Finding driving directions, camping spots, cool swimming holes nearby, grocery stores, cheap gas, etc… we’ll go ahead and say it: Van Life wouldn’t be the same without mobile Internet these days! It makes things SO MUCH easier and enjoyable, especially since we don’t like to plan ahead. And for the digital nomads out there living in their van or RV, having a reliable Internet connection is a MUST if you’re fortunate enough to make money and travel…
1- Cellular Internet Data Plan
In our opinion, a cellular Internet data plan is still one of the best way to stay connected. That’s what we use 90% of the time in our Van Life. If, like us, you own a smartphone (who doesn’t these days?), you probably take Internet for granted; and it’s even more useful when living a nomadic lifestyle! If you intend to work from the road and your income depends on being online, then a good cellular data plan is a must.
No Internet = NO CAT VIDEOS!! 🙁
Unless you plan on urban-dwelling, you will probably end up camping in BLM, National Forest, Public Land or at any remote location; getting lost is half the fun! In that case, it’s worth paying a little more and making sure you’re covered (almost) anywhere you go with your van or RV. Before choosing a network provider, check out OpenSignal app (Android, or iPhone) as you will find an interactive map of different network providers coverage. It’s also useful to find out if your next camping spot has Internet (for people working remotely):
Coverage varies with network providers: you will find Verizon Wireless has the best coverage out there in rural zones in the USA (which is where we spend most of our time).
If working remotely and your income depends on being online, you might consider a signal booster; it takes an existing signal and boosts it from, for example, one bar to three bars; it could make the difference between being stuck or being able to work from your van or RV (or with/without cute cat videos)…
1.2- Cost and Plans
In the US, Verizon has the best coverage, so that’s what we recommend for Van Life. Plans are constantly changing, so it’s impossible for us to keep track on this page; please refer to Verizon website:
We’re now spending more time home here in Canada (thanks to the pandemic), so Isabelle and I both switched to Telus for time being. It has the best coverage in rural area in Canada.
1.3- Using a laptop
It’s possible to create a Hotspot with your smartphone to share your internet with your laptop; it’s called tethering. Some network providers allow tethering, some don’t, so make sure to check that. Verizon Wireless allows 15GB per month tethering at the time of writing these lines. You can also buy a MiFi device (a.k.a. Jetpack) to create an Internet hotspot in your van or RV; with the MiFi device you get 15GB tethering in addition of the 15GB on your smartphone (at the time of writing these lines).
Be aware, most websites are optimized for smartphone: if the website detects that you are browsing from a smartphone, the images and data downloaded are very small. Browsing from a laptop sucks MUCH MORE data than a smartphone! Using a laptop, it’s very easy to go through the monthly 15GB if not careful…
1.3.2- Data Saver
Chrome browser used to have a built-in data saver option, unfortunately it is no longer available. Let us know if you have an alternative!
1.3.3- Metered Connection
When connecting to WiFi (tethering from your phone or your MiFi device), Windows checks for updates and downloads them, instantly wasting your precious monthly data 🙁 To prevent that, we recommend doing two things:
a) Creating a metered connection
By telling Windows the connection is metered, it limits what apps and Windows can do in the background:
1. Click on the WiFi icon in the taskbar, then right-click on the connection you want to meter and select Properties:
2. Toggle the “Set as metered connection” button to “On”:
b) Turning Windows Update off
Even after setting a metered connection, Windows will still try to update. It’s better turn off the Windows Update service:
1. Click on the “Windows” button and then “Settings” (left-bottom corner of your screen):
2. Search for “Services” and click on “View local services”:
3. Scroll-down to “Windows Update” and double-click on it
4. Click on “Stop”, select “Disabled” and click on “Apply”
5. This service can be re-started when desired (at the library or at coffee shop…). Just select “Manual” then click on “Start”.
1.4- Unlimited AND cheap?
There are a bunch of small providers advertising cheap unlimited data plans (such as Calyx Institute). You buy a hotspot device (that only works with them), pay for the entire year in advance, and you get unlimited data. We considered them at first, but we realized they come and go, and you’ll lose your money (annual plan and hotspot device) if they ever disappear (we observed that a few times). Moreover, most of the time, they buy bandwidth from smaller network providers with limited coverage… cheap is not cheap anymore if you can’t even use it! For these reasons, we pass.
2- Starlink for RVs (Satellite Internet)
Traditional satellite Internet used to suck. With satellites in geostationary orbit at 35,000km altitude, the signal return trip took a LOOOONG time; that means high latency delay (slow response time). Starlink satellites operate at 550km altitude, so the return trip for Internet signal is MUCH FASTER; that means low latency delay (fast response time). In fact, Starlink latency delay is comparable to cable Internet, which is quite impressive!
Up until recently, Starlink Internet was not portable; dish were geo-restricted and couldn’t be moved from their home location. For 2022, “Starlink for RVs” mobile plan is out and it is now possible travel with your dish in your van/RV!
