Ah, the Internet. How it has made our world infinitely smaller and our memory banks similarly unnecessary.
If you’ve been living with high speed internet from a provider like Comcast or Charter, or even if you’re leaving the 4G speeds of cellular web connectivity for a life on the road, you may not be prepared for what’s to come. Long story short though, the Internet is still really slow in a lot of the US. Oh yeah, and say goodbye to unlimited downloads.
That means watching video and using online radio sites like Pandora is likely going to change for you. In fact, some of the best places in the United States won’t even have an Internet connection reliable enough to check your email. The good news? It’s getting better all the time.
When I first hit the road full-time in 2008, 80% of the places I wanted to see had nearly no cellular connection reliable enough to surf the web for much more than loading up a Wikipedia page or two, cooking up a pot of coffee while they loaded, and reading their contents. Want to download a movie from iTunes back then? Set it and forget it, if your connection doesn’t drop, you could expect it to be available a couple of days from when you clicked the “Buy” button.
But compare that to roadtrips I’d taken in the years prior, before iPhones, before 3G, and certainly before every RV park had free WiFi (much of which, even today, still sucks). Back then, if you wanted to load up Google Maps, you were opening a flip phone and waiting ten minutes for results to show up. So, we’ve come a long way.
How far have we actually come though? Well, let’s review the major options you have for web access while traveling. Some people use a combination of these, while some of us get by on only one. I’ll also include links to other related articles from people who’ve tried a much wider variety of options, though quite frankly, what’s listed below is the primary means of getting online in a reliable, affordable way.
Cell Phone Tethering
As it currently stands, none of the major cell phone providers offer a truly unlimited data plan. AT&T stopped sometime back in 2009 or so, and Sprint ended their unlimited plans in 2014. Unless you’ve got a grandfathered plan, you have to purchase a limited amount of data and you have to police yourself or suffer overages. The exception is T-Mobile*, which does claim to offer unlimited data but also has the caveat that once you use a certain amount, they bump you down to a 2G connection, which these days basically means you can’t connect to the internet.
2020 Update: While T-Mobile is a great company, and our go to for traveling abroad (we’ve personally tested in Mexico and some of Central America, where it was great), in the US Verizon and AT&T are the only real, viable options for any type of travel outside of major metro areas. Over the 12 years which have passed since we first hit the road, neither one of the two big players is significantly better than the other. However, Verizon puts a hard cap on its data limits, and the largest mobile hotspot plan you can get right now is 30GB. At&T, on the other hand, offers 100GB mobile hotspot plans, and only bumps you down the line in times of congestion, making them the clear winner these days.
What I have seen firsthand is cell providers who offer unlimited data throttling bandwidth after you’ve downloaded a few gigs of video (or whatever you’re downloading en masse).
Therefore, we rely on our cell phone connections for backup Internet access, not as our primary means of connecting to the web.
As for coverage, we’ve found that AT&T and Verizon are largely available at 3G speeds or better in 90% of the places we visit, and 4G or better in 85% of the places we visit. But anything below 3G and you’re effectively no longer connected. It used to be that there was a “2G” network (which went by different names depending on the carrier), but as of this past year we haven’t been able to connect at all anytime we’re on those types of networks. Text messages go through, and that’s about it. Note that we state “of the places we visit” when referring to these percentages. I think we visit a lot of the same types of places that other travelers do, but our preferences are definitely on small towns near National Parks and medium-sized cities, as opposed to boondocking in the middle of nowhere or staying at a bunch of remote state parks. Lots of people will want to go to places like that, and you can expect there to be less coverage in state parks (and even more so in National Parks themselves) than you will in small towns and medium-sized cities. Anywhere with a population of 5,000 or more will always have a Verizon and AT&T connection available.
But we haven’t mentioned Sprint? Simply put, they’re not reliable enough. I’ve used their data cards and their phones over the years, and they’re always far behind the other two players in this game. If you plan on traveling full-time and want to have a reliable cell phone connection, ditch Sprint for one of the other guys.
In the end, I recommend AT&T. I love that you can check email while on the phone (not because the people I talk to are boring, but because it’s often useful to look over an email or Google Drive document while on the phone with clients), something Verizon can’t do, and also I have a hard time using Verizon’s products (or rather, giving them my money), after all they’ve done to stifle a free and open Internet. You’ve got to be suspicious of a company who provides the Internet while at the same time trying to limit how we can access it.
Data Cards and Other Hot Spot Devices
It used to be that you could only buy 5GB of data with any of the major cellular providers. These days, you can get higher plans–you just pay a ton for them.
That largely renders these types of devices unnecessary, particularly if you can use your phone as a hotspot. As long as your wireless provider supports simultaneous data and talk connections, you can use the amount of data you purchase however you’d like: on your laptop or tablet via a phone setup as a hotspot, or directly on your phone.
