One of the most common questions I get about working from the road is about van life internet. How do I get WiFi when traveling, and is it expensive? I usually spend more than half the year on the road living, traveling, and working out of my converted Sprinter van, so staying connected and getting internet on the road is essential to my ability to make money and maintain a career.
While getting off the grid and away from it all is one of the perks of van life and camping, if you’re planning to work from the road, then knowing how to get online when you need to is an absolute necessity. The internet is also a game-changer for easily being able to find parking, places to camp, water, dump stations, laundromats, and directions, as well as things to do.
Luckily, there are a lot of different options for van life internet, and it’s not as difficult to stay connected as you might think. Whether you are a full-time or part-time van lifer or simply want to take a few weeks off to road trip, these tips for getting WiFi while traveling apply to you.
In this guide to van life internet, I share how to get WiFi on the road and tips for stay connected while traveling.
Cell Phone Hotspot Options for Getting Internet on the Road
The easiest and most cost-effective method for van life internet access is your cellphone data plan. Smartphones have a hotspot capability that allows you to tether devices to your phone, utilizing the phone’s data plan as the internet for your other devices including your laptop. 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.
Depending on your carrier, reception quality varies across the country. Download the OpenSignal app to see the signal strength of wherever you’re heading. It’s an interactive map that shows you where your carrier has a signal and how strong it is. This is a great tool for remote workers that will help you plan ahead and find an office with a view.
To determine how big of a data plan you need and to find ways to cut back on data usage, you can use an app called My Data Manager to see how much data you use on a daily basis.
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 videos 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.
- Wait to get on WiFi to upload large files online, like a new YouTube video or a bunch of high res photos to your website. That will help you avoid quickly plowing through your data plan.
- Turn cellular data off on all the apps that you don’t use all the time. You can always turn cellular data on for each app as you use them.
Mobile Hotspot Devices for WiFi on the Road
A second option for cellular data plans is to purchase a mobile hotspot device. These are small, external devices that work similarly to your phone’s hotspot and are a way to get WiFi when traveling. They can run off the same plan on your cell phone, or you can purchase a separate data plan, depending on your carrier.
The advantage of a separate hotspot is that multiple people can use the hotspot connection at the same time and they don’t drain your phone battery.
For example, if your traveling companion is on a different carrier with a weak signal but you both need to get online, a WiFi hotspot will come in handy. Both you and your friend/partner can use the mobile hotspot at the same time, even if they aren’t a customer of the same carrier as you. All you have to do is share the hotspot password, and they can get online with your data plan.
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 pretty quickly. 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.
WiFi Signal Boosters
When using your cell phone data plan or a mobile hotspot for van life internet, the thing to keep in mind is that you still need a 3G connection at a minimum in order for it to work. If you have less than 3G, you are pretty much out of luck.
For added signal strength, there are cell signal boosters available for RVs, vans, and cars that boost an existing 1x, 3G, or LTE cell signal. These do not create a signal from nothing, though, so if you’re in a No Signal zone, it won’t do anything for you. It only works if there is some signal, and it will take that signal and boost it a bar or two. So if you are at 3G, it might turn the signal into LTE. There’s really no such thing as off grid internet, at least not yet!
These boosters are a bit pricey, and if you think you’ll need one in order to get better WiFi when traveling, plan in advance, as some require drilling holes through your van or RV roof.
WeBoost by Wilson Electronics is a popular signal booster that many people have success with. If you’re interested, I suggest you contact the companies directly to ask about which product would be best for your rig before purchasing. Again, some of them require more advanced installs, so you’ll want to consider this as you are building out your van. They typically cost between $400-600.
Other Options for Van Life Internet Access
In today’s society, it’s not often that we have a chance to fully disconnect, so I actually look at the times when I am off grid as a chance to turn everything off and take a break from my phone and my computer.
If you really do need to be connected 100% of the time and always need WiFi when traveling, you’ll need to spend more time near cities and less time traveling in remote, rural areas and in National Parks and campgrounds where cell signal is scarce.
Here are a few additional ways to find WiFi on the road.
Public WiFi Options on the Road
Public WiFi is another option for staying connected on the road. Typically, libraries, coffee shops, Walmarts, malls, and grocery stores have free WiFi for customers. These are all great options, but if you’re frequenting coffee shops for WiFi, the beverage bill adds up pretty quickly so you need to weigh the options between upgrading your data plan and coffee shop expenses.
Libraries are the best bet for a reliable, fast, and free connection. Plus, you might meet some locals from the community which is half the fun of traveling through new places!
As technology advances, I’m sure that my simple travel WiFi setup will become even more effective. But for now, an unlimited data plan paired with a mobile hotspot has been an easy way for me to get online and maintain my career while traveling full-time in my van.
Got questions about van life internet and how to stay connected while road tripping? Leave your comments and questions below, and make sure to sign up for van life course updates here.