2.1. Speed & Bandwidth
Here is what to expect with Starlink for RVs*:
- Download Speed: 50 Mbps
- Upload Speed: 14 Mbps
- Latency Delay: 50 ms
- Bandwidth: Unlimited
2.2. Plans & Cost
At the time of writing these lines, 3 plans are available:
|Monthly Fee||Hardware Fee (one-time)||Monthly Portability Fee|
|Residential||$110 USD||$599 USD||$25 USD|
|Business||$500 USD||$2,500 USD||?|
|RV||$135 USD||$599 USD||Included|
2.3. Availability & Coverage
Keep in mind Starlink is not available worldwide at the moment (but expansion is still underway). So make sure to check the availability map:
Clear View of the Sky
Starlink requires a clear view of the sky in order to stay connected. That means it might not be the best option for urban dwellers (due to the skyscrapers and such), and parking your van/RV under the trees (near a cliff, etc.) will most likely not work either (unless you can move your dish away!).
Also keep in mind that weather (cloud coverage, storms, etc.) will also impact speed/connection.
The Starlink kit includes:
- Starlink dish.
- Wireless router.
- Put the Starlink dish vertically where there is a clear view of the sky (no obstruction).
- Download the Starlink app (IOS | Android).
- Plug the Starlink dish into the wireless router, and the router into a 120V outlet.
- Starlink will automatically level itself to search for satellites overhead. Do NOT attempt to manually adjust your Starlink.
- After a few minutes, Starlink will make an initial connection to the Starlink constellation and tilt to the optimum angle for satellite coverage (slightly north or south based on your location in the northern or southern hemisphere).
- On your device (phone, laptop, etc), connect to your STARLINK network (same way you’d normally connect to any WiFi network).
- Once connected, a browser window will open prompting you to enter a new SSID (Network name) and password. This step is optional but recommended.
- That’s it! You’ll find additional settings in the Starlink app.
Source: Starlink (PDF)
Remember that Starlink in not intended to use when driving, only stationary.
2.5. Power Consumption
In our opinion, Starlink power consumption is the biggest drawback. When running, Starlink draws 50 watts on average. That’s 4.15 amps coming out of the 12V battery bank. As a comparison, that’s roughly the same power consumption as our 12V fridge, which is the more energy hungry appliance we have in our van!
With a minimalist electrical system, adding Starlink could compromise your off-the-grid autonomy; this is definitely something to consider! Still in the planning phase? Make sure to size your battery bank adequately using this Electrical Calculator and follow our Wiring Diagram.
2.6. Dish Specifications
3- Free WiFi
3.1- Not exactly free…
Free WiFi at coffee shops is great, except coffees and goodies quickly add up to the bill! So, it’s not exactly free… And it’s easy to get distracted when we’re trying to work, so we’re glad we have our Verizon data plan as primary Internet source.
Libraries are a good place to get free WiFi; it’s normally fast and quiet (too quiet?).
Some groceries, gas stations, restaurants, Walmarts, etc. also offer free WiFi but it’s kind of slow compared to coffee shops and libraries.
3.2- Use a VPN (Virtual Private Network)
Like it or not, we’re always logged in to something: Emails, Google drive, Facebook, Netflix, Amazon, web server, etc., etc. Public WiFi (without or with password) networks are the perfect targets for hackers; your credentials are vulnerable and easy to steal. To protect yourself, we recommend the following precautions:
- If doing online banking, log off from the public WiFi and tether from your phone instead.
- For everything else, use a VPN (Virtual Private Network). A VPN is one of the most robust and secure methods you can use to protect your devices. It sends your traffic through an encrypted ‘tunnel’, making it extremely difficult to decipher or intercept. One of the best VPN provider is called “NordVPN“; that’s the provider we personally use because:
- You can connect up to 6 devices with the same account (different computers & phones);
- They’re one of the VPN providers with the fastest & most locations available;
- They do not log any of your online activities;
- You can use it to browse your local Netflix (or others) when travelling internationally;
- It’s very straightforward to use: 1- Subscribe, 2- Download & install the NordVPN app on your computers and phones, 3- Connect to the VPN server using the app. That’s it, you’re safe now!
Netflix will quickly drain your monthly data, so we have a hack for ya. You are aware that it’s possible to download movies for offline viewing on your smartphone or tablet, right? Unfortunately, it’s not possible to download a movie on a laptop via Netflix.com… unless you download and install the Netflix App on your laptop through the Microsoft Store or the iTunes Store!
In the Netflix App, search for a movie and click on “download” to save it:
If “Download” is not showing, it’s simply because this title is not available for download…
Isabelle and I sometimes part ways to go ride alone (or just take a break 😛 ), so it’s important to be able to communicate with each other. The best way to ensure a reliable communication is a pair of Midland Radios, but we really like the “Location Sharing” of Google Maps so we know where the other person is in real-time (as long as there is cell phone signal). The “Location Sharing” feature is located on the upper-left menu of the Google Maps app. Once it’s activated, we can see each others position on the map, nice! (Antoine normally carries the smartphone with him, while Isabelle carries her smartphone + the JetPack hotspot with her; the location comes from her smartphone and the JetPack provides the Internet link).
In our opinion, a cell phone plan or Starlink are currently the best options to stay connected on the road. Happy roaming!