Because I work full-time remotely, staying connected to the Internet is an important aspect of traveling. It’s also required if you want to stream media across the Internet, update our blog, check email, etc. When the Internet isn’t accessible, it’s a real frustration for us and many others!
On this page, I’m going to address the following topics:
- Connectivity options
- Improving your Wi-Fi connectivity
- Tips for conserving data
- Avoiding dead spots in the country
There are basically three types of Internet connectivity options. Really, more like two options.
- Cellular hotspot: While traveling on the road, this is usually your only option until you get somewhere that offers Wi-Fi. Most phones and carriers allow you to turn on a hotspot feature of your phone. This usually cost a few dollars more per month for this option. It allows several devices to connect through one cell phone for Internet connectivity. You can also purchase a MiFi type of device, which is essentially a cell phone without a screen and allows you to connect through it to the Internet. These cost about the same price as a cheap phone ($49) and you pay per gigabyte per month, so there’s not really a huge advantage to having one over a phone with a hotspot option. I would rather have the option of having another phone if needed rather than just MiFi hotspot. I have previously tested the Weboost 4G Sleek cradle cellular booster with zero improvement in my signal (You can check out a previous blog post about that). I recently purchased Weboost’s newly released 4G-X RV cellular booster with impressive results (20db gain)! As of this time, I am currently installing the antenna and will be publishing a blog post on how to do that.
- Campground Wi-Fi: prepare yourself for some of the most unstable, slower than molasses, sometimes nonexistent Wi-Fi you’ve ever used! We’ve traveled over 15,000 miles across 20+ states and there have only been a handful of campgrounds and RV resorts that have offered decent Wi-Fi. Honestly, the free Walmart Wi-Fi that you can sometimes pick up from the parking lot is better than most campgrounds offer! Some places will offer a higher speed Internet service for a small fee per day ($3-5). This can be well worth it! Other campgrounds completely outsource the Internet service they offer through a company called Tengo, which is very flaky service at best from our experience. We had to call for a refund because it was so unusable. Looking online at reviews, it seems many people share the same opinion as us about this service. If that is your only option, it might work, but I would count on having to use your cellular hotspot.
- Satellite Wi-Fi: this is a very expensive option I have not used, but have considered. Hughes Net is probably the best option, but according to Technomadia’s website, they don’t support traveling customers. There does seem to be a way around that, but it sounds a little cumbersome. It’s definitely something to keep an ion though, as their monthly data plans seem comparable to similar cellular data plan pricing.
Improving your Wi-Fi Connectivity
Sometimes the wireless signal at a campground is very weak, depending on where the Wi-Fi antennas are placed throughout the park. Some campgrounds only offer Wi-Fi service at the clubhouse, pool, etc. rather than staggering antennas throughout the entire park. And sometimes the Internet service is terrible, even though you might have a strong Wi-Fi signal to / from the antennas.
If you’re not able to get a site that is close to one of the Wi-Fi antennas (most places will try to accommodate you if you tell them you work full-time remotely), this is where a wireless extender comes in handy. I’m not talking about the $50 extender you can buy at Walmart. I’m talking about a device like the WiFiRranger Elite:
This device can pull in weak wireless signals from up to 2 miles away depending on line of sight visibility. It’s usually more like a half a mile or less in average conditions, which is much better than your phone or computer’s built in antennas can do. This type of device has a built-in router and will re-broadcast the external Wi-Fi signal within your RV. All of your electronic devices can simply be configured to connect to the WiFiRanger’s Wi-Fi signal and if the WiFiRanger is able to establish a connection to an external Wi-Fi signal (either the local campground Wi-Fi or a Chick-fil-A Wi-Fi nearby for example) then you’re set!
Sometimes, though, it can be a pain to get it to stay connected if the campground Wi-Fi network is very flaky. Some campgrounds require you to log into a webpage before you can access the Internet, and that can cause the WiFiRanger to become disconnected until you log into the web page again, sometimes multiple times per day.
Another feature it has is that you can connect to two different Wi-Fi networks and it can load balance across them (increases your overall Internet speed) or failover from one to the other in order to keep you connected. This works OK.
What we have also done occasionally, when there just isn’t any good local Wi-Fi in the area, is to connect the WiFiRanger to one of our cell phone hotspots. That way, everything in the RV is automatically connected through a cell phone without each device having to be connected to the cell phone individually. We have to be very careful though because that can chew away at our data plan pretty quickly if lots of devices are talking on the Internet. Three iPads, two phones, four laptops, and three DVD players… imagine when Apple issues and iOS update for all of the Apple devices, they each download hundreds of megabytes worth of updates. For now, we are using a 100 GB cell data plan, so that gives us some wiggle room.
