4 Strategies to Get Internet WiFi on the Road

Contents

If you spend any significant amount of time in an RV, you may be wondering, “Can you have internet in an RV?” The simple answer is yes, you can have RV WiFi internet on the go!

While your solution will depend on exactly how much data you need and what you use it for, you have four main options. Which option makes the most sense for you will depend on who you are, but we’ll go over that a bit later.

You’ll also hear from several full-time RVers, like Chickery’s Travels and Travels with Ted.

Fair warning: If you’re a full-time remote worker, you might be interested in satellite internet, which is a $10,000+ investment. This article only covers WiFi and cellular connections.

Pop Quiz: What Kind of Internet User Are You?

Before we begin, choose what kind of internet user you are!

The Techno-Grouch

  • Not everyone wants internet in their RV.
  • Some people just want to enjoy the campfire, smell the pine trees and listen to cicadas begging for sex.
  • If you go camping to escape the work week, more power to you. 
  • But when emergencies happen, it’s nice to have instant access to services and help through the internet.
  • Internet is optional. A phone line is sufficient.

The Modern Family

  • For many American families, even those that love the great outdoors, a stable WiFi connection is as important as water and sewer.
  • While the kids stream their favorite shows, Mom and Dad catch a much-needed break.
  • The next morning, they can all post photos to social media sharing their adventures so Grandma can enjoy the landscapes, too.
  • Data volume and speed is critical for these campers.

The Workamper

  • If you work from your RV, you are a workamper.
  • As a remote worker/telecommuter, you need a big, fat, reliable internet connection to check email, upload and down files, access cloud storage locations, and communicate with coworkers.
  • Although sometimes blaming crummy internet service as an excuse to go fishing at 2:00 p.m. is also nice.

The Adventurer

  • Like many travelers, you love getting out into the boondocks where you take only pictures, leave only footprints.
  • But you do love your internet! You can research destinations, download maps, signal for help, or just enjoy a news article while you sit and eat lunch.
  • Having access across a wide geographic area is important. So is the connection speed.

The Unfortunate Truth About Internet on the Road

Most of us don’t have a clue what the Internet actually is – or how the World Wide Web is different – let alone how to access it. So let’s make it simple:

You need either a wire or a radio signal to connect to the Internet.

Now, there are many variations on that theme, as you can read below. But in the end, if you don’t have a wire or a radio signal in your area, then it’s simply impossible to connect to the Internet. And there’s no magical machine that can change that.

8 Ways to Connect to the Internet While Traveling

These are the eight ways most everyone – business, home, or traveler – connects to the internet.

As you’ll see, only four are available to the average RVer: Wireless (WiFi), Hotspots (WLAN), Mobile (Cellular), and Satellite.

This article will discuss WiFi/WLAN, cellular, and roaming solutions – not satellite internet.

  • WIRELESS: Connection is established through radio frequency bands, not telephone or cable networks. You have internet access anywhere within network coverage. Wireless connections require a modem, which picks up and distributes signal to other devices in the network.
  • MOBILE (3G, 4G, 5G): Cell phone providers offer voice/text/data plans with Internet access. Speed is good with 4G or 5G service (3G is almost useless). Download data speed and volume is usually limited by plan.
  • HOTSPOTS: Hotspots offer Internet access through a wireless local area network (WLAN) via a router that connects with an Internet service provider using WiFi technology. Many devices, such as smartphones, can be used at hotspots.
  • DIAL-UP: Dial-up connections require users to link their phone line to a computer in order to access the Internet. You can’t make or receive phone calls while using the Internet. 
  • BROADBAND: High-speed Internet through a cable or telephone company. These high-bandwidth connections require specialty DSL and cable services (see below).
  • DSL: Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) uses 2-wire telephone line connected to one’s house.
  • CABLE: Through a cable modem, you can access the web over TV lines. 
  • SATELLITE: An earth station beams signal 23,000 feet to satellites in space, who then distribute it to earthlings using a modem.

Strategy 1: Free Public Internet

Hey, what tastes better than free? As a former full-time traveler myself, I’ve used just about every form of public WiFi and internet in the United States. Here’s how they stack up.

Campground WiFi

If you’re camping at a developed campground like a KOA, chances are they offer free campground WiFi. Unfortunately, many of these systems are undersized. And when everyone returns to camp at 6:30 p.m. and surfs Facebook, web speeds crawl to a snail’s pace. Then no one is happy. You get what you pay for, as they say.