However, for those of us who really depend on the web to work remotely, it can be useful to purchase a data plan only on another network than your phone’s plan is on, so if one provider isn’t working out, you still have a chance with the other.
Our Personal Setup
We currently have our phones through AT&T and an additional data plan through Verizon. There are six of us regularly consuming data. Thirty minutes of streaming cartoons, a few hours of Pandora, several hours of working online, four hours of online homeschooling, and an hour or two long show or movie streamed every night. All in all, we use about 35GB of data per month. Our total bill for both services is $380 / month. That includes three phone lines, but still, it’s crazy expensive compared to what you’d pay for a reliable connection in a stick house.
RV Park Wifi
When you stay at an RV park, they almost always advertise “Free WiFi” these days. It’s an amenity as sought after as water, electric and sewage, and nowadays more common than even a cable TV hookup.
But advertised and reliable are drastically different. I’ve found that most RV parks have very, very poor internet access. Not always the case, sure, but nearly always.
Even when a fast connection is available, you may be sharing it with ten to fifty other rigs in the park. Where your particular spot is in relation to the router(s) is a factor. And finally, the biggest problem is contacting IT support, aka Bob and Gertrude behind the front desk. After hours and the web is down? Are you really going to wake up the campground hosts at midnight to ask them to reboot their router? Even during the day, making two of these calls, let alone needing to make three, five, ten of them in one day, is going to either get you shunned from the ice cream social or, at very least, frustrated that you even need to make the call.
When you find it, WiFi in campgrounds and hotels is a luxury, but it’s not a reliable connection for those of us who depend upon the web for our livelihood.
Other Sources of WiFi
Significantly more reliable than cellular connections and campground/hotel WiFi are public Internet access points like coffee shops (primarily), and to a lesser extent bars, restaurants, and the like. Coffee shops reign supreme in this arena as it’s traditionally more accepted to sit staring into your computer for several hours over a cup of coffee than it is to, say, hang out two hours after your meal is done at a restaurant, or clog up a barstool while perusing the web.
Nearly every town with a population of 3,000 or more has a coffee shop. This gives you an opportunity to get out and see the world, while connecting to the web, that sitting in your particular RV lot can never provide.
Admittedly, I have absolutely no experience with satellite. I don’t know how fast or how reliable it is firsthand. What I can tell you is this: satellite internet requires you to have little to absolutely no tree cover in the direction of the satellite. I like trees, and the world is covered in them. It also requires you to setup a satellite dish in one way or another every time you call a new place home. None of the other options, except “Free WiFi at coffee shops”, requires you to put in so much effort just to get online.
And the prices are usually more than $70 / month. You make the decision for yourself on that one.
In the end, what better advice is there than real life usage? Here’s our specific setup:
Verizon MyFi. I purchased an unlimited data plan off of eBay. Since Verizon made it impossible to transfer accounts between people in October of 2014, I just purchased it from a person who handles all of the details. That is, I’m on his plan. It was a little sketchy at first, I mean, he could at any time cut me off, but it’s been three months and I haven’t had a problem. Of course, if you went the same route, you’d be dealing with someone else entirely, and I’m still at his mercy to keep the service going, so it’s not an ideal situation. However, it’s unlimited data.
Compare that to the plan we had with Verizon, which was 30GB for $150 / month (and that was during one of their “double data” sales”). We would burn through that amount of data in three weeks, and were consistently paying over $200 after the overage fees were added.
So taking a risk that my service could be shut off at any time is well worth it, and in three months I’ve already saved enough in overages that even if the guy were to shut me off right after I made next month’s payment, I’d still be saving money.
Cellular Data Plan Backup. I also rely somewhat on my iPhone to supply me the necessary bandwidth to run my business and stay in touch with friends, clients and family. For three adults, with unlimited texting on all phones, 1400 shared minutes of calling time, and unlimited data on two phones + 3GB of data on one line, we rarely go over our minutes. When it was just two of us on the plan, we got by with the 700 minutes of call time. There have been times when, without this connection, I would have had no access to the web.
That’s it. Two ways to connect to the web that we pay for. We maybe watch video at night on RV park WiFi one out of ten times. The bandwidth just isn’t typically there to support us and however many other guests are trying to do the same. For work, that is uploading/downloading files all day long and checking email, RV park WiFi is a 50/50 bet. There’s usually a reliable coffee shop I can go to if things don’t work out, but that’s not ideal, and certainly not something you can rely on for late night client emergencies or even long days working when some shops are too busy for you to take up a table from 7am to 9pm.
Bottom line? Rethink your approach to the web. Load pages you’ll need later in new tabs, and conserve your bandwidth: someday you may need it.