It’s difficult for us to imagine full-time RVing without the Internet. As we both work online, the internet is the difference between us being able to make a solid income from the road vs. being stuck in one place work camping, RV park hosting – or even (gasp) working a normal job with a commute.
To be clear, we don’t think there’s anything wrong with work camping or campground hosting. It’s just that we got into this life to travel, and we prefer having jobs that are as flexible as our lifestyle – so thank goodness for the web!
While we’ve had people assume that we’re retired or living off savings or an inheritance, the reality is that we both work between 30 and 40 hours a week to maintain our travel lifestyle. Both of our jobs require that we stay connected – both by phone and internet, although internet is the most important thing – as we can always make calls using voice-over-IP services like Skype.
I (Rich) am a web designer & internet marketer, and Kathy is a recruiter for the healthcare industry, so we both need to be connected. On an average work day we use around 1GB of data – and that’s assuming we stay off Netflix and Youtube.
Public WiFi Options
The Truth About RV Park WiFi
In our experience it’s a bad idea to rely on RV Parks and Campgrounds for your internet connectivity. Some parks have no WiFi, others have WiFi that ‘throttles’ (or limits) your connection after a certain amount of data use. Many others charge for mediocre to ok internet at often exorbitant prices. Some only offer WiFi at the clubhouse, and others have actually decent WiFi that sometimes bogs down or goes down.
In other words, if you need to be connected to the web, then you need to make sure you bring it with you.
Note – My thoughts on this are a little biased due the types of parks we often stay in (membership parks). That said we’ve been full-time RVing for over 4 years and we’ve stayed in many different campgrounds and parks, from State Parks to RV Resorts. I think most other full-timers will agree with my synopsis, but your mileage may vary.
Coffee Shops, Libraries, and other public WiFi
During our first couple years on the road we conserved our cell phone data by working at Coffee Shops and Libraries. This works pretty well if you don’t mind the occasional crowds and if you’re good at staying focused with a lot going on around you. This doesn’t work so well if making phone calls is part of your job, although that also doesn’t bother some people (spend a little time at a Starbucks and you know what I mean).
I’m on the phone half the day for my job so it’s tough for me to work in public places. I find it impossible to work in coffee shops with noise from coffee grinders and people talking in the background. Libraries are nice and quiet and I’ve enjoyed working there when I can put off my calls. When I’m done using the library internet I’ll sit in the car and make calls to finish my work day. Most public buildings are a last resort for me because they’re too disruptive for my work flow.Kathy
Coffee shops, libraries, and other public WiFi options are a good backup for internet access and a good way to mix up your work environment. That said I wouldn’t count on public WiFi for your primary source of internet access, especially if you travel frequently or full-time.
While cities and even good-sized towns have lots of coffee shops and similar, most smaller and more remote towns do not. Even if you stay near larger towns and cities it gets expensive to work in coffee shops assuming you follow the ‘make a purchase every hour or so’ rule. (If you work in a coffee shop for hours on end without buying anything, expect irritated looks from baristas, and they may even ask you to leave.)
Also, public WiFi connections aren’t very secure, and they expose you to hackers and sniffers that will try to steal your passwords and account information. That’s one reason we recommend using a VPN – Virtual Private Network.
A Virtual Private Network essentially creates an encrypted tunnel between your computer and a secure server located in another state or country. That prevents hackers from ‘sniffing’ your connection. Any data they see looks like gibberish as it’s encrypted. This is especially important if you login to client servers or websites on a regular basis like I do.
The VPN I use is Private Internet Access. They have excellent prices, and if you sign up for a yearly plan you get almost half off. The program installs a widget on your computer that allows you to toggle the VPN on and off as needed. It also allows you to select what server you’d like to access the web through by state, region, and country.
Even if you connect through WiFi at an RV park, the protection of a VPN is a good idea. It will slow your internet slightly as your traffic will all be routed through the remote server. I haven’t noticed much of an issue, and can still easily stream video with the VPN enabled.
Learn More About Using a VPN at – www.privateinternetaccess.com →
More Tips For Working at a Coffee Shop or Library
- Bring headphones even if you don’t like listening to music. Noise cancelling headphones work the best for blocking out noise from others, and over-ear headphones do a pretty good job too. Ear buds aren’t very helpful in my experience, but your mileage may vary.
- Be really careful with your stuff. I’ve seen people leave their phone and computer on a table to run to the bathroom or to go outside for a smoke. It’s really easy for a thief to grab your pricy phone or computer, and expecting someone else to notice is expecting a lot. Even though you may lose your seat, I’d take your computer with you. Either that or go with your partner so they can watch your things.
- Most coffee shops give you a dramatic discount on refills. This can make it cheaper and easier to stay and use their WiFi longer. Make sure to ask, as baristas don’t always share this information.
- Libraries are better than coffee shops in my experience. They have more tables and chairs, it’s usually quiet, and you can stay as long as they’re open for no cost. I’ve spent many an afternoon at a library getting work done, and I recommend it. Kathy has had more challenges with coffee shops and libraries because she is often on the phone.
Cellular Data – The Best Current Option for Internet Access for Full-Time RVers
The four major Cellular companies that provide viable cell phone/cell data plans for RVers are Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint. These companies have built out their cell networks to the point that you can get good cell reception in most places in the United States. There are some caveats and I’ll get to those in a minute.
