How We Stay Connected Sailing The World – Free Wifi, Phones, & Satellite
Sailing off into the deep blue and disconnecting from the mainland sounds lovely. But, in reality, we live in a digital era that requires at least a little connectivity. And, if you’re among those of us who are working while traveling, internet isn’t a luxury, it’s our livelihood.
Cell phones, internet and WiFi have become primary tools for travelers and especially us digital nomads.
Staying connected is fundamental to our work (yes, we do work) but its more than that. It’s how we monitor the weather, stay in touch with friends and family, do our bookkeeping, file our taxes, learn what’s going on in the world and (worst case scenario here) call for help in the middle of an ocean.
We say weather dictates our travels but if we’re totally honest, connectivity likely holds equal weight.
As sailors there is a big difference between connectivity while coastal cruising vs offshore sailing. We do both, so this is an overview of all the ways we stay connected while near land and offshore. Plus, sometimes we’re somewhere so remote that our offshore setup is our best onshore option.
Internet On A Sailboat & Around The World
We try to strike a balance between simple, efficient and affordable.
Very important to remember: we’re not experts, we’re experienced! After eight years of working and traveling about the world, we know what works best for us. And that is the key point here.
As with all things, what works best for us, may not be the same for you.
How you travel, how often you need to be connected, what kind of speeds, and how much data you consume are major variables. We’ll share what works for us and hopefully, it’ll give you an idea of where to start your research.
For us, a daily internet connection is ideal but a couple of times a week is obligatory for work purposes. We upload videos and photos, update our website, manage our social media accounts, answer emails, handle all of our bookkeeping and do lots of general surfing & research for our next destinations.
We consume around 25-50 gigs of data each month.
Public WIFI, Free or Paid
Finding a place with Free Wi-Fi is sometimes fun, but mostly a daunting task for us. Sure, if you’re in a well-developed country, finding good wifi isn’t difficult. Start wandering into the more remote, undeveloped parts of the world and this is where things start to get challenging.
If a hotel, restaurant, or cafe has decent internet speeds, going for a beer and an upload is awesome. But it’s not common since we left the USA. Most of the time, if we’re in need of internet, so are others. Meaning, that the WiFi signal is going to have a lot of users and slow speeds. Or, we’re simply in an area with slow and/or expensive internet (hello French Polynesia). If they are offering it up for free, it’s probably not very fast. The same rings true for public parks, libraries, and government offices. It’s a roll of the dice, some days it might work while others it can be bogged down so bad it won’t even download email.
Paid Wifi can be a good option if it exists. Cyber cafés are still common in certain regions of the world and while they may not be free, they are often more reliable connections with faster speeds.
Free or paid, we’ve learned to call ahead and ask questions such as: Do you have Wi-Fi? Is it currently working? Will it play a YouTube Video? Can I download and upload files? The answers to all of these questions vary each time and help us find the best place to get some solid work done.
Capturing and Boosting Free WiFi
We have a nifty little device that helps us find and connect to WiFi hotspots from long distances.
As we travel with our home, sometimes we luck out and a nearby restaurant, café or hotel has free wifi. When this happens, we turn on our Wifi Ranger and do a happy dance!
There are lots of wifi boosters out there. From our research, the two best options are the feature-rich Wifi Ranger ($749) and the more basic Rouge Wave ($360). They both are great at boosting wifi signals from long distances, but the Wifi Ranger has additional features that make it the better option for us.
- Load Balancing – WiFi Ranger can tether to our smartphone and other WiFi sources and simultaneously load balance data for maximum speed and reliability. However, it’s important to remember there is no compensation for slow internet speeds, this device just boosts the signal, not the service itself. When we’re working with super slow connections, knowing we can combine for a slightly better and stronger connection can be a game-changer.
- Networking – The router allows us to connect all our devices to one signal, which is great when a place wants to sell you a code for each device.
- Bandwidth Management – Keeps tabs on data usage and speeds for each device if desired, allowing for automated parental control and data plan conservation.
