Whether you’re just using the internet to find the odd gas station, or living and working full time on the road, chances are you want some kind of internet connectivity in your RV.
Here’s everything every type of traveler needs to know about choosing the right RV internet.
How will you use the internet on the road?
Before you go shopping for RV internet solutions, ask yourself how much internet connectivity do you really need.
If you use your RV to take weekend trips or short family vacations, then internet access may not be important to you. You might even welcome a break from constant notifications losing the kids to screen time.
But if you plan to live and work full time on the road, turning in work and taking Zoom meetings, then you’ll want to cover every possible internet contingency.
Or maybe you’re somewhere in between. I know I love getting out into nature during the day, but at night I like to unwind with a Netflix show or two.
Before you start buying expensive equipment or modifying your cellular data plan, let’s look at how much internet data common on-the-road activities use.
What types of RV internet are available?
Before we get to what type of RV internet is right for you, let’s look at all of your on-the-road internet options.
Cellular Data and Personal Wi-Fi
These days cellular service is widely available all over the country, and it’s the most common type of internet connectivity an RV traveler will use.
Some carriers also sell mobile Wi-Fi, which is a little different than cellular data.
There are a few ways to use Cellular Data:
- Use your device – Simply use your phone or mobile device’s cellular data just like you do at home.
- Use your device’s mobile hotspot – Turn on your smartphone’s hotspot feature. This allows you to connect other devices (like laptops or tablets) to your hotspot and access the internet using your cellular data. Keep in mind that connecting multiple devices to your phone’s hotspot can drain both the phone’s battery and your mobile data plan.
- Purchase an external mobile hotspot device – These devices create localised mobile hotspot. While technically considered Wi-Fi, they still rely on wireless networks. Mobile hotspot devices range from $100 to $500+. You can buy either no-contract mobile hotspot devices and then purchase prepaid mobile data or buy a device connected to a cellular carrier. (You might hear these called “MiFi” devices as a shorthand way of saying “Mobile Wi-Fi,” but MiFi is actually a mobile hotspot brand name.)
- Boost your cellular signal – The RV Geeks recommend a cellular booster with an external antenna. They use the Drive Reach RV OTR cellular booster, and report that they get “stronger, more reliable and faster connections in places that used to be frustrating.”
Before choosing to go with cellular, keep your phone’s data plan in mind. It can be easy to blow through your entire cellular data plan on the road. For example, streaming an hour of HD television can use up to 3 gigabytes (GBs) of data per hour. That’s only about 5 hours of HD streaming on a 15gb data plan. Or 16 hours of streaming on a 50gb data plan. And that doesn’t leave any data for anything else!
Even some “unlimited” data plans can turn out to be limited. Many carriers reserve the right to slow your connection after you’ve used a certain amount of data per month. Be sure to read the fine print on your wireless plan before heading out into the great unknown.
What about in-vehicle WiFi? These days, some RVs (and other vehicles) come with built in WiFi capabilities. For the budget conscious, though, keep in mind that in-car WiFi isn’t connected to your home or mobile internet plans, and is often an additional monthly bill.
RV Internet Pro Tip: If you buy a mobile hotspot device, consider using a different carrier/service provider than your main day-to-day cellular carrier. Cellular carrier ranges don’t always overlap. Sometimes a Verizon signal works where AT&T does not, and vice versa. Doubling up on service providers can ensure you stay more connected when off the beaten track.
Should you use cellular data and personal WiFi as RV internet?
An unlimited cellular data plan (or two from different carriers) plus gadgets like mobile hotspots, cellular boosters and WiFi range extenders can get you on the internet almost anywhere your RV can carry you.
The budget-conscious traveler should just keep in mind that multiple data plans and gadgets can start to get expensive in a hurry, with both upfront costs and monthly payments.
RVers can often find public Wi-Fi at locations like McDonalds, libraries or coffee shops. Or you can take advantage of Wi-Fi available at many campgrounds and RV parks. Digital nomads may opt to hotdesk at a co-working space when you need to deal with a heavy workload.
However, public Wi-Fi speeds can drop when networks are crowded – such as on a summer evening in a packed RV park.
And, public Wi-Fi networks aren’t secure. Be wary of entering sensitive bank or credit card information over public Wi-Fi.
Opting for Wi-Fi? One common complaint is that WiFi signal can be weak in a large RV park or if you opt to take a work video call outside in say, a McDonald’s parking lot.
To counteract this issue, you can purchase a WiFi range extender. These devices intercept WiFi signals and extend them, creating a stronger and faster internet connection.
Should you use public WiFi when traveling in your RV?
Public WiFi is best for short trips where you plan to get away from it all. RVers who plan ahead can often get away with simply using public WiFi when available. This is also the least expensive option when it comes to RV internet.
RVers who travel off the beaten path might turn to satellite internet for a connection where cellular service isn’t available.
The pros of satellite is that you can get it just about anywhere. This is handy when there are no other internet service options around.
But the cons are many. Satellite internet is expensive to install. Satellite dishes started at $100+ on the low end, and satellite service is generally $99/month or more.
And satellite internet is generally noticeably slower than cellular internet or Wi-Fi.
However, satellite internet may be in for an overhaul which would make it a more interesting option for RVers. A handful of companies, like SpaceX’s Starlink, are currently aiming to blanket the world in a network of low orbit satellites. This would increase satellite internet speeds and lower latency.
Should you use satellite internet in your RV?
If you spend a lot of time deep in the backcountry, satellite internet is likely your best mobile internet option. However, satellite internet is expensive, requiring both equipment and a monthly payment.
Internet Pro Tips for RV Travelers
If you only use your RV for vacations and weekend trips, you may not want to go to the trouble and expense of a full RV internet setup.
These tips help you get away from it all while still remaining safe, secure and on track to your destination.
- Find out how you really use the internet in your RV – You may think you’ll require all the comforts (and HD video) of home, but your family actually prefers to leave the internet behind while traveling. Or you may think you can get away, but work emergencies always seem to barge in on your vacation time. Do a few test runs before investing in potentially expensive RV Internet service and equipment.
- Download maps ahead of time – Most navigation apps let you download your route and navigate offline. Or you can even navigate via paper map like an old timey pioneer! (AKA My dad.)
- Plan ahead for stops – Ever been running on empty with no cell signal and clue where the next RV-friendly gas station lies? I have and I don’t recommend it! Account for dump stations, dangerous stretches of road, and your campsites, too.
- Use airplane mode – If your data usage is really down to the wire, follow this tip from international travelers and leave your device in airplane mode until you really need it.
- Prepare for emergencies – If venturing into an area with iffy internet connection, let a friend know where you’re going and when you’ll be back in range. This is a safeguard for the (highly unlikely) event that you don’t check back in.
RV Internet Resources for Travelers
These handy websites and apps help keep you connected and mobile.
- Internet Speed Test – Quickly and easily test your download and upload speed. (You can also simply type “Internet Speed Test” into Google’s search bar and their speed test will come up.)
- Coverage? – Check cell signal coverage for all the major cellular providers in just one app! Especially hand if you use more than one wireless carrier.
- AT&T Wireless Coverage Map
- Verizon Wireless Coverage Map
- T-Mobile Cell Coverage Map
- The Mobile Internet Resource Center – Helping you live a Mobile & Connected lifestyle with unbiased information on mobile internet options for RV and boat travels.