Libraries

Almost all libraries either have a public WiFi connection or a computer bank. Unfortunately, the WiFi connections to be slow (blame the tweens all streaming Twitch), and the computer banks typical have time restrictions, such as two 45-minute sessions per day. Most libraries will not extend a day pass to you until you can prove local residency.

Restaurants & Coffee Shops

The best sources for public WiFi are restaurants and coffee shops, such as Starbucks, McDonalds, and your local coffee shop. Both typically offer faster WiFi speeds, and no password required.

CNET did a study to find out which chains offer the best Wi-Fi. It may come as no surprise to you that Starbucks took top honors on this list, and it wasn’t even close. Like it or not, they’re everywhere and finding one of those is probably your best bet.

If you can’t find a Starbucks, Taco Bell and Arby’s also had quite respectable speed scores. While McDonald’s is synonymous with free Wi-Fi, they aren’t at the top. They did crack the top five and will be a fine option if you can’t find any of the aforementioned spots though.

It is good manners to purchase something when you stay in a coffee shop or restaurant. Treat yourself! Or at least get something off the dollar menu. Be a paying customer, not a leach.

I prefer coffee shops, myself. You’re typically surrounded by college students typing away, and everyone wears headphones. It’s an easy, casual work environment.

Free WiFi Zones

Some states, such as Vermont, have implemented public free WiFi zones to better serve the local public and entice tourism.  

Sometimes, you can snag WiFi signal close to a school, adult education center, vocation school, or college. Be careful, though. Don’t invade a college campus just because of the free internet. That’s private land, not public, and you CAN get kicked out.

Who This Makes Sense For?

If you’re a weekend warrior or techno-grouch, the free internet ploy may just work for you.

If you only need to check email once every few days, upload a few photos, and soak in the outside world once a week, then why pay for internet access you’ll never use?

On the other hand, if you’re a workamper, relying on free internet is rather miserable. It’s a ball and chain, tethering you to the nearest medium-sized town with a public library that’s open 5 days a week.

How Much It Costs?

😉 – zilch!

Pros:

  1. Free, baby!
  2. Available in populated areas and developed campgrounds
  3. Doesn’t intrude on your “pure” camping experience

Cons:

  1. Must travel to access location
  2. Significant time limitations
  3. Slow surfing, streaming, upload and download speeds

Strategy 2: Phone Cellular Data Plan

The simplest option, as well as the most popular one, is simply using what you already have. Use your cellular data plan to access the Internet.

Most smartphone plans have a hotspot option (and those that don’t can usually have it added on).

Virtually all modern smartphones have the ability to act as a local hotspot through a WLAN or USB tethering. USB tethering tends to work better when using a smartphone as a hotspot for a computer.* Wireless connection tends to be more finicky.

*While rare, some older latops (and most desktops) require a WiFi network adapter (i.e. WiFi dongle) to access the Internet. Almost all modern consumer laptops already have a WiFi adapter built-in.

Who This Makes Sense For?

In short, most people. If you don’t need to work on the road or to binge-watch Netflix every evening, then keeping whatever cell phone plan you already have is probably enough.

It’s likely that your phone plan has some hotspot component, so for casual internet users, the combination of cellular data and hotspot data should be sufficient.

Base monthly data allowance at regular network speeds is normally 5-10 gigabytes per plan line. That’s plenty to check email, social media accounts, and browse the web with pictures enabled. However, you should limit video!

Seriously. Check your data usage. It’s a long story, but I once racked up almost $2,000 worth of extra changes on a mobile hotspot plan because I exceeded my standard data allowance. The carrier kept happily selling me internet for some obscene price per gig. Yuck.

Even if you do need to work on the road, this is still a great option. You’ll probably want to look at an “unlimited plan” and your best bets are Verizon and AT&T. These plans offer much larger monthly data allowances.

Whatever you do, check the coverage map first. It’s likely one of those two will have service wherever you travel (and some RVers opt for a plan with each of them) but check to be absolutely sure.

Wondering What the Experts Do?

Wondering what the experts do? Here’s how Julie Chickery from Chickery’s Travels gets internet on the road!

