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What's the BEST Way to Keep Connected while Traveling the US?

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 you might not be used.

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.

We strive to offer unbiased mobile internet information specifically for nomads by nomads.

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

In this Guide:


Mobile Internet Video Overview

This 24-minute video and following article is a quick overview of the options (this will be updated for 2018 soon!).


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 will change each time you relocate.

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 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:

If you're already getting confused by terms like WiFi, cellular and internet  - let's start off with the very basics:

What is the Difference between WiFi and Cellular?

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 traveler usually ends up with a slightly different approach that best fits their travel style, needs, technical comfort level 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. And the costs can add up, as can the complexity.

See our Assessing Your Mobile Internet Needs to better understand the considerations you need 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.

In the US, the four major nationwide carriers are:

  • Verizon
  • AT&T
  • Sprint
  • T-Mobile

 

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

From our mobile app Coverage? for iOS and Android, these coverage maps show the fastest cellular data type (4G and LTE - 3G, 2G and roaming has been removed) for each of the four major carriers:

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 – and in different locations, different carriers excel.

  • Verizon has the most nationwide coverage, but doesn't offer attractive home internet replacement data plans.
  • AT&T follows closely behind in coverage, and has some attractive data plans.
  • T-Mobile has become an interesting secondary carrier with a rapidly expanding network and unlimited plans - but their coverage is still far behind Verizon for now.
  • Sprint can really only keep an RVer online who sticks close to bigger cities, but there affordable options available.

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:

  • Verizon - A grandfathered/legacy unlimited data plan is the best option for most US nomads who need lots of bandwidth and nationwide high speed coverage - the plans are not subject to network management or throttling (except HD video). The options for obtaining these plans are a bit complex and always changing. Monthly rates vary from $45-249. For more information: Guide to Verizon Unlimited Data Plans.
    • Note: Verizon's new unlimited data plans only include 15GB of high speed mobile hotspot use per line (including Jetpacks) and are subject to network management. All Verizon plans are now subject to video streaming throttling, with the option to turn it off for $10/mo.
  • AT&T -  When activated on a Unlimited Plus plan, dedicated mobile hotspots are exempt from the 10GB high speed hotspot cap the smartphones are subject to. This is by far the best deal on AT&T right now with costs as low as $20/mo when added to a multi-line plan, or $90/mo standalone.  However it seems AT&T could be making shifts to no longer allow these types of devices on unlimited (more Info: AT&T Mobile Hotspots “No Longer Eligible” for Unlimited Data Plans).
  • T-Mobile - T-Mobile One+ International smartphone plans include sunlimited 4G personal hotspot use for $95/month which is a great option (those over 55 qualify for a $20/month discount!) - however hotspot use is de-priotized a bit over on device use.
    • Alternate: 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 data plans for $70/month.
  • Sprint - Joining a non-profit (such as Calyx Institute or PCs for People) to obtain an unlimited Sprint plan due to some prior agreement the carrier inherited is the most affordable option out there. Pricing starts at $10/month (yes, $10 - we didn't miss a 0). For more information: Non-Profit Sprint Plans.
    • Alternates:  FMCA members have access to an unlimited Sprint hotspot plan for $49.99/mo. And Sprint offers a direct 50GB plan for $50/month (with unlimited 2G speeds afterwards).

Last update: 2/18/2018

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.

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:

Mobile Cellular Boosters for RVs Overviews

Understanding & Optimizing Your Cellular Performance

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 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.

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 & 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.

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 in that particular location 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:

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

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

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 type of dish and satellite in space to provide internet connectivity, and much more precise aiming.

Second: Most 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 easily are limited due to spot-beam technology that requires the provider to re-install & re-program equipment if it is moved. In other words - do not expect that all residential satellite internet services will work if you move it to a new location unless you have specifically purchased a setup for this purpose.

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.

As fun as it is to fantasize about connectivity everywhere, today’s satellite options come with many tradeoffs to consider.

Compared to cellular service, satellite internet is often slower, higher latency, and more expensive. The gear to get connected can be bulky and 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 (provisioned by a special reseller) and RVDataSat.

For much more information, read 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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so that you can focus on what drives you!

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

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