TV & Movie Entertainment on the Road: Streaming, Downloading & Alternatives


tv-and-movies-for-rversWhile RVers do enjoy getting out exploring our new locales, hiking in nature, and visiting with friends – when RVing is a lifestyle and not a vacation, it’s all about finding balance.

This means that there’s no shame in skipping a hike to enjoy watching some television - or bailing on a museum to stream a good flick.

This is life on the road, not an endless vacation. We are RVing, not just "camping" - spending all our days playing tourist and evenings roasting marshmallows over a campfire.

There will be bad weather days, or days you’re not feeling well, or days you’re just overwhelmed exploring yet another epic location (yes, it happens) when you'd rather just Netflix and chill at home.

Unwinding after a day of work, exploring, or socializing by plopping down in front of the tube is not a crime!

The problem:

For many, one of the hardest aspects of hitting the road may be breaking their TV addiction. But affordable streaming options for RVers are out there!

For many, one of the hardest aspects of hitting the road may be the fear of breaking a TV addiction. But affordable streaming options for RVers are out there!

On the road - many of the old ways of staying entertained just don't work like you might be used to.

The cable is cut, satellite TV is hit-or-miss through the trees, over the air channels are completely unfamiliar, and online streaming can leave you fighting with flakey connections and living in fear of cellular data overages.

The overage fear is justified - nothing consumes data quicker than streaming video!

Data demands are skyrocketing ever higher as networks get faster, allowing streaming services to offer HD video and even ultra-HD video that delivers glorious pictures - but requires astronomical amounts of data to do it.

If you have a fast and unlimited residential data plan, like cable or fiber internet, then these data demands are no big deal.

But for those of us managing mobile connections with capped data and constantly variable speeds, we quickly start running into problems if we’re not willing to adjust our expectations and viewing habits.

With some forms of mobile connectivity being as fast, or now even faster, than home-based cable services - you can easily use your entire capped data for the month quicker than you might think possible - sometimes just by watching only a movie or two online.

But never fear - you don't have to give up your favorite shows if you RV frequently.

If you learn a few tricks and the ways to avoid the worst pitfalls, there are actually still plenty of options to keep you entertained no matter where you roam!

Included in this Guide:

Public / Free Content (Released to the public in November 2016, originally released to our members in July 2016!)

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Campground & Public Wi-Fi Streaming

wifi-optionsMany people assume that they will be able to stream all they want over campground Wi-Fi networks, or by tapping into neighboring public Wi-Fi networks at a nearby coffee shop, store, or restaurant.

This may occasionally work out.

But don't count on it.

Keep in mind, most public Wi-Fi hotspots are configured to allow guests access to email and basic web surfing.

Just one or two folks streaming videos over a shared connection can sometimes bring the network down for everyone in the RV park, and several folks online doing “normal” web surfing will often not leave enough capacity available for anyone to stream video without stuttering.

Many RV parks have gone to actively limiting how much data their guests can use daily so that everyone has a fair shot at using the resource, and others specifically do not allow streaming video at all.

Even if you find a park that doesn’t specifically forbid streaming or place artificial limits on internet usage, please be a good neighbor and don’t hog all the capacity unless you know the network is up the challenge.

If anything, limit nonessential high-bandwidth usage activities to off hours – such as late at night, or mid-afternoon while everyone is at work or out sightseeing.

Streaming Video over Cellular Data

We often hear from folks who report that their mobile internet needs won’t be so demanding because they’re not trying to work online or attend remote virtual classes - they just want to stream "a few" movies and TV shows.

Unfortunately, streaming video is one of the most bandwidth-intensive things you can do on the internet!

Consider - a 90 minute high-definition movie on Netflix can easily eat up 4.5GBs of data!

For perspective, if you have a 8 GB plan on Verizon at the current rate of $70/month, you’ve just used roughly $38 worth of your data plan to watch this!

If you’re paying by the GB, as you might with overage data on AT&T or Verizon at $15/GB, that movie would cost you $67.50!

