VANLIFE INTERNET: HOW TO STAY CONNECTED ON ROAD TRIPS
This post is in partnership with Verizon. As always, all advice in this blog post was carefully crafted by me.
One of the most common questions I get about working from the road is about vanlife internet. How do I stay connected, and is it expensive? In 2018, I spent 211 days on the road (I know that because it’s something my accountant asks me to keep track of), so staying connected is essential to my ability to make money and maintain my career while traveling.
Luckily, there are a lot of different options for vanlife internet, and fortunately, my solution is actually quite simple. Whether you are a full-time vanlifer or simply want to take a few weeks off to road trip next summer, these tips for getting internet while traveling apply to you.
In this blog post, I share the technology and devices I use to get online and stay connected while living in my van.
Verizon Unlimited Data Plan
The easiest and most cost-effective way to get internet when you live in a van is to use to your cell phone’s data plan. It doesn’t cost you anything beyond what you normally pay each month, and anywhere you have service you can get online with your computer.
Verizon currently has three unlimited data plans to choose from. If you are running a serious business out of your van and speed is important you to, then you’ll probably want to go with Verizon’s “BeyondUnlimited” or “AboveUnlimited” plan. The major advantage of these plans compared to the basic GoUnlimited plan is how fast they are. First, you’re guaranteed high speeds in congested times (up to 75 GB with the AboveUnlimited Plan), whereas on the basic GoUnlimited Plan, if a lot of people are using the network at once, your speeds may suffer.
Second, when using a mobile hotspot, you get 15 GB (BeyondUnlimited) or 20GB (AboveUnlimited) of data at 4G LTE speeds, compared to 600 Kbps on the basic plan. After you run through your allotted high-speed data, your speeds slow down to 600 Kbps. You can still get basic work done at the 600Kbps speed, like sending emails, but if you’re a blogger and need to upload a lot of images to WordPress or a video to YouTube, then the 600 Kbps speed could be frustratingly slow.
If you frequently travel abroad, the AboveUnlimited Plan includes 5 Travel Passes per month which gives you 5 days of international calling and data coverage (which otherwise costs $10 per day).
You’ll see that there is only a slight price increase for the Beyond and AboveUnlimited Plans, but before you decide, it’s worth doing an audit of your data usage to see how much you are using. That way you can make an informed decision and not pick a plan that is more expensive than you need. If you are going on a trip where you know you’ll have convenient access to wi-fi, then you might be able to get away with the basic plan.
Here is the data I used today tracked via an app called My Data Manager. I had a fairly light day of work today and based on today’s usage, it’s predicting I’ll use 13 GB of data this month. However, I didn’t upload any images today, so to be safe, I’m on the AboveUnlimited Plan.
Tips for reducing data usage and making your high-speed data last longer
- Turn off the background refresh on your apps. What is background refresh? Let’s take Facebook. If you have background refresh turned ON, even when the app isn’t actively running on your screen, Facebook will be fetching status updates, so as soon as you open the app, you see the latest news. This constant pulling of the latest headlines eats through your data. On the iPhone, you can turn off background refresh by going to your general settings.
- Turn on the “Use Less Data” setting on Instagram. Instagram preloads videos and photos before you scroll down, which means you’re consuming data for video that you might not even want to watch. To prevent this from happening, go to your Instagram settings on your profile page, then scroll down to “Cellular Data Use” and turn on the “Use Less Data” setting.
- Download music and movies only when you’re on WiFi. That means waiting until you’re at a friend’s house, a coffee shop, or the library to download that new Netflix series you’ve been wanting to see.
- Need to upload a new YouTube video or a bunch of high res photos to your website? Also wait for wi-fi instead of plowing through your data plan.
The other thing to note is that while other providers offer less expensive plans than Verizon, Verizon has the best coverage for vanlifers and roadtrippers in rural areas. Check out this map that compares coverage across all major networks. This past summer in the van, I had Verizon while Ryan had Sprint, and Ryan might as well not had a cell phone at all. His coverage was absolutely terrible.
Using Verizon’s MiFi Jetpack to get Internet on your Computer
While you can use your phone as your hotspot, I have a separate hotspot called the Verizon Jetpack MiFi. Using your phone as a hotspot is ok for basics like checking email on your computer. So why would you actually need a separate hotspot?
More than one person can use the hotspot at a time
What if you’re like me and your traveling companion is on a different carrier with a weak signal? In that case, both you and your friend/partner can use the Verizon Jetpack as a hotspot at the same time, even if they aren’t a Verizon customer. All you have to do is share the Jetpack password, and they can get online with your Verizon data plan.
It doesn’t drain your phone battery
Trying to use your phone as a hotspot for more than one device at a time really slows your signal down. Using your phone as a hotspot also drains your phone battery. That might not seems like a big deal for sporadic usage, but over time, the more your drain and charge your phone battery, the worse your overall battery life becomes. With the Jetpack, you don’t have to worry about your phone battery, and the Jetpack battery life is actually pretty impressive. I’ve found I can use the Jetpack for a full day of work before I have to think about recharging it, and there is a battery percentage indicator that you can monitor so you know when you need to plug it in.
The Verizon Jetpack isn’t just handy for vanlifers and people on road trips. It’s also very handy in hotels with slow or non-existent wi-fi connection. The Jetpack is $99 with a two year Verizon contract and doesn’t require any additional plan.
When using your cell phone data plan and the Verizon Jetpack hotspot for vanlife internet, the thing to keep in mind is that you still need a 3G connection at a minimum. If you have 1x or no service, you are pretty much out of luck.
In today’s society, it’s not often that we have a chance to fully disconnect, so I actually look at this as a chance to turn everything off and take a break.
If you really do need to be connected 100% of the time, you’ll need to spend more time near cities and less time in remote, rural areas. There are also wi-fi boosters available that are made specifically for RVs, cars, and vans that can boost a 1x or 3G signal and make it faster. These wi-fi boosters are a bit pricey, and if you think you’ll need one, plan in advance, as some require drilling holes through your van or RV roof.
As technology advances, I’m sure that my simple setup will become even more effective. But for now, the unlimited Verizon data plan paired with the Jetpack has been an easy way for me to maintain my career while traveling full-time in my van.
Got questions about vanlife internet and how to stay connected while road tripping? Leave a comment below!