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 ubiquitous LTE speeds of cellular web connectivity in your city 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.
The first thing to know is that while cell phone providers offer “unlimited” service these days, that is with respect to your phone itself. Your hotspot, if your plan comes with one, will likely be limited to 15 – 30GB or so. That means that if you’re used to working on a laptop or desktop, or want to do a lot of streaming on your tablet, you’ll have to change how you connect to the web, or deal with reduced bandwidth in general.
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 didn’t drop, you could expect it to be available a couple of days from when you clicked the “Buy” button.
But compare that to road trips 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 / Personal Hotspot
All of the cell phone companies these days tout their unlimited data plans. Aside from the reality that simply isn’t true*, this only applies to the data you use on your phone. Once you turn your phone’s hotspot on so that you can use that connection on your laptop or tablet, you’re now doing what’s called “tethering” and there’s a different data limit for that.
* In reality, “unlimited” means they won’t turn you off, but you’ll see significantly reduced speeds after 75GB or so.
Still, connecting to the Internet via a cell phone, tethering or not, is the primary way you’ll get online as a full-time RVer or vanlifer.
We personally use Verizon at the moment, but have happily lived with AT&T in the past. And sometimes we use a combination of the two.
As a family of five (mom, dad + three kids still “at home” with us in our van) we have the following setup. These are all through Verizon.
- My “work” phone. It’s on the Verizon “Get More Unlimited” plan, which costs $55 / month** and comes with 30GB of hotspot data. I rarely use this all up and it’s mostly just for work, but I’ll “treat” the family to a movie or three per month, too.
- My Lady’s phone. Her Verizon plan costs $45 / month and comes with 15GB of hotspot data. This is mostly used for streaming video, podcasts and audiobooks for the kids. We’ll probably bump her up to the same plan that I have shortly, as she regularly runs out of data.
- A Verizon Jetpack. This thing is kind of junk, it has a really hard time getting service, despite only being a year old, but it only costs $10 / month for 15GB of data. Normally it’s $20 / month, but I get 50% off hotspot setups like this with my plan. The same $10 could go to my wife’s phone plan, which actually works. There are advantages to a Jetpack though, as hotspot connections from a phone tend to drop if your computer or tablet are put into sleep mode, so that’s something to consider as well.
This is sufficient data for us, but we have learned to live with less. Once a month or so we’ll go to a Starbucks and download a ton of video to add to or refresh our iPad. The kids then watch this previously downloaded material over and over again, which eats no bandwidth. I am happy to watch shows on my phone. And we can always “top up” our data with Verizon if we run out and want to watch a movie all together on the iPad.
** Pricing listed on this page generally doesn’t include taxes and fees charged by the government via your cell phone provider.
November 2020 Best Cell Phone Plans for RVers
General costs for the best value (value = cost + GB of tethering data) cell phone plans for couples or families with 2 connections.
|Price / Mo||$160||$150||$140|
|LTE Hotspot Data / Line||30GB||30GB||20GB|
|Extras Included||Hulu, Disney+, ESPN+ & Apple Music Included||HBO Max||Netflix|
About the Providers: 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.
As for coverage, it’s impossible to summarize where all you’ll find service, but two things we can comfortably state:
- We have to admit, it’s getting better, getting better all the time.
- You’d be surprised. You may find no service near a popular ski mountain, but then be drenched in bars way up in the woods a few miles north. You may roll into a full on town and see they only have AT&T or Verizon, and neither come with a very strong signal, but then twenty miles outside of town in a vast desert, you’re full bars and chillin’.
There are resources to help you get an idea of where coverage exists.
- All of the providers offer coverage maps. They’re about as reliable as a flat tire.
- Coverage? is an app built by full-time travelers which aims to show you where you can expect cell reception. I have read where they do more than just use the maps provided by the individual carriers, but it’s doubtful that they’re out testing every inch of coverage on all the networks, given what an undertaking that would be for a $2.99 app. Still, it’s more convenient than checking three maps as long as you understand it may not be 100% reliable.
- Finally, Campendium, which is a great resource regardless, offers overlay maps with its Supporter Subscription that’s like $20 / year. Even for free though, if you have a specific area in mind, just look it up on that site and chances are one or more people who’ve camped there before will have reported what their cell service is. This is probably the most reliable way to see where you’ll definitely get a signal.
In the end, we currently recommend Verizon. As far as where you’ll find service, AT&T and Verizon are about equal. For our family, though, Verizon including Apple Music, Disney+ and Hulu in their service is better than just getting HBO Max. You get more “free services” with Verizon for only $10 more per month, and since we use Disney+ and Apple Music every month, we’re actually saving a Lincoln or two.
Data-Only Mobile Hotspot Plans
In general, the most affordable way to get more data will be to buy a data-only plan from the same carrier as you have for your cell phone. With Verizon, for example, on their higher data plans (the one mentioned above) you get 15GB of data for $10 / month (after a 50% discount included with the unlimited data plan on your phone) via a Verizon Jetpack mobile hotspot.
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 well, you still have a chance with the other.
Here’s what you can expect to pay as of November 2020 with Verizon and AT&T. As T-Mobile still isn’t a viable option for nationwide coverage, we haven’t included them here.
|Verizon 16GB||Verizon 30GB||AT&T 15GB||AT&T 35GB|
Prices don’t include taxes and fees. AT&T charges $10 per 2GB of data used over your plan limit. Verizon just limits your speeds to 600kbps after you’ve used your data.
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. 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 the 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 libraries. 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.
When you absolutely need a fast connection, we’ve found Starbucks to be the most reliable. Regardless of your feelings on the behemoth coffee chain, it’s much more likely than not that the closest Starbucks will also have a blazing fast WiFi connection powered by Googe.
Nearly every town with a population of a few thousand 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.
The only real satellite Internet provider for RVs that we’re aware of is RVDataSat. These plans require $7000 – $16,000 equipment installations which are impractical for any type of van or truck camper, and look ridiculous atop even the largest RVs. And that doesn’t include the monthly cost of data.
Outdated but still useful info:
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.
Bottom line? Using your phone as your primary source of Internet-access is both how you’ll do it on the road, and so very different to what you’re used to at your traditional sticks n’ bricks home. Rethink your approach to the web. Load pages you’ll need later in new tabs, and conserve your bandwidth: someday you may need it.