Suffice it to say, streaming lots of hi-res video content is just not going to be financially feasible for most – unless you happen to have a truly unlimited data plan, or a plan with special streaming video features.

There are options on all of the carriers for unlimited smartphone data - although there are generally some limitations to understand. For the current options we are tracking:

Guide: Unlimited Cellular Data Plans

Members can also read our guide to each of the carrier's support of streaming in the member portion of this guide below.

Streaming to the Big Screen via HDMI

Using HDMI-out from an iPad or other device lets you share your streaming content on any big screen - including using a projector to host an outdoor movie night!

Using HDMI-out from an iPad or other device lets you share your streaming content on any big screen - including using a projector to host an outdoor movie night!

When it comes to movie night - bigger is better.

But a lot of the best options for streaming via cellular unlimited data plans are limited to "on device data" - blocking the connection from easily being shared with your big screen in your RV living room.

Most video services that allow you to download content offline will generally only download to a mobile device.

A great way around this is to use your smartphone or tablet to drive the big screen directly via a hard-wired HDMI video cable.

With Apple iOS devices it is easy - Apple's Lightning Digital AV Adapter works with all current iPhones and iPads and is directly supported by many apps to give you a dedicated video output over HDMI, all while enabling a separate view of the control panel on your phone or tablet.

In the Android world - HDMI compatibility is a bit more hit or miss. Look for MHL (Mobile High-Definition Link) support, which allows for affordable MicroUSB to HDMI interface cables to be used, and check for compatibility issues with your particular smartphone.

For many older Samsung phones - the official Samsung HDMI adapter is a solid way to go. There are also very highly rated options that integrate the MHL adapter into a long HDMI cable, perfect for leaving your phone accessible while plugged into the TV.

WARNING: Many newer Android phones (including the Google Pixel and Samsung Galaxy S6 and newer) have dropped all support for wired HDMI output. Make sure to check the compatibility with your particular hardware.

Here's a quick video going over this wired-output option:

A lot of RVers dedicate a tablet or smartphone to be the streaming heart of their entertainment center, permanently wired to their TV.

The overall experience may be nowhere near as nice as directly using an Apple TV or Roku, but at least you can watch all you want without running into limits placed on tethering data.

TIP: Though most streaming apps work with HDMI output, do keep in mind that some apps (like NFL Mobile) actively block all video output due to licensing restrictions.

Miracast Screen Mirroring: Cordless HDMI

One alternative to using a wired HDMI adapter for some Android devices is to use a technology called Miracast, which is essentially a "wireless HDMI" signal for screen mirroring, broadcasting exactly what is on your mobile device screen to your TV over an automatically configured peer-to-peer Wi-Fi channel.

If you are using Miracast - you ARE using on-device data, and not tethering data. This is a great way to avoid tethering data limits.

Some recent smart TVs have Miracast Screen Mirroring receivers built in - or you can plug in a generic Miracast receiver into an HDMI port on the back of any TV.

If you have a TV that does not have Miracast reception built in, the Amazon Fire TV Stick supports Miracast, as does the Microsoft Wireless Display Adapter. Amazon is full of other off-brand alternative Miracast dongles, for as little as $15.

To mirror your screen to a Miracast receiver, a transmitter needs to be built into your mobile device. Many recent Android phones and Windows laptops have added this support, though no Apple devices have. To enable the broadcast, just go to the Android Display Settings, and enable Screen Mirroring. Any nearby powered-on Miracast receivers will then be presented as an option.

But Miracast support is still very hit-of-miss, and even recent flagships like the Google Nexus 5X lack Miracast. Check compatibility carefully to see if Miracast is enabled, though it may just be referred to as "wireless screen mirroring" in the specifications.

TIP / WARNING: Miracast is poorly implemented by many devices, and while some people love the quality and experience many others have reported substantial dropouts and glitches and compatibility issues. For best results, it helps to match the brand of transmitter and receiver - for example, using a Samsung Galaxy smartphone to Miracast to a Samsung TV.