- Extra Security – WPA2 encryption, firewall, and SafeSurf feature encrypt all data to help add an extra level of security to unsecured public networks.
We’ve been using the Wifi Ranger since our RV days and it has proved its value even more aboard our sailboat. While others have to make their way to the marina office to get online, we’re comfortable working from our salon table. Or…here in French Polynesia, it’s not uncommon to have a fancy hotel near our anchorage. We can pop over for a happy hour, get a 24-hour wifi pass, and have 24 hours of decent free wifi on our boat! The bonus is the speeds typically pick up overnight so downloading that new episode of Peaky Blinders isn’t just a pipe-dream.
The WiFi Ranger is installed on our hardtop for a maximum line of sight (not at the top of the mast, then it would be too high, not line of sight & too long of a cable) and boosts any accessible WiFi signal from up to two miles away (but we say half a mile because that has been our experience. Any further and the signal drops often or the data speeds plummet).
The Ranger isn’t something we use often, but when we luck out it’s a downloading, uploading, updating party (overnight and respectfully. We are careful not to overload the WiFi so it doesn’t ruin the experience for others).
Cell Phone Data / Dedicated Hotspot
Whether it’s a hotspot created from a cell phone (which is what we do) or a designated device, a hotspot is typically the most simple, efficient and affordable way to go.
We have two cell phones on board with two different plans.
It’s always a good idea to have one unlocked, GSM, quad-band, phone to use with a local SIM. It works as our local phone number. We use our iPhone for this. We can take advantage of any affordable local data plans, make local phone calls and more importantly, locals can call us. Appointments of any sort such as customs, a doctor appointment, tour guide, taxi, local that invited us for dinner…there are lots of scenarios where a local number comes in handy.
SIM cards are available in most countries around the world. We simply head to the nearest convenience store, post office, or even grocery store and ask for a local SIM card with data (very important to specify with “data”, some SIM cards are calls only). More often than not, the person selling the SIM will even set up your phone for you. They want to make sure it works and you’re happy before you leave the store, this way you’ll come back to ‘top up’ when your plan is poked.
There are more options than ever out there for international cell/data plans. Most of them are expensive and don’t make sense for us as long-term travelers. We used to use Google Fi but they have started to crack down on people who don’t touch down occasionally back in the USA. It is for USA-based residents only for now, but it’s Google, surely they’ll expand?!?
So, we moved our phone number to Google Voice which is free and wifi based. (just use a VPN to sign up if you are outside of the USA). We have a consistent phone number for business purposes that doesn’t change, still has voice mail, and works great for calls back to the USA (long chats with our family and friends).
Do You Need A Burner Phone?
We have one of our old phones we use as a burner phone (the cheap phones you don’t care about) for one purpose: BIG uploads and downloads.
Why anyone would leave an expensive laptop in a marina office, restaurant, hotel, bar, or anywhere else is beyond me. My laptop is my main source of work. It would be a massive headache and expense if it were damaged or stolen. No Thank You!
When we need to download or upload a big file that will take all night, we use the burner phone. Many large software updates can be downloaded and then installed later. We transfer our YouTube videos to the phone and then leave it overnight for uploads. We always attach a business card with our contact info in case the night shift doesn’t communicate with the morning shift. So…if you have these sorts of internet needs, get a burner phone or just keep an old phone (broken screen and all) for these tasks.
Boosting Cell Phone Signal and Data
We have a booster that does just that, boosts our cell and data signal inside the sailboat. It can boost cell signals up to 32x and enhances 4G LTE and 3G signals. Meaning it can help drastically improve the quality of our calls and the speeds of our data.
Being out on anchor can really put some distance between us and the cell tower, especially in more remote, less populated areas. Having more powerful antennas to give us a boost makes a world of difference.
It’s amazing how many times this booster has taken us from no bars to making solid phone calls or from no data signal to 3g or 4g. It’s the difference of being able to work from the comfort of our traveling home or having to go into town and find somewhere with wifi.
