The internet these days is a lifeblood for so many travelers. Not only do you need mobile internet to keep in touch with family and friends, but to work a remote job, find campsites or marinas, and even watch Netflix.
The problem with mobile internet is this: there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. The type of internet you need largely depends on where you’re traveling and what exactly you need the internet for. Are you using it only to check email and download text messages? Or do you need 100 gigs per month for conference calls and live streaming?
“Sometimes the ‘best’ portable internet option is what works best at your current location,” said Cherie with the Mobile Internet Resource Center. “Sometimes that might mean hotspotting off your Verizon phone with a cellular booster on, or it might mean surfing free Wi-Fi with your lunch at a cafe, or maybe it’s utilizing your AT&T hotspot device with a MIMO antenna.”
The options are endless for mobile internet service, which is why you need to take the time to assess your needs – your travel style, how reliable you need the internet to be, and how much data you need.
“For example, a retired couple who is traveling to RV parks in urban areas will have a very different setup than a solo RVer who is working remotely with high bandwidth requirements like video conferencing while boondocking in remote locations, said Cherie.
Using cellular data to get mobile internet
One of the most popular types of mobile internet service for van lifers and RVers is using cellular data, whether you’re tethering through your phone or hotspot. What service you pick – whether that’s Verizon, Project Fi, Cricket, Sprint, AT&T or T-Mobile depends on what coverage you need. Each phone service has a slightly different coverage map. You can compare cellular data coverage with this handy app called Coverage – built by the Mobile Resource Internet Center.
Instead of using just one service, some full-time travelers pay for two mobile internet services – such as both Verizon and Project Fi – with hopes of gaining even more nationwide coverage.
Melody diCroce, who spent a couple years working full-time from her sailboat, used only cellular data for her mobile internet needs. “What I ended up doing for a long time is using a Verizon Jetpack Hotspot,” she said. “I used 50 or 60 gigs per month and spent $300 at times. It seems expensive, but it allowed me to work from my boat.”
Melody was able to get internet using her Verizon Jetpack even when she was two or three miles offshore.
Another full-time traveler using a hotspot is Grainne Foley, who runs an Amazon FBA business out of her RV. “We have an AT&T Hot Spot with an Unlimited/ Unthrottled Plan. We have only had AT&T for a few months but so far we are pretty happy with it. The trick, of course, is to check out new places BEFORE you go there to make sure you will have service,” she said.
The main downside of cellular-based mobile internet is that it’s not very reliable. Signal strength will largely depend on where you’re parked or anchored.
Cellular and WiFi boosters to enhance existing internet
Both cellular and WiFi boosters are popular for van lifers, RVers and sailors who want to make their cellular data or WiFi reach a little further. The antenna in your phone hotspot is so tiny, it can’t pick up signals as well as a larger booster. According to the Mobile Internet Resource Center, a booster is “kind of like a hearing aid and megaphone for your cellular devices to better communicate with your carrier’s tower.”
There are a couple different types of boosters – cellular, WiFi, or both. A cellular booster picks up any cell phone signal and boosts it, a WiFi grabs free internet from cafes, shops, campgrounds, etc., and boosts it, and there are devices that boost both.
Amber Baldwin of Story Chasing, who travels full-time in her van, said a cell phone signal booster is essential for her to work on the road.
“After researching cell boosters and reaching out to the RVing community, I chose the WeBoost device because it appeared to be the most reliable,” she said. “I wouldn’t ever do without my WeBoost. I’ve tested cell signals myself, boosted and unboosted, in remote areas and it definitely works. There have been many times where I was staying in remote areas where I could barely get my email online, but when I turned WeBoost on, it boosted the cell signal so much that I could upload videos to YouTube and even stream movies.”
We also recently acquired a WeBoost for our campervan. You can read the review here: WeBoost: an awesome cell signal booster.
Here are some of the most popular cellular and WiFi boosters. Since these are a pricey investment, it’s better to do a lot of your own research before you buy.
- WeBoost Cell Phone Signal Booster
- SureCall Fusion Trek In-Vehicle Cell Phone Booster
- Smoothtalker Mobile Booster
- Coastal marine Wi-Fi booster
- WiFi Ranger Booster Pack
- Halo Marine Booster
Using WiFi at marinas, campgrounds and cafes
Some people living a traveling lifestyle rely on free public WiFi to get work done and interact with family and friends. A major problem with this setup is if you’re trying to do work that requires a lot of bandwidth. Many campgrounds or marinas offer free WiFi, but with 30 other boats or RVs using the same signal, things can get clogged up really fast.
Relying on WiFi solely may not be a good idea for people who need constant, stable WiFi, but if you’re around a good signal, why not use it.
Here are some places that offer free WiFi. Some van lifers report parking outside one of these joints and hanging out in their vans while using the signal.
- Whole Foods grocery stores
- Dunkin’ Donuts
- Apple Stores
- Public Parks
Satellite service for boondocking and offshore sailing
The most expensive type of mobile internet service for people who really need a signal out in the middle of nowhere is satellite service. There’s something really cool about connecting to the internet when you’re boondocking or sailing the Pacific. But satellite internet is very costly and can be slow.
It can cost tens of thousands of dollars to outfit your rig for satellite, and it can cost as much as $1,000 per month for just 5 gigs, and up to $2,000 per month for higher usage plans. Satellite internet seems best for major earners who really need internet service at all times.
If you’re sailing, satellite internet is even less reliable because the signal is trying to reach a moving target.
To read up on the reality of getting satellite internet for your RV, van or sailboat, check out this in-depth post from the Mobile Internet Resource Group.
The number of different setups for getting portable internet really run the gamut, and this post is just an introduction to the options out there.
If you really want to get deep into getting connected in your van, RV or sailboat, we’d highly recommend Cherie’s website:
Be sure to check out the Mobile Internet Resource Center.
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