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We get lots of questions about our life on the road, but if we had to pick the top two, they would probably be: “How are you still married after living in such a small space?” and “How do you stay connected on the road?”
We might take on the marriage question someday, but for now we’ll stick to the question that applies to almost everyone we’ve met: internet for RVers. Specifically, we’ll share how we stay connected and work from the road, even while boondocking on some pretty remote land.
So What’s the Best Internet for RVers?
If only it were that easy! In our 5+ years of traveling in RVs, we’ve found that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to RV internet. If you’re a working nomad, prepare to have at least two different ways to get online—a Plan A and a Plan B—wherever you are.
That’s because the best way to get online will depend on where you are, and who else is around you. If you’re traveling full time, both of those things are constantly changing, so your internet connection method will need to change, too.
There are times when campground WiFi works fine, and other times when it’s so slow, it’s unusable. And while Verizon and AT&T have overlapping coverage in many places, the congestion from others around you might play a part in which internet service runs fastest for you at any given time.
Because there’s no quick answer, we’ve dedicated this entire post to informing you on the best ways we’ve found to stay connected while traveling in an RV—plus some that we’re keeping an eye on.
How to Get Internet in an RV
There are three main paths to connectivity, and we’ll talk about each of them in detail:
Cellular Internet for RVers
Cellular is by far the most popular internet option for RVers, and we are no exception.
There are a few reasons for this. First, you don’t have to stay at an RV park, or even necessarily that close to civilization to use it. Since you’re not relying on a wired internet modem and router, you can connect anywhere there’s a cell signal. Even boondocking in the national forest.
We’ve found Verizon to have the best coverage, but we know RVers who exclusively use AT&T, or who have plans through both companies. That way, they have a backup internet service if they hit a bad coverage area for one or the other.
You can also check T-Mobile and Sprint, but know that they have smaller internet service areas. Before you commit to a provider, check coverage maps and compare them to your planned travel destinations. You can get very good deals on data plans with the smaller carriers, if it meets your RV internet needs.
If you’re working from the road, you’re probably using a laptop or desktop computer, not your cell phone. So how do you get cellular internet on these devices?
Option 1: Tethering
The simplest method is to “tether” to your cell phone. You can usually use your standard cell phone plan for this. However, there’s a limit to how much data you can use per month this way, so tethering shouldn’t be your only method.
There are a few other drawbacks to using your cell phone as a hotspot:
- If you have a multi-person household like we do, your home loses internet if the “hotspot phone” leaves
- The other functions of the phone can interfere with your wireless network. You might lose connectivity if you get a phone call, for instance, which can be a pain.
- It drains your phone’s battery
- You have limited options to boost the signal (more on this in the section on hotspots below)
Tethering is quick and easy, and doesn’t require any special gadgets. For most types of smartphones, simply connect your phone to your computer. This can be done by plugging your phone into your computer or by turning on your personal hotspot setting on your smartphone, and connecting to it like you would a WiFi connection. By using the personal hotspot setting, you can connect multiple devices to one phone then voila! You’re online.
Option 2: Mobile hotspot / jetpack / mifi
Mobile hotspot, jetpack, mifi, these are all different names for the same thing. A small device that you connect to the internet using mobile cellular data.
You’ll get the ability to broadcast an internet signal to your devices from a device that’s pulling down a cellular signal from your carrier of choice. Each carrier sells their own hotspot devices, or you can purchase a carrier-compatible device and a data plan separately.
Mobile hotspots are a good alternative to using your cell phone because they operate on a separate data plan that’s dedicated to providing internet to your devices. (See our note about “unlimited” data plans below.) They’re also nice because you can just plug them in, turn them on, and get your own private wireless internet network inside your RV. No need to mess with cell phone settings or USB cords.
Another perk is that many hotspots have a port for an external antenna, which you can use to boost your signal. They can also broadcast over additional channels that cell phones can’t, meaning that you can sometimes achieve faster speeds.
Option 3: Specialty devices and services
If RV internet access is extremely important to you, and if you’ll need a lot of data every month, consider a service like Nomad Internet, which combines coverage from different carriers into a single plan that’s all billed to you in one place.
You can also purchase a cellular embedded router like the Pepwave, which is a fancier, more technical version of a mobile hotspot. Some of these devices can leverage signals from multiple carriers at once to get you the best signal.
A note about “unlimited” data plans
The word “unlimited” looks great on paper, but when it comes to internet for RV living, it rarely means what it says.