I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been the only boat in the anchorage able to make calls or get online. It’s saved our butts in the Bahamas, Panama, Ecuador and now French Polynesia!
It’s important to know NOT all boosters are created equal. Many only boost cell or data, not both. Some are even illegal to use in certain countries. Plus, some claim to do the job better and cheaper, but will only disappoint in the end. So make sure to read the fine print when researching. WeBoost ($479) has been our go-to for over six years because we’ve always found it preforms well.
The weBoost 4G-X is the main device and comes with a basic outdoor and indoor antenna…but we upgraded both antennas and highly recommend doing so if you are traveling to remote areas. The bigger the antenna, the bigger the boost.
OUR CELL / DATA BOOSTING SET UP
- Drive 4G-X – http://amzn.to/29btEia
- Upgraded Marine Outside Antenna – https://amzn.to/2Rvbz18
- 20ft Cable – http://amzn.to/298I834
- Upgraded Inside Antenna – http://amzn.to/299hS6k
Satellite Internet On A Boat
If money & space are plentiful then so are your satellite options. For thousands of dollars in equipment, thousands in install costs and thousands worth of data every month, you can connect from almost anywhere (yes, there still are some limitations).
It’s one thing to have the equipment and capability to make a basic phone call or download a 250kb weather grib file…but quite another to be able to upload a video to YouTube or stream Amazon Prime from the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Satellite on a boat is tricky and not just because of price. Boats move and moving requires a high-tech satellite that can maintain a connection and compensate for angled signals as the boat veers towards the poles. Starlink will start to become an option soon…but it’s not available to us yet.
But sometimes entry-level is better than nothing and, in this case, it’s pretty freakin’ amazing. Enter the Iridium Go!
We’ve been using the Iridium Go for years now and while it is basic communications and connectivity, we couldn’t imagine sailing about the world without it.
Why? Because being able to download the latest weather, send photos, text messages, and emails, and make calls from the middle of an ocean is pretty freakin’ incredible!
Ok, what is Iridium Go?
- A compact, rugged and portable device that provides global SAT voice and data on up to five different devices (smartphones, laptops or tablets).
- Simple operation – flip up the antenna and it auto connects to create a wifi hotspot.
- Once connected to the hotspot we can use the Iridium apps to: make voice calls, access our iridium specific email, tweet, send photos, send SMS (text), create GPS tracking, send an SOS alert…and most impressive/important…use our Predict Wind Offshore App!
- It’s compact and made as a standalone unit. Water, sand and dust resistant, it can be tossed in a backpack and taken on any adventure.
- Works with the PredictWind Offshore App – Hands down our fave feature and go-to for weather forecasts. PredictWind is off the charts fantastic for all things sailing/wind/water-related. Detailed PWG/PWE, ECMWF, GFS and GMDSS forecasts. GRIBs, satellite imagery, weather routing…seriously, its nuts. We’re like our own meteorologists with this much info.
Sailors Need The Marine Package
Because we’re out on the open seas and not just going on a remote mountain trail, we have the PredictWind Iridium GO! Marine Package ($999). It’s an outdoor antenna that is essential for connecting while sailing.
Iridium SIM Cards from PredictWind have no activation fees and open term contracts that can be canceled at any time (they even pro-rate). This is very important! Because we can turn on and off the service as needed. If we are going to stay in one area for a month (or more) with good connectivity, why pay for a monthly service we won’t use?!?
We activate our service just before each offshore passage that lasts more than 24 hours. We always go with the unlimited data plan which currently cost US$139.95/month. This gives us a 150 minutes of voice calls and unlimited data. So, we can send photos, emails and download weather as much as we want without worries of a massive SAT bill.
Plus, if you purchase through PredictWind, they offer a GPS tracking page for your boat. It can be embedded into your own blog or simply shared with family and friends. It has automatic hourly updates, so others can monitor your progress.
