This is an updated May 2022 version of an article that was originally published in December 2013.
Living in a small space full-time has enabled us to simplify and streamline our lives in many ways. Staying connected to fast, reliable internet is unfortunately NOT something we’d place in that “simple” category – though it is getting easier all the time with larger coverage areas and improved technology!
The challenges of working online while traveling can seem overwhelming at first (and even now, when things don’t go as expected). I hoped I might be able to ease some of those concerns by writing a bit about how we stay connected on the road, plus share some resources that have greatly helped us to work remotely and travel.
The version of full-time RVing or #vanlife you usually see glamorized on social media or in movies portrays being off-grid whenever possible and isolating from much of civilization. We too love to balance out our modern-day connectedness and fast-paced life with being in the wild, slowing way down, and unplugging from the distractions of phone notifications.
While our favorite connectedness is with others, especially in-person and in nature, we’re still quite far off from being financially ready for retirement. We’ve also spent a lot of time, money, and energy on our educations and skills in our careers to do an abrupt change to something else less internet-focused. So we won’t be walking away from our careers anytime soon, but still consider ourselves very fortunate to have the opportunity to work online and travel so much at this point in our lives.
Our goal instead is to continue working a healthy number of hours a week (~32-hour work weeks each, typically) while living on a reasonably frugal budget, for as long as we continue to enjoy a nomadic lifestyle – or until we find something we like better.
We do make sacrifices – we usually only have nights and weekends free to explore, and we have to stay close enough to civilization that we can stay connected most of the time and continue fulfilling our duties to our employers, who’ve been wonderfully supportive of our nomadic ways and help to fund this lifestyle we love so dearly.
Essential ingredients for nomadic online work
Figure out your bandwidth requirements
An optimal technology setup can vary quite widely from person to person, based on individual bandwidth needs. If it’s essential to be on video calls all day, stream a lot of video, or transfer large files, you’re going to struggle a bit more. Be prepared to drop hundreds of dollars a month on an unlimited cellular data plan(s), stay in one place long enough to have a internet landline installed at a campsite, or try to get steady satellite service where you are. We’re somewhat heavy data users, usually around 200 GB/month just for working, as we tend to have at least a few hours of video calls a week.
The main components for our connectivity are two cell phone plans on different carriers, and as of very recently, Starlink’s satellite internet service.
We looked for the best data coverage plans we could find at a reasonable cost, on the carriers that cover the most area of North America. We have an AT&T business plan on an iPhone than includes 100 GB of hotspot data, plus unlimited data on when used the phone itself. We also have a Verizon unlimited data plan in a hotspot device. While it may seem like a lot of trouble and added expense (it is) to have both, there are still enough places that one provider still performs much better than the other to make it worthwhile to have the backup option.
Starlink’s coverage areas and roaming option for nomads seems to be changing daily, so while we can say it’s a good supplement to cellular plans, it doesn’t yet have the coverage or reliability to replace them.
For up-to-the-minute research on mobile internet providers and the best plans and equipment for nomads, we highly recommend you check out the Mobile Internet Resource Center to stay “in the know” from the true experts on the subject, our friends Chris and Cherie (who blog their travels as Technomadia). We’ve probably saved hundreds of dollars optimizing our cellular plans by having a paid membership to their site, learning countless tips and tricks from their expert research and experience. A subscription to their site is money we consider very well spent, and is usually saved many times over by taking their advice.
They also make an excellent app for iOS and Android called Coverage? that we use frequently. It offers maps of the various carriers’ service areas, with the option to filter by type of service (4G, 5G, etc). The carrier maps are downloaded to your phone, so you don’t actually need coverage to see where you can find some. Brilliant!
Another option we use frequently is to check Campendium for campground reviews before we arrive – other visitors will often leave comments about cell service and speeds in that area.
Now, all of that is supposing we don’t have wi-fi available to us, which we sometimes do…
By doing a little research ahead of time, we can make a point to mooch off some friends or family nearby (we always bring gifts of food or drink!) or stay at a campground with decent connectivity if we need it. Some campgrounds that have cable TV lines already run to campsites can offer a lease on an internet modem through the local cable company. Cable internet service can then be activated to your site, usually with no contract. If you’re going to be somewhere for a month or longer, or even just a couple weeks and have high data usage needs, this is often a very cost-effective option. We tend to move around often, so we haven’t had a chance to try this yet.
We’ve personally have barely ever had reliable wi-fi at campgrounds, but if we have, it’s usually during slower times of the year, early mornings, and late at night. It’s truly hit or miss though, based on a myriad of factors. You might look into a wi-fi antenna if you plan to lean heavily on accessing public wi-fi from your RV, or are parked at someone’s house and need a stronger connection to their network. It can make a big difference to have one, especially on your roof to work around and over obstructions.
We don’t mind working in public, either, especially if we don’t have video or voice calls that day. We work on our laptops and don’t require larger monitors, so we’ll often give ourselves a nice change of scenery by moving our office to a coffee shop, restaurant, brewery/winery/bar (the trick is nursing a single drink for an hour or longer, both to preserve productivity and have enough sobriety to work!), or other spots with free wi-fi. We also keep a Planet Fitness membership, primarily for showering when we’re conserving water in our van or urban camping, and their wi-fi usually reaches the parking lot.
Many laundromats also have wi-fi, which is a fantastic way to multitask with a regular chore.
Places that people don’t typically go to work (most anywhere but coffee shops) usually have faster speeds and no data cap (the exception being when we were in Alaska), and are great to download those bigger updates to your computer or devices, the newest season of a show, or upload those hundreds of photos to your cloud backup. Remember to be respectful in the amount of time you spend there and patronize their business if you’re using their wifi. Also be very careful on public networks and have extra encryption like a VPN in place before logging into anything containing sensitive information, like a bank account, or making purchases online.
Overwhelmed? Not technologically-inclined?
So are we a lot of the time. The best place to start, especially if you’re new to this, to find the most up-to-date information about cellular internet options and connectivity equipment at the Mobile Internet Resource Center, which has a lot of free content, but also paid subscriptions that dive far deeper and include access to a community of high-tech nomads who can help answer your questions personally and narrow down the best data plans and devices for your needs. We’re not sponsored by them in any way, but I truly can’t say enough things about how helpful it has been to us when learning how to stay connected.
While it may sound extremely complicated and expensive just to be able to use the internet consistently while traveling (and sometimes it is!), to us it’s still well worth the hassle and cost to live a location-independent lifestyle and change our office view as often as we’d like.
As technology and our needs change we will try to keep this updated. Please feel free to comment with any questions or suggestions!