We work remotely and require significant data to use graphics programs and participate in numerous video teleconferencing meetings daily. We’ve gone through several different solutions, and here’s what we finally settled on that works for us:

  • Verizon Cellular Plans: Total cost is $143/month.
    • We each have a Verizon unlimited data plan with our cell phone. The only problem with this is that Verizon throttles our speeds at 15GB. We reach this very quickly.
    • We each a Verizon Jetpack mobile hotspot with unlimited data plans. They also have the issue with being slowed down at 15GB.
  • AT&T Prepaid Cellular Plan: Total cost is $55/month when we need to use it.
    • We have one back up AT&T prepaid mobile hotspot. It offers 100GB per month. AT&T does something called network managing, which means they can temporarily slow your speed down when there is significant demand in the area. The problem with this is that you can’t plan on when it will happen.

We also use Campendium to see what type of cell signal to expect when we are trip planning.

For boosting the signal we use the Pepwave Max BR1 MK2 Cat 6 LTE Advanced Modem. We really like that we can insert our two Jetpack sim cards, and then set a prioritization for usage. It allows you to predetermine what you want to use first campground WiFi, cell phones, or hotspots. We didn’t get the external antennae and it works wonderfully without it. We’ve had it for three years and are very happy with it.

How Much It Costs?

As of June 2021, both Verizon and AT&T’s most expensive hotspot plans only offer 30 gigabytes per month. While that’s more than enough for most people, consider just how much work you need to do on the road.

Version Hotspot Plans Prices

For a single line with Verizon, you’ll be spending $80-90 per month if you want an unlimited hotspot option. $80 gets you 15 gigabytes and $90 gets you 30. However, if you have a family and you decide to have 4 lines, that price will drop to $45 or $55 per month respectively.

AT&T Hotspot Plans Prices

For AT&T, a single line will cost you $75 for an unlimited plan with a 15GB hotspot and $85 for a 30GB hotspot. For a family of 4, those numbers drop to $40 and $50 respectively. While both of those hotspots are technically unlimited, your speeds will slow drastically after you run out of data and be nearly unusable.

Both Verizon and AT&T offer 5G access where coverage is available.

Pros:

  1. Convenience
  2. Speed
  3. Price

Cons:

  1. Drains your phone battery
  2. Incoming calls or other messages can interrupt your service
  3. Is less optimal the more people you have on it

Strategy 3: Carrier Hotspots & Tethering

Option 3 uses the same internet source as Option 2 – your cellular signal data – but it uses a dedicated hotspot device.

You see, there are mobile RV hotspot options that don’t require your phone. You can add these onto your existing cellular plan via a new line and get an extra 15-30 gigabytes a month from it.

Who This Makes Sense For?

RVers who need more than 30 gigabytes per month of reliable hotspot data.

This is a more niche option to be sure, and one you want to research before committing to. The best reviewed Verizon hotspot has a whopping 3.3 out of 5 stars and is a USB plugin (which those with Macs may need an adaptor to use).

The best hotspot from AT&T doesn’t come in much more favorably, netting a rating of 3.9.

Those who have great experiences with hotspots love them, but these are devices that seem to either have rave reviews or rage-induced, spite-filled ones. Do your homework on these before purchasing, because you’re paying for the unit and then a similar price per month to your phone.

Wondering What the Experts Do?

Wondering what the experts do? Here’s how Christina Pate from Travels with Ted gets internet on the road!

We currently exclusively use our smartphones’ mobile hotspots for internet service. Our Verizon Get More plans include an unlimited mobile hotspot with 30GB of 5G/4G LTE. As a full-time blogger, who doesn’t participate in many video calls, 30 GB is plenty of high-speed data to work for a month. Since my job has flexible hours, I am happy to drive to a coffee shop if we choose to camp somewhere without cell service.

During our first few years on the road, I telecommuted to a corporate job. During that time, I had a Jetpack with another 30GB of high-speed data to ensure that I always had strong internet for client meetings. My husband also had an AT&T phone plan during these years, so I could use his hotspot as a backup if Verizon service was weak.

How Much It Costs?

You can expect to pay anywhere from $200 to $400 for the device itself and then a pretty comparable monthly plan to what you’re paying for your phone. You’ll most likely be looking at 15 or 30 gigabyte per month options also, so having a second hotspot-capable phone might be a better investment.

Pros:

  1. When it works, it’s great. Poor international coverage.
  2. No need to worry about an incoming call disrupting your Wi-Fi
  3. Easy setup. Same payment plan!

