a roof mounted auto-aiming dish with an installation cost of around $6500 and unlimited data plans priced by speed (ranging from $79.99 - 409.99/month).
- HughesNet Gen3 / Gen4 / Gen 5 is a tripod for $995, and monthly rates vary based on amount of data desired. The new Gen 5 Jupiter network will deliver blazing fast 15 mpbs speeds, but the details of costs for mobile support is still up in the air.
For more Information Info:
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. If you're willing to stay in one place for a while, this can be a great option to get fast and unlimited internet. Seek out RV parks and mobile home parks that cater to seasonal and long term stays. They won't likely advertise this feature, but if they offer cable TV at the site, then sometimes you can just call the cable company and have them come out and hook-up cable internet too with a rented cable modem.
- 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 much more information about mobile internet for RVers, check out our 243 page 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, managing your bandwidth, shopping for plans, entertainment on the road, international travel, equipment selection & installation, signal enhancing, routers, bringing these solutions together and much, much more.
Assembling Your Arsenal
There is currently no one single technology for keeping online that is appropriate for all the different situations mobile folks might find themselves in.
Each RVer usually ends up with a slightly different approach that best fits their travel style, needs and budget.
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.
When Plan A is out of range, Plan B suffers a hardware failure, and a tree is blocking the signal to Plan C – what will you try next? How many back-up options do you need?
Your ideal arsenal is going to be very personalized and dependent upon several factors including:
- How important is the internet to you?
- Are working online and/or home schooling?
- Do you have to be online at certain times, or are your commitments flexible for when you have connectivity?
- How much data do you need each month?
- Do you want to stream video?
- How many devices do you need to keep online?
- What is your style of travel?
- RV Parks? Boondocking? Driveway Surfing? National Parks?
- Staying near big cities or out in the boonies?
- Will you stay places a few days, a few weeks or a few months?
- What plans and devices do you have now?
- Your budget?
The cost of staying connected can add up quickly, between upfront equipment purchases and monthly fees.
Free and cheap options will have trade-offs, like convenience. And even expensive options come with frustrations. Even if you bought every gizmo, gadget and plan out there - there will still be days you could find yourself without connectivity.
Ready for more research? Here's some further reading:
Other Resources we Offer:
- Our book: The Mobile Internet Handbook
- Stay in the Know - We track the industry and write news articles analyzes for RVers:
- Browse our Resource Center / Guides for further detailed information (some member only content).
- Browse our Product & Review Center for detailed information on gear & plans we track.
- Prefer Video? We have you covered - visit our Video Center
- Have questions? Join our (free) Internet for RVers Facebook group to interact with other RVers interested in this topic.
Want to go further with more in depth guides & videos, alerts of critical breaking news, access to our Q&A forums, in-depth product tutorials and insider tips?
We offer our premium membership group - Mobile Internet Aficionados - designed for those who consider mobile internet essential for their RVing lifestyle.
We help our members keep up to date on this always changing topic with special alert newsletters, provide in-depth exclusive articles (product reviews and guides), Q&A forums to ask questions, and interactive monthly webinars.
We are proud to be completely member and reader funded. We love providing free informative content like this article and assist our RVing community. We could do none of this without the support of those who chose to become members to fund our research and content creation.
If you appreciate content like this article - thank a member for making it possible, or become a member yourself!
We do offer limited personalized mobile internet advising sessions where we take the time to help you assess your needs based on your unique goals, travel style, internet needs and budget.
We start with an online interview form, then a 1 hour private video conference call and then we then create you a customized guide and shopping list for the products and services that will best meet your needs.