Internet on the Go: How We Stay Connected to Work Full-Time on the Road

Internet on the Go: How We Stay Connected to Work Full-Time on the Road

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!

Cats also don’t make it easy to work on the road, it turns out!

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.

Data plans

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.

Laundromat as an office – multitasking for the win!

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!

The pay-off: that coveted “corner office” with a view 😁

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12 Comments

  1. Eli
    Mar 29, 2014 / 8:09 am

    This is just what I’m looking for. Nice job!

    • Kristin
      Author
      Mar 31, 2014 / 3:02 am

      Thanks, Eli! Glad we were able to help.

  2. Mar 29, 2014 / 9:17 pm

    This is a great post and thanks for sharing your experience.

    My wife and I have been toying with this idea of traveling and working full-time, but one of our biggest concerns was connectivity to do our jobs. I currently work remote as product designer and need internet access pretty much most of the day to communicate and share work with my team. Millenicom seems like a logical option for times where the wifi is spotty and even for emergencies. Even then, 20GB of data is not enough.

    You’ve mentioned leasing a modem from a local cable provider when you have high usage needs. That sounds like a great solution. Could you get into more details about this and your experiences going this route?

    • Kristin
      Author
      Mar 31, 2014 / 3:02 am

      Hi Uy,

      Thanks for your comment! We find that we don’t go through data as fast as we thought, other than transferring large files or lots of video conferencing/streaming and Skype calls. We tend to do meetings over the phone instead because minutes are cheaper than data, and if talking to coworkers through chat or email is an option for you, that method doesn’t eat through data as fast as video or audio. Many campgrounds’ wifi is good enough to be usable for working if you don’t need to be doing a lot of high-bandwidth streaming and just need a reasonable connection with your mi-fi ready as a backup.

      The modem option is great if you’re going to be somewhere for a month or longer and have high usage needs, but otherwise it’s probably not worth the hassle and cost. We haven’t personally done it because we haven’t been in one place that long other than once, and we had wifi there. We’ve talked to people who have, and every cable and phone company’s policy and pricing is different, unfortunately. You’d have to just call around to campgrounds and see whether they allow it, what provider they use, and then call that provider for pricing if the campground isn’t able to tell you. Sorry we can’t be of more help there, but there’s a lot of variables! We’ve met a few product designers who work on the road so if you’d like to get in touch with them shoot us an email through our contact form and we can connect you.

      Best of luck in getting on the road!

      • Uy Tieu
        Apr 2, 2014 / 8:29 am

        Thanks for the info, Kristin! This is very helpful. I guess we’ll have to just hit the road and see what works for us and use a mix of mobile, mi-fi and wi-fi options like you’ve mentioned. And you’re right, so many variables to consider.

  3. Janet E. Wehlitz
    May 14, 2014 / 11:09 pm

    Less than two years and WE will be on the road! Though we will be doing things a bit differently as I sell on line and my hubby hopes to start his own wi-fi business. He currently works for a company (1/2 time) that installs and monitors wi-fi at hotels/motels, and they have done RV parks. The RV parks are the Hardest to cover with wi-fi and yes, a big 5th wheel or Class A can wreck havoc on reception for someone next to them.

    We will probably boon-dock a fair amount of the fall to spring in the SW areas and head north when summer sets in.

    Love your website and, more importantly, Love your approach to life, being together, and earning a living. My hubby and I have been married 42 yrs and still prefer to run errands and go places together. Oh yes, we will be traveling with our “family”, our almost 5 yr old Siberian female cat named Vanya.

    Keep on Rollin!

    • Kristin
      Author
      May 15, 2014 / 12:56 am

      That’s great, Janet, congratulations! The RV world needs more people knowledgeable in wi-fi. I hope he can convey what a selling point it is to working RVers like ourselves to have working wi-fi. We’ve had our wi-fi drop off completely countless times when a bigger rig parks next to us and blocks the signal. So aggravating!

      It’s great to hear from someone else who chose this lifestyle to spend more time with their partner. That’s been the best improvement for us, where we previously worked 9 hours a day apart and spent an hour in the car alone on top of it. Being able to spend our lives together instead of mostly apart has been worth all the hardships, sacrifices, and a big drop in income!

      Let us know if you have any questions and we can’t wait to see you on the road someday!

  4. Mar 9, 2015 / 6:12 pm

    Hi guys, this is super helpful stuff. It seems like getting ahold of a grandfathered unlimited data plan on either AT&T or Verizon is a great option if it’s possible. Especially since I believe the FCC ruled AT&T had to stop throttling. One question, when you drop the Verizon SIM from your Androidin to the iPad mini, you still get unlimited data use? That would be a great use case to have an Apple TV and then stream Netflix to it with AirPlay. Anyway, thanks again!

    • Kristin
      Mar 9, 2015 / 7:05 pm

      Hi Dave! Yeah, the unlimited seems like the way to go. We hope that soon the carriers start opening up more unlimited plans without having to resort to trickery and potentially illegal activities to get them. I think T-Mobile has been experimenting with it, and while their coverage isn’t as good as the “big two”, it’s getting better. We’re still holding out for satellite internet in the next few years, allowing us to venture beyond the borders of the US without so much hassle of SIM cards and international plans.

      When we put the SIM from our Android in the iPad we do get unlimited data and can use it like you said to stream, but it’s important to put it back in the phone if you ever call for tech support, go into a store, or make any changes to the plan. They can see what device it’s in if you call attention to it, and may shut you down for using a voice SIM in a hotspot. They basically are looking for any excuse to cancel an unlimited plan and thank goodness the FCC has started stepping in to protect some of us from throttling (the reason we got rid of our AT&T unlimited plan) and contract breaches on the provider’s end. Still, using it in a way it wasn’t intended can constitute a contract violation on the user’s end and result in termination of the plan. Tread lightly, but there are ways to do it! We also try not to stream too much, because we don’t ever want to be one of the “power users” that could get canceled for excessive use. We try to fly under the radar and keep it to a reasonable amount, under 100 GB/month. Ask away any time you have questions, and be sure to check out the Mobile Internet Handbook and the accompanying RV Mobile Internet Resource Center website for up-to-date info. A membership there has saved us from some pretty costly errors and helped us score that unlimited plan! 🙂

  5. Jun 2, 2016 / 7:02 pm

    Ooh thanks for the detailed info! A lot of people living in RVs full-time aren’t working full-time, so it can be hard to find info like this.

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