Staying connected on the road is one of the biggest campfire discussions and a deal breaker for many travelers. Cell service and Internet are extremely fundamental to our personal livelihood (yes, we really do work) and for me (nikki) it’s vital to my existence. Without a way to see my cousins latest haircut on Facebook (yes Keri, I’m talking about you), watch my sister’s baby roll over for the first time on YouTube and watch every episode of Downton Abbey; I would become void, turn to dust (kinda like vampires in the sun) and cease to exist. Well obviously I haven’t tested this theory, but I am pretty sure I would.
In an effort to avoid such personal disaster, we try and maintain cell and internet connectivity at least 85% of the time. Here is how we get more bars, stay connected to the ‘real’ world and some other options that are out there for road weary travelers like us.
First, I think it’s important to tell you, we don’t have any form of T.V. (satellite or cableish types of devices, and our HDTV antenna gets crap for reception) so we won’t be going over any of that. We love movies and a few TV series which we stream online. We have not paid for traditional TV in over ten years and don’t plan on it anytime soon. We don’t watch TV and think it’s a serious time suck, (no offense to those who love TV, endless commercials are just not our thing). So, if you are looking for the best options on how to get 690 channels 24hrs a day, we are so very clueless.
Now, let’s get down to business.
We don’t recommend satellite internet for a host of reasons. I am sure there is someone out there that likes it but everyone we have ever known with satellite hates it, home based or on the road. It’s slow, expensive, you can’t park under trees, you can’t use it while driving, it has major usage limits that punish you by down-throttling the mbps…and do you really want to carry around that stinkin’ bulky dish that you have to align to the stars each time you park?
There is really only one true mobile internet option, a hotspot. Whether it’s a hotspot created from your cell phone or a designated device, this is by leaps and bounds the best way to go (in our humble opinion). Not only because we say so, also because most any other travel blogger out there worth their domain will say the same. One common hotspot recommendation (and rightfully so) is Millenicom. It’s a no brainier really, because you can score deals like this…
… with no dreaded contract and still uses Verizon’s network. Just make sure the device you purchase is using Verizon’s network and not sprint or one of the others as the coverage isn’t near as good! There are other hotspot options, but honestly this is the best bet so why bother mentioning anything else (as your time is valuable).
We opted to use our cell phones as hotspots. We are currently locked into a Verizon contract and that’s ok, because Verizon has the best overall coverage (we used to have 1 phone with AT&T and 1 with VZ) and I am grandfathered in on the unlimited data plan. We both use the PDA.net app to tether our phones to our computers. Technically, the app is a violation of the terms of service with Verizon so I wouldn’t go shouting it from the rooftops to Verizon…like I am right now. It has a Wi-Fi option but we have found that tethering has faster and more consistent speeds than using the Wi-Fi option. It’s the easiest all the way around set up for us at this point in our travels.
If you are not locked into a contract, there are other, less expensive cell phone options out there. We suggest going with a good no contract plan as they are cheaper and you can switch at any time. Yes, it’s ok to have commitment issues when it comes to cell phones. Companies such as Straight Talk, TracFone and Page Plus all have affordable plans. The phone selection can be slim so if you must have the latest and greatest this might not work for you. The most important thing with these types of companies is to make sure you get a phone that uses Verizon (our top pick) or AT&T’s network. These companies re-sell for AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile. Make sure you understand which phone is on which carrier. All networks are not created equal.
Boosters, you will probably want one. We have the Wilson Sleek 4g and love it because it’s affordable and it boosts both voice and data communication. Why have less bars and G’s when you can have more? If the kids on the AT&T commercials aren’t proof enough that more is better, well there really is no convincing you. Jason first tested a Wilson Booster’s at Rancho Oso in CA; this campground has zero reception around the park, but walk inside the lodge and, thanks to Wilson, we got 3G 4 bars!
If you want to purchase here are the links to the exact Wilson Boosters and accessories you need for an RV (We received these recommendations directly from Wilson, and have tested them ourselves):
Wilson Sleek 4g with Home Kit
Upgraded Antenna 301125
Lastly, once you are all set, get the Coverage? app. It’s a handy tool that lets you see what kind of cell coverage you’ll have at your next destination, no matter what carrier(s) you have. If you are headed to a campground or a boondocking site that’s going to have little to no coverage, it really is nice to front load work, download a few movies and let people know you will be a little slow in getting back to them.
Let’s talk about why FREE Wi-Fi is never really free. Finding a place with Free Wi-Fi is a seriously daunting task for us, and one we hate having to do on a regular basis. This is where I feel the need to note that not everyone’s definition of “hi-speed” internet is equal. Sure there are apps like Wi-Fi Finder that help, but not every spot that has Wi-Fi is always listed and hotels don’t count if you aren’t a registered guest. We have learned to call ahead and ask questions such as; do you have free Wi-Fi, is it currently working and if so, does it work decently fast (i.e. can I load a video on YouTube)? The answers to all of those questions vary each time, and help us find the best place to work.
The question you have to ask yourself is do you want to spend your time at a library, coffee shop, pub, restaurant or café? Once you arrive at said coffee shop, pub, restaurant or cafe….you now have to purchase something so you don’t become the leach sitting in the corner asking for free bread and water. 2 hours and 4 drinks later the Wi-Fi is not really free anymore. Not to mention that coffee shops can become distracting when filled with hipsters swapping stories about last night’s debauchery, pubs tend to make us utterly useless after beer one (yep, we’re cheap dates) and restaurants are only good for about an hour or two (or as soon as you stop ordering food/booze).
Then there’s the safety concern. You know, those creepers in the corner drinking cheap whiskey attached to the same network you are and if they want they can connect to your computer and intercept credit card numbers or worse, that new eBook on tantric food you’ve been working so hard on! We all know we should never use a public network to log into bank accounts, or check your credit card balances…but what if that eBay auction on the elf slippers ends in five minutes? Do you risk it???
This is as far as our mobile internet knowledge goes, or at least as much as we wish to know. If you want all the nuts and bolts on mobile internet options, boosters and other such gadgets we suggest getting a copy of the Mobile Internet Handbook. It’s written by the original (or at least to us they are) technomads, so buy their book and geek out!
What’s working for you? If we’ve missed something grand please let us know, if we’ve saved you hundreds of thousands of dollars…buy us a beer. Either way, tell us how you increase your bars on the road because we all want to be Happy Connected Travelers!