How to Get an Internet Connection While Traveling

Whether you are traveling for a few weeks, months, or even years, having access to a steady internet connection is a huge quality of life amenity that most people (including us!) can’t live without. We regularly use the internet to find hikes, places to stay, showers, water, food, the cheapest gas prices, and of course for entertaining ourselves after a long day of driving. There are many options that differ in price, availability, and speed so you are sure to find something that fits you!

Phone Hotspot

What we use and arguably the most popular choice for vanlifers is to get a phone plan that allows you to use your mobile hotspot which you can then connect your laptop or whatever you need to access the internet. This is a great option for some but a very poor option for others, here’s why it works for us and most other vanlifers. We have just two people in our van and we each have a smartphone with a mobile hotspot cell plan. We get unlimited Gb of hotspot usage per month, but speeds are throttled after a certain amount each month, but we usually have a good enough connection to stream video if we have a connection at all. One of use has T-Mobile Magenta while the other has CellCom. We have more than enough speed to watch stream Netflix or Hulu and can easily access the internet to work where ever we are. However, that means we can only use our hotspots when our phones also have connection so this idea is mainly based on what provider you have and how good their coverage is. So far on our travels around the US, CellCom almost ALWAYS has more coverage than T-Mobile. It’s so much better that most of the time where there is no T-Mobile service at all, CellCom still has 1-3 LTE bars which is a huge plus. This is also a popular way to go because most of the time you can add on mobile hotspot data onto your existing phone plan. Currently we both pay about $50-60 for each phone plan and while we do download some movies for when we don’t have service, we are able to have internet access probably 80-90% of the places we stay overnight and we almost always have service on major highways so we can work while the other one drives. If you are living the van life for a temporary amount of time and are traveling with only one for two people I would highly suggest this route. There are several smaller “plans” that some providers offer like Visible or Mint, but as always we recommend doing some deeper research into which plan is right for you!

Mobile Hotspot (Mi-Fi)

Another popular choice for those traveling and in need of internet access is getting a dedicated mobile hotspot or Mi-Fi. Most of the time you can buy one of these from any cell provider and then buy a mobile plan specifically for that hotspot and then you can connect to it just like Wi-Fi at your home. This is similar to the last option but instead of using your phone as the hotspot (in many cases your phone can only connect to one device at a time), but acts as more of a central thing rather than your phone where you can bring with you. Also some people are not as willing to use their phone a hotspot for one reason or another. You still need to buy a plan for this Mi-Fi device however. You can either buy unlimited data, but more commonly you buy a predetermined amount of data like 50 or 100Gb and then you get to use up to that amount before having to buy more again. As we were designing our van on a budget we opted not to go this route because of the price of most hotspots and we wanted an unlimited data plan.

Optional: Cell Booster

For both of these options you can also add in a cell signal booster which helps tremendously… if you have a signal in the first place. These are devices that will take a small signal like 1 LTE bar and amplify that signal to something like 3 LTE bars. This is extremely helpful as there are a lot of places where you can have signal but only a little bit and it’s not enough to do anything meaningful or productive. These devices are also usually several hundred dollars and as we were living on a budget we opted not to buy one of these. We also have the luxury of having two separate carriers which is helpful because if one of us doesn’t have a signal then the other one might.

Internet is an interesting and somewhat annoying topic because there is really no option that will guarantee you always have an internet connection and that’s just one of the realities of living on the road that we deal with. There are especially a lot of dead zones in the western states that are more wilderness than populated. We recommend always having access to offline information like having a physical map or downloading maps onto your phone so you can be prepared for when you don’t have internet.

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