While there are definitely drawbacks, I find this device is worth the money ($600) and effort overall. Their customer support is really awesome, and it comes with a three-year warranty.
Tips for Conserving Data (while also increasing Internet performance)
- Apple iPhones, and I’m sure Android devices are the same, have an option to specify which apps are allowed to communicate to the Internet using your cellular data plan. I recommend turning off any apps that consume a lot of data. Apple makes this easy to see under the cellular option within the Settings > Cellular area. It will show you how many megabytes or gigabytes each app has consumed over cellular. Facebook is a big one!
- Apple iPhones have an option called Background App Refresh, located in Settings > General. This option, when enabled, allows apps to talk to the Internet in the background so that when you switch to those apps they have the most up-to-date information immediately, such as an updated inbox, updated weather, etc. Well, this uses your Internet connection and therefore your data plan when you are not connected to Wi-Fi. I recommend disabling the option completely unless there are some apps that you need to allow to be updated in the background. I don’t recall what the equivalent option is within Android devices, but I know it’s there.
- Google maps allows you to download the map information (over Wi-Fi, of course ) for a particular geographic area so that you are not using your data plan to render the maps while driving around. This is also great for when you are traveling in an area where you have no cellular service to download the map data on the go. Without the map data, your GPS antenna by itself will not show you where you are. We usually use our Garman RV GPS and traveling across the country, but we use our cell phones when mapping out local destinations. So, when you arrive at a particular destination and you are going to be there for a while, I recommend downloading the Google Maps data (while you’re on a Wi-Fi network) so the map data is available for that area without using your data plan.
- There are also GPS apps, such as Co-Pilot RV, that allow you to download all of the map content for the entire USA ahead of time via Wi-Fi, but these are generally not nearly as good of a GPS as Google maps or a dedicated GPS device (I highly recommend the Garmin 760LMT, which is an RV model).
- If you are connecting a laptop to the Internet via a cell phone or MiFi hotspot, I recommend temporarily disabling operating system updates and software updates, as those can download hundreds of megabytes of data as soon as they are connected to the Internet. It’s best to wait until you have a local Wi-Fi connection in order to allow the computer perform those types of updates. This isn’t something I recommend for a company issued laptop, though, and usually you won’t have the option or know how to disable system and software updates anyway.
- If you like to listen to music over the Internet, I recommend using the Amazon Prime Music app or the Pandora app. Both require a membership. These allow you to download your music via Wi-Fi ahead of time so that you’re not using your data plan.
- If you like to watch movies while traveling, I recommend the Amazon Prime Video app, which allows you to download movies and TV shows via Wi-Fi ahead of time. An Amazon Prime membership is required. You can then broadcast them onto a TV via mirroring to an Apple TV device ($65). You can also rent or purchase movies via iTunes and download them via Wi-Fi ahead of time.
- DirecTV allows you to watch TV shows via your phone without using your data plan if you are an AT&T customer. You can mirror your phone to your TV with an Apple TV device, or something similar via an android device, in order to watch your shows on a TV sized screen.
Avoiding Cellular Dead Spots
The key here is to plan ahead using the tips I provided below. This can be one of the biggest sources of frustration if you aren’t careful! I’ve been in the middle of a conference call and it was my turn to talk, only to get dropped from the call due to where we were driving…no fun! We’ve also had to completely relocate to a different campground due to the lack of decent Wi-Fi and the lack of decent cellular service. It was completely due to not planning ahead.
- Download an app called “Sensorly”. (I previously recommended “Coverage?”, but is was very inaccurate). Sensorly collects signal strength data from its users (if they opt in) and will show you which roads have different cell coverage. So far it seems to be very accurate!
- RVParkreviews.com has tons of reviews were people will often specify whether or not they had good AT&T or Verizon cellular coverage. What are usually do is just Google the name of the RV park i’m thinking of staying at along with the search words “ATT” or “Verizon” to see if anyone has mentioned how good cellular services at that park.
- Call the RV park you are considering staying at and ask them how good the coverage is or whichever cell provider you use.
- If you are able to do so, have two different phones (with hotspot options enable) on two different carriers, such as AT&T and Verizon. You often find that one carrier has a much stronger signal then the other depending on where you are located. Apple iPhones have a Wi-Fi calling option that allows you to make a call using a wireless network if you don’t have good cellular coverage. I’ve had to use this in the past and it was fantastic! My AT&T phone had good service at my Verizon phone had no service. I was in a situation where I needed to use my Verizon phone to make the phone call and my AT&T phone for Internet connectivity (long story). So, I enabled the Wi-Fi calling option on the Verizon phone and used it to connect to the Internet hotspot on my AT&T phone. It worked like a charm!