Unless you were grandfathered into the Unlimited data plans of yore (the Verizon Unlimited plan is famous and rare), there really aren’t any truly unlimited plans anymore.
By the way, you can actually rent access to these Verizon unlimited data plans, but there’s some risk involved.
The sad fact is that cellular data isn’t designed to be the sole source of a person’s internet in our world of huge file sizes and streaming video. If you read the fine print, you’ll find that your carrier’s “unlimited” plan is throttled or “managed” after you reach a certain threshold – some as low as 15GB per month. Beyond that point, your speeds drop considerably and are sometimes so slow they’re not usable. That said, if you’re in a crunch and need more high speed data, you can purchase more from the carrier to get you through the billing cycle.
On limited data plans with a prescribed amount of data—say, 100GB per month—expect to pay high prices for more data if you exceed that limit.
Monitor Cellular Data Usage
You can see how much data you’ve used by logging into your account with your cellular service provider(s). We regularly monitor our data usage through the Verizon mobile app and receive an automatic alert when each line has 10% of tethering data remaining.
Checking our data usage is especially important when we’re getting ready to upload a 6GB video file to our YouTube channel. The last thing we want is to hit our mobile hotspot tethering allowance half way through the upload and get throttled to a slower speed where it could take another 10 hours to get the rest of the video uploaded.
Boosting Cellular Signal
One tech gadget we see a lot on the road is the cell booster. The weBoost Drive X RV Cell Phone Signal booster is probably the most popular one, but there are a few different brands out there who make mobile versions.
Depending on where you are, a cell booster can take your signal from completely useless to “I can actually work from here?!”, which makes all the difference. We found that to be the case while boondocking in Mojave.
There’s no universal tool (as far as we know) that will boost your WiFi and your cell signal at the same time, so you’ll need a separate booster just for cellular connection. If cost is a concern, play around with other options to see if you need one before you invest in a cell signal booster. They don’t always work—but that said, we know RVers who wouldn’t travel without one (and we are those RVers).
Cellular Internet Summary
- Cost: Varies and depends on your carrier. Typically $50-$100 per month for a plan; devices carry an additional cost and can range from $100-$1,000+.
- Pros: Easiest way to get online, especially since most people already own a smartphone and have a cellular plan. Also, you can get online from any place with a clear path to a cell tower.
- Cons: Can be expensive, especially if you’re carrying plans with multiple carriers. Connectivity can vary based on traffic/congestion. Limited data.
WiFi for RVers
Good old WiFi! Yes, it’s still an internet option for RVers.
There are a few different places where you can access a WiFi signal from the road:
- Campgrounds: One benefit of paying to spend the night at an RV park is that you’ll often get “free” WiFi included with your stay. A word of warning, though—sometimes, internet speeds are barely fast enough to check email. So if your work requires lots of bandwidth, you’ll want to arrive prepared with other options. We consider campground WiFi to be a backup plan. If it works, great! But we don’t count on it. That said, it’s not always free or there is premium internet available for a cost. The benefit we’ve found paying for WiFi at a campground is that it’s dependable and provides a steady data speed which they should inform you of before purchasing.
- Local Businesses: Most of our WiFi access comes from businesses like gyms, coffee shops, restaurants, etc. One of our favorite ways to get online is to visit a local brewery tap room and use the WiFi there while we enjoy a pint! Starbucks, Panera and McDonald’s are all common chains that offer free WiFi to customers. Remember to make a purchase if you’re going to be using a business’s WiFi.
- Libraries: Remember that magical place where people used to go borrow books or magazines and newspapers? Libraries are a good source of free WiFi, and typically they’re speeds are pretty good! One of our favorite city libraries is in Ketchum, Idaho.
- Cities: Some cities/towns have public WiFi in certain areas.
Pro Tip: If you can’t sit inside, you can sometimes access the WiFi from the closest spots in the parking lot.
Boosting your WiFi signal
Just like improving a cellular signal with a cell booster, you can purchase a WiFi booster to pick up WiFi signals from further away. This is especially useful if you’re trying to access the internet from a business parking lot, or if your spot in the RV park is far away from where the signal is being broadcast.
Check out this video review of our WiFi booster and repeater setup.
We’ve also found that if we have to upload or download a large file, that sometimes our cellular data speed is faster than using WiFi. This means that if we absolutely have to get something uploaded quickly or if we have extra cellular data towards the end of a billing period, we may opt to use the cellular data to get a file uploaded faster. From our experience, the difference in speed can mean getting a file uploaded in a matter of minutes as opposed to hours. One of the fastest WiFi networks we’ve experienced was at the Birthplace of the NFL.
