Many people who live on the road (myself included) are able to do so by working remotely, which usually requires internet access on a fairly regular basis. There are several different ways to do this, depending on how fast you need the connection to be and where you spend the majority of your time.
In this article, I’ll share how I get internet while traveling as well as how my friend Jeff gets internet access, and we’ll look at a few other options as well.
After taking a poll of my van/bus friends, I found that the most widely used and cost effective way to get internet when living in a van is to simply use data from your cell phone plan and hotspot to your laptop. This will create an internet connection anywhere that you have phone service. Below, we’ll dive into the many other ways you can use as backups to make sure you can get internet service just about anywhere your travels take you.
How I Get Internet on the Road
Personally, I use my cell data to hotspot my laptop the majority of the time. I have T-Mobile cell service, which unfortunately doesn’t have the greatest service coverage (although it has improved significantly lately), but I am on a family plan and am able to take advantage of some discounts that my sister is eligible for as well as our rate that has been grandfathered in for many years.
So, I only pay about $50 a month for my portion of the bill, which includes unlimited talk and text, unlimited data, and unlimited hotspot capabilities (although the speed is throttled severely after 15 GB).
I work as a freelance writer and editor, so my internet usage is mostly limited to doing basic research and sending links to completed articles to my clients, with some occasional uploading of photos and so forth. Fortunately, even a slow connection usually works for what I need to do although it can be frustrating to wait around.
Also, many times I can write mostly from experience or from a few sources, so I can open up the pages on my computer when I have access to a good connection and then work offline to complete the project. I work less than full-time hours, so it wasn’t worth it to me to invest in a more intense internet solution, although I may upgrade in the future.
How My Friend Jeff Gets Internet in His Van
I also talked with my friend Jeff (@baldinthetrees) about how he gets internet in his van. Jeff creates construction diagrams for fiber optic communications infrastructure on a contract basis. He works nearly 40 hours a week and needs reliable internet service, primarily for sending emails, accessing Google Maps, making phone calls, and occasionally doing research.
When Jeff first hit the road, he used his Verizon cell data to hotspot his laptop plus a JetPack hotspot, which gave him a total of 30 GBs of data per month. He then upgraded his phone’s hotspot amount to 30 GBs for 45 total GBs, before eventually adding a Pepwave mobile router to his system.
Jeff mentioned that he specifically chose Verizon after doing research and finding that they had the best coverage throughout the country, which is certainly true.
The Pepwave router accepts multiple SIM cards, so for example, you could have a Verizon card and a T-Mobile card in it, and then you could switch between those two cards to select whichever has better coverage at your location.
Jeff told me that the router can also boost existing wifi networks inside your van, and makes it so that all the devices you have hooked up to the router only read as one device on the wifi network. He is currently staying in an organized campground and is able to boost the park’s wifi inside his van using his router.
He said that he paid about $550 all-in to set up the router, and he is considering upgrading by adding an external antenna. The router comes with a small antenna but nothing that goes outside the van, although there is an exterior one available separately.
Jeff and I also discussed a new plan that he had recently discovered called RVDataSat which promises truly unlimited and unthrottled data for $99 a month. It also uses the Pepwave router and can work on any major network. We agreed that since this sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
In order to get started, you need to pay $419 for the router, $50 for an activation fee, and $198 for the first two months of service, which totals to $667. And, if you don’t like it or it doesn’t work, you can only return the device within 72 hours for a refund, although the shipping charges, one month of service, and the activation fee are non-refundable, giving the whole thing a sketchy vibe.
I’ve also spoken to other travelers who have invested in similar devices, only to have the company who operates it fold after a year or two. So, if RVDataSat is still around in a few years, maybe we’ll consider it.
Finally, Jeff also pointed out that since he works on a contract basis and is therefore technically self-employed, he is able to write off all of his equipment (computer, router, phone) and cell and internet service costs when he does his taxes, which is important to keep in mind when you are shopping for internet service that you’ll use for work on the road!
My Alternative Methods for Getting Internet on the Road
As I mentioned above, I primarily use my cell data as an internet source. However, sometimes I don’t have cell service or I need “real” internet for various things or I want to watch Netflix. Here are my other solutions…
Aaron’s Cell Data
My partner Aaron has a Verizon plan, which is the gold standard among van/buslifers because as I’ve mentioned, it has better coverage in rural and remote areas than other carriers, so sometimes he has service when I don’t.
I usually don’t sit and work on his hotspot, but it’s nice to be able to check for messages from clients, quickly submit work, and so forth. Verizon offers some pretty good unlimited plans, but they aren’t cheap, especially if you aren’t on a family plan.
Coffee Shops (And Other Establishments)
Pre-pandemic, I spent a lot of time working in Starbucks. Starbucks stores pretty much always have decent free wifi, air conditioning, tables and (sometimes) comfy chairs, plenty of outlets, a bathroom, and, obviously, food and coffee. They are also quite relaxed and won’t kick you out even if you just purchase a latte and then sit at a table and work for eight hours.
In fact, I was talking with a store manager one time and she said that you don’t even have to buy anything at all in order to be allowed to hang out in a Starbucks, but I always end up buying a coffee because it fuels my work and it’s delicious!