Cons:

  1. When it doesn’t work, it’s awful
  2. Pricey for what you get
  3. USB hotspots won’t work with all Macs without an adaptor

Strategy 4: MNVO MiFi Device

Photo Credit: Skyroam

What is an MVNO? It’s a mobile virtual network operator. It’s a company that doesn’t operate it’s own network. Instead, it enters into a business agreement with a network operator where it essentially “leases” the network in exchange for a wholesale rate.

Anyway, here’s why we care: You can get a MiFi hotspot device that works almost anywhere! – because it “runs” off multiple networks, not just, say, AT&T!

Google Fi is a well-known MNVO with a contract with T-Mobile/Sprint and U.S. Cellular. With Google FI, your phone automatically switches between networks based on signal strength.

Now, if you have a phone specifically designed for Google Fi, then you can use your phone as a hotspot anywhere you receive signal from Fi’s contract networks.

However … it gets better. You can buy or rent a super-powerful portable MiFi device that works almost anywhere in the world.

Meet Skyroam. It’s a global 4G LTE hotspot. Here’s how Skyroam says it works:

Skyroam’s patented Virtual SIM technology delivers local data, internationally, allowing you to connect to dozens of different cellular networks without needing SIM cards!

I’m not a tech blogger, so I won’t try to explain it. But this. is. cool. Internet anywhere? Sign me up!

Who This Makes Sense For?

Whether you’re a casual user or full-time remote worker, sounds like Skyroam has the plan fo you! Where it really shines is A) international travelers and B) itinerant fulltimers who travel the country and bounce in and out of regional networks.

Personally, I’ve used other portable MiFi devices, but not the Skyroam Solis. If anyone from Skyroam is reading this, send me a sample pretty please??

How Much It Costs?

Skyroam offers tow devices: Solis X and Solite Lite. You can buy or rent. Purchase the X model for $179.99 or the Lite model for $119.99. Or you can rent for just $8.99 a day.

Skyroam offers domestic (USA) or global WiFi plans. Per gig prices are $8/USA, $12/global. Unlimited plans start at $49/USA, $99/global.

You can see their plan pricing details here.

Pros:

  1. Excellent coverage!
  2. No SIM card or compatible device required
  3. Not commitment required

Cons:

  1. Not the cheapest option in some areas
  2. Don’t break your device! Costs money to replace.

Hey, What About Alternative Carriers like Cricket or Straight Talk?

Speaking of coverage … we need to talk phone carriers for a minute.

You might wonder why we don’t list the smaller MVNO carriers like Straight Talk, Cricket, etc. Simply put, these carriers don’t own their own cell towers. They lease the towers from the: big three host networks are AT&T, T-Mobile*, and Verizon.

To get super nerdy, people used to distinguish the three by saying AT&T and T-Mobile used the GSM network, and Verizon used the CDMA network. You don’t need to understand the differences between the two, but it’s worth knowing that both are being phased out. By the end of 2022, it’ll be a 4G LTE world, with 5G hot on its heels.

*Sprint merged with T-Mobile in 2020.

Anyways, these regional and specialty carriers typically only lease towers in high-popular-density areas where they can get more customers per tower contract. Once you get into rural country, most of these mini networks have poor or non-existent coverage. So they aren’t a good fit for most RVers.

2 Bonus Options for Finding Internet While Camping

While most people will be satisfied with one or more of the four main options, there are a few noteworthy extras for special situations.

For Boondocking

If you spend a majority of your RV time off the grid, you may not be in cell service consistently. You may want to consider an RV satellite internet connection. This really isn’t the most convenient option, but if it’s your only option, it can work.

Assuming you’re in a clear area without trees to cause signal issues and you plan to stay in the general area for the immediate future, satellite may work for you. It’s worth noting that the range of prices is vast.

The equipment and installation itself can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $15,000 and the service can be anywhere from $60 to $400 per month. This is really only practical if you’re a full time off-grid RVer.

For Weak Signals

If you have a cell signal or you’re within Wi-Fi range but just aren’t getting a strong connection, boosters can be helpful. A cell signal booster can increase the speed and quality of your cellular connection and a Wi-Fi booster can allow you to reach Wi-Fi signals from farther away. Like satellite, the cost range is fairly wide.

  • Cell phone boosters can cost anywhere from $100 to $600.
  • Wi-Fi boosters can cost anywhere from $200 to $600.

Whatever choice you feel is best for you, if you feel you’ll need access to internet in your RV, you’ll want to always have a backup plan. While these options are good individually, being able to utilize more than one will minimize the hassle that comes with getting internet for your RV.

Join our monthly newsletter!