Alternatives to Streaming

Sometimes streaming on the go just isn't worth the hassle.

Instead of streaming content, here are some ideas for getting your media fix elsewhere while traveling in an RV:

  • Download content offline - Several video streaming services (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Starz and YouTube Red) allow customers to download select content to their mobile devices for viewing later. This can be handy to grab a few shows while you have access to fast & abundant bandwidth to watch later when you don't.
  • Rent DVDs & Blu-rays – Netflix isn’t just for streaming! The discs-by-mail service actually works amazingly well for RVers who stop in places for at least a few days at a time, as you can update your shipping address frequently. If you’re going to be staying for a few days in a location that has mail delivery, that’s generally enough time to ship your current disc back and get a new one shipped to you. Netflix stocks a very wide selection of discs – including TV series and documentaries. RedBox kiosks are also very handy for renting new releases on disc for the evening, and they’re located all over the place – Walmarts, 7-11s, drugstores, and more. You can rent a disk at one kiosk and return it to another down the road – all while only paying a low nightly fee, no membership required.
  • Rip content to hard drive – While it’s illegal to rip content to distribute, making a backup of it for your own personal use is in a legal gray area. We keep our legally obtained DVD collection in storage, but have ripped off-site backup copies of stuff we wanted to take with us to a hard drive. This gives us ample content to watch when we have no other way, without taking up valuable physical storage in our RV.
  • Buy TV series on disc – For series that we follow but don’t care if we’re watching the current season as it is aired, we’ll buy the full seasons on DVD/Blu-ray. Generally we buy used off of Amazon, and when we’re done, we’ll sell them back online on Amazon or eBay. You can also take them to pawn shops or used-media resellers, and turn them in for a little cash. Or, one our favorite methods - exchange with fellow RVers for a series they have. Note: You’ll have to avoid spoilers for the current season from your family and friends on Facebook and Twitter!
  • Tuner & DVR setup – There are TV tuners that can attach to an external TV antenna and can pick up local stations on your computer. They come with software to turn your hard drive into a digital video recorder (DVR) so you can record content at specified times. This is an easy way to multi-task your computer setup, without investing in TVs, antennas, and separate DVR equipment. Some examples include: WinTV-HVR and HDHomeRun.
  • Public TV / movie viewing – Instead of trying to stream live events or major premieres of TV shows or sporting events, check around for local pubs that might be hosting a viewing event. Sometimes it’s fun to watch a major event with a group of fellow fans, and share a brew while you’re at it! Or how about an old fashioned movie night date at the theatre to get the full effect? Did you know some movie theaters will even give you permission to park overnight in their lot in your RV?
  • Over the Air antennas -  Many RVs come with a TV antenna built in that can pick up local stations wherever you roam. This is to referred to as OTA or Over the Air. You may find that this is good enough for keeping on top of local news, your favorite broadcast TV shows, and weather alerts. However, you will find a lot of variability in broadcast quality and variety, depending on how close you are to major towns and how strong of an antenna you have. You can also purchase a wide variety of TV antennas to mount on your roof or even up a flagpole.
  • Satellite TV - Satellite has the advantage that if you can point your dish setup to the southern sky, you can watch television from wherever you are, you can get premium stations, and your channel numbering stays pretty consistent as you change locations. Both Dish Network and DirectTV have options that you can take with you on the road – which will work better for you depends upon your desired offerings for packages of channels, pricing, access to local channels and contract terms. (Note - Satellite TV does not also provide Satellite Internet Service - this is a different type of technology.)

Also keep in mind that the cost of paying by the GB to watch a movie might be less expensive and/or easier than going out to a movie or bringing in a rental disc (once you factor in time and fuel).

Sometimes it’s just worth using up spare bandwidth at the end of the month to treat yourself to some streamed content.

The rest of this the details of this guide (which is nearly 10,000 words long) are exclusive for our premium members - with further information on popular streaming services, optimizing streaming for mobile bandwidth, downloading content in advance, alternatives and international options. 

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