Sometimes I am adventurous or the rare situation arises where there is not a Starbucks in the town we are in, so I try out other coffee shops, which I’ve usually found to have delicious drinks but often slower internet, higher prices, and fewer outlets. I’ve also occasionally worked in breweries, public libraries, and other places that have wifi where it’s considered acceptable to linger for several hours.
Unfortunately, this isn’t really an option during the pandemic since many businesses are closed altogether or only offer takeout for food and drinks.
Parking Close to Stores
We also occasionally take advantage of far-reaching store wifi networks by parking as close as possible to the building so that we can stream Netflix at night without burning through our cell data. It’s rare to get a good enough connection to stream shows without buffering, but it occasionally happens.
We’ve also streamed college football games by parking super close to a Burger King and mooching their internet (go Cougs!).
Whenever I open my laptop, I always first check for public wifi networks, because sometimes there are city networks or networks from businesses that I can’t even see that somehow reach the bus. It’s always worth checking.
Use Structural Ribs of Vehicle as a Signal Booster?
Now, this is purely anecdotal, but I’ve found that sometimes if I have no service at all or such minimal service that I can’t load anything, I can improve the service to a workable level simply by placing my phone on our headboard or on the shelf behind the couch and aligning it with one of the metal bus ribs. Perhaps the ribs function as an antenna somehow, I’m not sure, but this has worked on more than one occasion.
Using Special Equipment to Get Internet in a Van
Some people who work more regular hours and need consistent internet access like Jeff opt to use more sophisticated technology. Let’s take a look at some of the options available.
Signal boosters are perhaps the simplest add-on. They are small devices that you attach to the top of your rig or raise on a telescoping pole, where they can then amplify an existing cell signal to give you better reception.
The most popular device among vanlifers is the WeBoost, which comes in two models for RVs – one that is permanently mounted and can be used while driving, and one that is designed only for stationary use.
The nice thing about signal boosters is that they are only a one-time expense, rather than some other options which require subscriptions or monthly plans. They can boost an unusable one-bar signal to a three-bar signal that functions well enough for work purposes, but these boosters can’t make a signal out of nothing so there needs to be some signal to start with.
I have also heard complaints that the WeBoost only boosts the signal within about a two-foot radius of the indoor receiver, which isn’t a huge problem when you live in a tiny van, but is nonetheless inconvenient.
Hot spots are another option, like the JetPack that Jeff used before he got his router. These basically are added on to your phone plan like an extra line that is specifically for data.
Like a phone, these need cell service to work, and they are often limited to around 15 GBs per month. Most phone carriers offer some version of a hotspot.
Satellite internet is technically an option, but I’ve never met or even heard of anyone having great success with it. From what I hear, it’s expensive, the connections are often slow, and it requires a wide-open landscape and perfect alignment with the satellite in space (obviously hard to achieve) in order to work properly. You also must be stationary to use it.
HughesNet and DISH offer pay-as-go satellite internet plans, but unless you are an existing residential customer, your prices will be higher. Plus, the installation cost of the dish and other hardware can run you $6,000 on average. Some monthly plans can then cost as much as $400. So, for most nomads living out of a van, this is neither practical nor necessary.
As Jeff mentioned, he now uses a Pepwave mobile router that uses third party SIM cards and can amplify existing wifi networks. These don’t require outside antennas (although you can add one) and they can take multiple SIM cards from different networks, so you can switch based on whatever network has better coverage where you are.
There are other routers available for mobile use, and basically every cell carrier offers some type of plan with varying amounts of data. However, all of these plans are essentially $85 to $100+ per month.
Downsides and Expectations for Vanlife Internet
Unfortunately, internet access while traveling is never going to be as fast, easy, or consistent as a home wifi network. Here are some of the main cons that I’ve found.
Not Always Reliable
There’s never a guarantee of workable internet when you are traveling, which can make it difficult to plan ahead or accept jobs without knowing if you’ll have enough service to complete them. Internet isn’t even guaranteed at a Starbucks – I’ve walked in, bought my coffee, and got all settled to work, only to discover that their internet was down that day.
Might Affect Travel Plans
If you have to be online for work certain hours every day, it can be difficult to choose locations ahead of time, since you never know how your service will be, especially in rural or remote areas. I’ve had to make detours into towns solely for the purpose of finding service.
However, if you are flexible and always have a couple of destination options in mind, it’s not insurmountable. You can also check the OpenSignal app before you drive somewhere to see if there’s service there. Of course, the app isn’t 100% accurate, but it can give you a pretty good idea.
It Will Probably Be Slow
I’ve found that even very good hotspot connections and most public wifi is slower than what we used to have in our apartment, which is to be expected. Most of the time it’s fast enough to not cause a problem, but sometimes you may have to wait for pages to load and especially images or videos. As long as you aren’t in a huge rush, it’s not a big deal.
Connections Are Not Secure
Public wifi networks are not secure, so don’t do anything sensitive like banking or entering your personal details to avoid being targeted by hackers and having your information stolen. I use my phone to do anything sensitive to avoid this risk.
Another solution is to purchase a subscription from a Virtual Private Network (VPN) provider. A VPN will provide encryption for your devices, so hackers will have a much harder time intercepting or deciphering your sensitive information.
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