To check cellular or WiFi data speeds, we use an app called Speedtest. You can also search for “Speed Test” in your favorite search engine and use one of the options in the search results. This is helpful for when we go into a coffeeshop for example to use their WiFi. Before we make our purchase, we will check the WiFi speed to make sure it’s sufficient for what we need to use it for. If the WiFi is too slow we will leave and go somewhere else.
Public WiFi Network Security
While WiFi can be a good internet option for RV living. It’s important to make note that one of the biggest risks of using WiFi is security. Snooping and sniffing, rouge networks, are just some of the risks.
One of the ways we minimize these risks is through a VPN or virtual private network. We use ExpressVPN which keeps our devices safe even on un-secured networks. Use our affiliate link to get 3 months free.
- Cost: Usually free, though sometimes campgrounds charge for faster speeds.
- Pros: Free in many places, especially in and around cities. Typically no data limits.
- Cons: Unavailable in many places that RVers like to camp, like the great outdoors, so you need to travel to use it. Just like cellular, can be unusably slow depending on traffic/congestion.
Satellite Internet for RVers
Satellite internet is the least common way for RVers to get online. The gear is pretty technical, and it’s still expensive. We expect that satellite internet will only get easier to use as time goes on, but right now, options are limited. You need very specific gear, and probably 45 minutes of setup time in each new location—not to mention a clear view of the sky.
However, satellite is a great option if you’re way out in the middle of nowhere (think of the blank spots on those cellular coverage maps).
Even if you aren’t using it as your main source of internet access, a small satellite device like the Garmin InReach is a good way to send a quick text to let friends and family know that you’re okay, or to get help in an emergency.
Fellow RVers Chris and Cherie at RV Mobile Internet have a resource page on satellite internet as well as an update on Starlink if you want to learn more. With the exception of the Garmin inReach Explorer+ Handheld Satellite Communicator, we have not used any of the options on the list, but we do enjoy camping in very remote spots and are keeping an eye on satellite internet options.
Satellite Internet Summary
- Cost: Pricey
- Pros: Provides internet access where it’s otherwise unavailable.
- Cons: Very technical gear that can be difficult to set up. Must be set up each time you move camp. Typically very slow with limited data caps.
Data, bandwidth, and working from the road
There’s a big difference between “staying connected”—or sending emails to friends and family every now and then—and having enough bandwidth to work on the road.
Working takes a lot more bandwidth than you’d expect, especially if you’ve only ever worked in an office or a house with unlimited wired internet, with no reason to look at your usage.
Even simple file transfers like photo sharing or emails with attachments can chew through your data quickly, and don’t even get us started on video streaming! We rented an Airbnb in Flagstaff, Arizona, and used up our monthly data cap of 250GB just by streaming Netflix.
Luckily, there are ways to ensure that you don’t overuse your data. Some carriers will charge a costly premium for any data you use over your plan limit, so it pays to keep track!
- Turn off automatic updates: Your phone and computer might be using up valuable data by automatically updating apps. Wait until you have a WiFi connection to do things like updates. (This is actually a great use for campground WiFi, since it tends to run faster in the middle of the night while everyone is sleeping.)
- Install a data counter: Programs like Bandwidth+ keep track of your data usage so you know exactly what you’re using. If you have multiple hotspots or cellular devices, it will track each of them separately, so you can spread out your usage and avoid going over on any one plan.
- Limit streaming: If you can avoid it, don’t stream videos while you’re on a cellular signal. We usually download movies on Netflix while we’re at the gym using their WiFi, so we have something to watch later without needing to use our data for it.
- Reduce video resolution: Watching a video at 4k takes 2-4x more data than 1080p. So consider how important that crisp image really is!
More Resources on RV Internet
The best place to go for in-depth advice about internet access on the road is RV Mobile Internet, run by our friends Chris and Cherie of Technomadia. They’ve been full-timing since the early 2000s, so they’ve seen it all! They have countless videos, guides, and resources available on their site. If you have a question, we can pretty much guarantee it’s answered there! If it isn’t, they also have a free Facebook group.
One of our favorite things about the site is that it’s always up to date. As new data plans are announced, Chris and Cherie will adjust their recommendations for all 4 of the major cell carriers.
There you have it! Our overview of internet access for working nomads. Take a moment to leave a comment and let us know how you get online!