We recommend using Verizon as they have the most comprehensive cellular network in the country. By comprehensive I mean you’ll have a signal with 4G data in more places with Verizon than you will with any of the other carriers. Verizon also recently brought back ‘unlimited’ data, which really means you get about 22 Gigabytes of data before they can ‘throttle’ your connection.
If you’re unfamiliar with throttling, it means that after a certain amount of data usage the cellular company limits your data speed to prevent you from using so much data. This usually means no more video streaming and frustrating internet usage, so I recommend thinking of this as a 22 Gigabyte data plan with no overage fees – especially if you need internet access for work.
AT&T has solid coverage in most places, but AT&T is also anecdotally the network I hear the most complaints about. We’ve been in many parks where I approached people wandering while looking at their smart phone only to discover they’re AT&T users looking for a signal.
AT&T is also constantly working to expand their cell network, so I’m sure this has improved over time. In fairness to AT&T I haven’t heard any complaints for the past year or so.
T-Mobile is catching up quickly to Verizon and AT&T from a coverage map standpoint from what I’ve read. T-Mobile also has the newest network, which means slightly faster connection speeds.
I consider T-Mobile a good backup for a Verizon account, as they both offer ‘unlimited’ data, plus T-Mobile includes service in parts of Mexico and Canada.
Note that T-Mobile’s ‘unlimited’ plan gives you 28GB of data before they begin throttling your service.
Sprint has low prices, but also the poorest coverage map out of the big 4. Their ‘official’ map (shown here) shows very good coverage, so it appears as though Sprint fudges their coverage more than the others – or includes roaming and partner data areas in their map.
If you only go to areas where you know you’ll get Sprint coverage, then Sprint can save you a lot of money. Otherwise I’d skip Sprint for now as a full-timer. Note that Sprint’s ‘unlimited’ plan allows them to throttle you after 23GB of data use.
*I sources all data coverage maps from the respective official sites of each cellular vendor. These maps are not independently verified, and all maps have coverage disclaimers. For accurate data maps as reported by users, I recommend checking out Open Signal – https://opensignal.com – a free service and app.
Cellular Data Issues
While most of the time we’re able to get a good 4G signal through Verizon, there have been times where we have little or no signal at all.
Cellular data requires that your phone is in range of a cell tower. Hills, mountains, trees, buildings, and distance can all prevent you from connecting to a cell tower.
That means that you may or may not get a signal in mountainous areas depending on where the tower is located – and where your RV is parked. We’ve been in campgrounds in Oregon that were less than a mile from a good 4G signal – but at the campground we were lucky to get 1 bar of 1x data.
Part of the problem is that modern smart phones don’t have an external antenna. Usually the antenna consists of metal bands built into the body of the phone – which is why some phone cases make cell and data reception even worse.
Fortunately you can improve your signal by using a signal booster.
Cell Phone Signal Boosters
One of the first things we purchased when we got on the road was a signal booster for our smart phones. Our cradle signal booster is one of the best and most useful things we own! We’ve gone from no bars to some bars and have many times gone from 1X or 3G to 4G data just from slipping our phone in the cradle.
A cell phone signal booster of some kind is a must for living this lifestyle in our opinion. We simply couldn’t work without it! Our cradle booster was originally made by Wilson Electronics – now WeBoost. We recommend their products and have heard similar positive feedback from everyone we’ve talked to.
The limitation to cradle boosters is that you can only use one device at a time. To remedy this, weBoost also makes an area signal booster designed for RVs – the weBoost RV 4G. This uses an outdoor to indoor antenna that re-broadcasts signals inside an area of your RV. Note that it won’t fill your entire RV – the indoor antenna only broadcasts about 5 feet so as to not interfere with the outdoor antenna.
Note – Signal boosters can only boost cellular signals. They can’t create a signal where there isn’t one. Most negative reviews of this product come from people who try to boost a non-existent signal.
Satellite Internet Options for RVers
As of this writing your satellite options for internet are pretty limited. Hughesnet is the only provider I’m aware of, and up until now service to RVers has been expensive, slow, and spotty – when it’s been available at all.
Satellite dishes for satellite internet used to cost $5000+, but recently the price and availability has improved. I’ve seen dishes for around $1,000, although I’m unaware of any current satellite service provider who works with full-time RVers. I’ve heard that Real Time Communications does (http://www.rtc-vsat.com/), but their website and information aren’t very reassuring.
Also, as mentioned Satellite Internet tends to be slow and expensive. Plans used to start at $100/month for about 20GB worth of data – and data speeds were far slower than 4G.
That should change this year, as Hughesnet recently launched a new satellite to provide better coverage to more parts of the United States. Stay tuned and I’ll update this section if and when better options become available.
This is at least a good overview of your options for staying connected to the internet as an RVer, and I hope you find it useful.
For those who are curious: We both use Verizon and both still use Samsung Galaxy Note 4s. We’d planned on updating, but our current phones still work great thanks to replacement Anker Batteries. That and the new Note 7s were exploding and catching fire!
As mentioned we also use a cell phone signal booster, and in combination with our phones we almost always have internet access.
We use the internet for everything from working, to planning day trips, to planning the next leg of our travels. We even use the web to find places to eat and places to shop for groceries. We couldn’t imagine our lives without it – internet access is a must!
Please let me know if you have any questions about any of this in the comments, and until next time, happy trekking!