If you stop or have a drastic change in course, friends can see you may need assistance…and send you a text message. Like the time my uncle wondered why we had just made a sharp left turn. That’s when I had to explain that sailboats don’t always sail in a straight line, they tack.
We also have the Garmin InReach ($449) which is a punchy little device we’ve come to love. It’s geared towards the adventure seeker and that is exactly why we like it. This one goes with us everywhere, not just on the water. You need a monthly plan and they vary from $12 – $80 per month depending on your needs.
- GPS Navigation / TOPO Maps — Built-in digital compass, barometric altimeter, and accelerometer help maintain accurate bearings. Plus, detailed TOPO graphics and route mapping.
- Tracking – We have our own tracking map with waypoint marking and breadcrumb trails. We use it to track our sailing routes and big hikes so friends and family can see how we’re doing in real-time (we also share access to this map with our Patreons).
- Two Way Texting – 100% global iridium satellite coverage
- Weather – We can get basic weather reports or choose a premium marine forecast for an extra $1 fee. We found the weather info helpful during our Ecuador road trip inland. Lots of cellular dead zones in the Andes Mountains.
- Interactive SOS – Triggering the SOS sends a message to GEOS, a professional 24/7 global monitoring center. They respond to your message, track your device and notify emergency responders in your area. GEOS will stay in touch with you and your emergency contacts until your situation is resolved. The tracking/SOS gave us peace of mind heading up into extreme altitudes of Ecuador and the Cloud Forest of Panama.
- Connected – The inReach is fully functional on its own, but it also connects with our smartphones, iPad, and Garmin Quantx Watch which makes it more user-friendly.
We think the inReach is an exceptional device for all of our adventures. If we’re taking Minion (our dinghy) on a long trip or heading inland it’s always with us. It’s way more feature-rich than the SPOT or Ocean Signal rescueME, and we think a better gadget to have on board. If you’re debating between the Iridium Go and the inReach I can only offer this: We have them both, we like them both for different reasons and redundancy is always good on a sailboat. Land adventures, the Garmin wins hands down. But, if you are offshore sailing and crossing oceans, the PredictWind + Iridum Go would be my first choice.
Internet Creepers & Safety Concerns
You know, those creepers in the corner drinking cheap whiskey attached to the same network you are. If they really wanted to, they could connect to your computer and intercept credit card numbers or worse, your deepest darkest internet searches! We all know we should never use a public network to log into bank accounts or check our credit card balances…but there’s a simple workaround.
VPNs (we use SurfShark) can be a globe-trotting-working-nomads savior. Like that time when we wanted to YouTube Live chat with our Patrons, but YTL was blocked in Ecuador (true story). Once we realized what the issue was, we turned on the VPN, and voilà, we were live streaming (and probably violating some Ecuadorian internet laws…but hey, what’s a YouTuber to do?).
What about SSB?
Because I know some will ask. We do have an SSB, and it works, but we (almost) never use it. We have tuned into a weather report once, just to see how it functions, but that was it. I have scanned the channels while out at sea, yet never heard a peep. With the increase of sailors having other options, like the Iridium Go, less and less people are using SSB. I’m not saying its dead, as I do know a few sailors that still love it. But, I am saying it is the backup to our backup and nowhere near our primary.
You have reached the end of the internet
Or, at least the end of this mobile internet discussion. And honestly, I can’t believe you are still with me! Whew, you are in serious research mode. Good for you! Then I have another goody for you.
If you are based in North America or planning on spending a solid amount of time there, I have one recommendation. Check out the Mobile Internet Handbook and join the Mobile Internet Aficionados group. Internet options in North America, and specifically the USA, are plentiful. It can be a bear to wrap your head around. These guys are the gurus and can help guide you along based on your needs and budget. They have more gear reviews than I have sunglasses. And for those that know me, that’s a statement.
What’s working for you?
Maybe you’ve found something brilliant that could help us all out. Share the knowledge friend, share the knowledge! If we’ve just saved you hundreds of dollars or at least a few hours of research…buy us a brew.