If you’re like us, it’s hard to live without an internet connection.
This is especially true when traveling for an extended time. We simply need good internet on the road during our year-long trip. Booking travel reservations, using maps, researching destinations, and of course catching that favorite Netflix episode… it all requires internet and tons of data.
Internet for some folks may also be an absolute necessity, not just a nice-to-have. In particular, those that work from the road may be dependent on a connection. On the schooling front, we have found that the on-line home-school program our girls use requires a high-quality, high-speed, unlimited data connection.
So, if you’re in the market for a consistent internet connection on the road and don’t want to bust the bank, here are some set-up considerations.
Redundancy is the Key to Get Internet on the Road
Counting on campsite or RV resort wifi? Good luck. Banking on that Verizon signal to be strong enough to get data? Maybe near cities. Will you have a line of sight to your satellite? Possibly.
Redundancy is the key to minimizing your time without a connection. If you’re okay with skipping days of service from time to time, then maybe one service will cut it. But if you can’t be without a connection, a back-up service (or even two alternate options) will help keep that data flowing.
We rely on three services for data. It may sound a bit excessive, but it works for us.
Pay Attention to Your Data Limits
I used to think that a 15 GB cell data plan was a lot. But try using only your phone for your internet needs, for example, if you don’t have wifi while traveling. That 15 GB will disappear quickly. Running over your data plan that can result is excessive data fees, a slowed connection or even a severed connection in the worst case.
The trick is to get as much data as possible, ideally an unlimited amount of data. (Be careful of some so-called “unlimited” cells plans that throttle back your data speeds above certain usage levels.) With unlimited data access, you don’t have to constantly watch your data usage. It’s simply nice not to have to worry about your, or your partner’s or kids’, data usage.
We have an unlimited plan. (More on that in a bit.)
Watch the Cost
Multiple services (redundancy) can mean multiple bills. And we all know that cell phone payments can be expensive, much less the hardware and monthly bills required for a satellite data service.
The trick is to get the redundancy and the unlimited data without having to pay an arm and a leg. And a bigger trick is to get this less than the cost of a normal family’s cell phone cost.
So, with these three considerations in mind, here’s a data set-up we use.
Service 1 – Wifi
Take it when you can get it. Whether from a campsite, a nearby library or even the McDonald’s across the street, wifi hotspots are often the best. They can be both ultra-fast and reliable. When we get a campsite with a solid wifi connection, I say a little thank you to the internet gods.
Possibly the best thing about wifi when traveling is the cost. It’s free! At least, we use free wifi when traveling and don’t pay for it unless there’s an emergency.
But when wifi isn’t available or is a little to slow, we turn to service #2….
Service 2 – Skyroam Solis X Hotspot
The Skyroam Solis X Mobile Hotspot (or smartspot) looks like a little orange hockey puck. But it connects to a cell network and broadcasts out a wifi signal that can be accessed by multiple devices. So you can connect your laptop, iPad and even your phones to the Skyroam at the same time to get an internet connection. You can have a Skyroam internet connection at the campsite or when traveling 70 mph down the highway.
The Skyroam is a relatively new service and the Solis X is their most advanced model. It works in over 100 countries, which is great for those traveling internationally, and one of the main reasons we purchased the unit. Data speeds may not be as high as wifi, and we’ve found the service not to be perfect. (I sometimes have to restart the hotspot to get back a lost signal.) However, it’s the best for us because of the data cost.
The monthly plan has unlimited data for $99/month. That works for us because we use so much data for our kids schooling. (Okay, I admit, maybe it’s the Netflix.) This beats all other plans that have a progressive pay scale or slow down access at certain data levels. The unit itself costs about $150 to buy.
Service 3 – Google Fi Cell Phone with Pay-As-You-Go Data as a Back-Up
We use Google Fi for our cell phone service and switch to it because of the relatively low cost for cell and texting, which is only $35 plus tax for two phones. Note that this is without data. Data costs extra and is not cheap, but we try not to use it.
This is the trick for our set-up… namely pairing Google Fi cell phone service with Skyroam data. The Skyroam provides the unlimited data access and the Google Fi provide phone coverage, all for the cost of about $150 per month. This isn’t dirt cheap but is pretty good considering unlimited data is difficult to get at a reasonable price.
We also use the Google Fi data as an emergency back-up. Data for Google Fi costs $10/GB for the first 10 GB and then is free from 10 GB to 15 GB. You can see that this cost adds up quickly, so we try to only use Skyroam data. Also, note that this mainly works because we travel together as a family. If you and your partner or teenagers are going all over the place separately, this might not work as well for you since you’d probably want individual data plans. If you’re interested, this Gooble Fi link provides $20 off for you (and us too).
Service 4 – Verizon Mifi for Emergency Back-Up Only
So maybe this is service number four. We have a Verizon Jetpack Mifi that we initially used for our data plan but cancelled when we blew through one month’s 15 GB data plan in a week. There is an option to purchase more data, but this can get fairly expensive. The 15GB data plan cost $80 and additional 15 MB of data were $20 a pop.
I really liked the Verizon Jetpack Mifi. We picked it up heading north out of Yosemite, and Verizon does have a great network and coverage. We had the 4G 8800L version, which was much cheaper than the new 5G version. When paired with a Netgear MIMO Antenna, the Jetpack got even better reception. But the data plan did not work for us. It was supposedly “unlimited” but the data speed slowed to a trickle after 15 GB unless you purchased more data.
We still have the Mifi device, which also cost about $200, and if the need arises, we can use it as a pay-as-you-go prepaid Jetpack. Namely, if our other services fail and we’re in a Verizon-rich signal area, we can purchase the prepaid service for a set number of GB’s.
Satellite – A Few Thoughts
Many people have asked us if we have satellite data service. And this is a good question. A lot of RVs we see have the little satellite dish.
We decided to go the wifi / cell network route for coverage, because it was seemed most cost-efficient for us, while providing decent coverage. Satellite does work where there is no wifi and no cell service, and may be a good option for those that travel to such areas. However, be aware that there are significant hardware and service costs for satellite. And then there are practical issues, such as the need to set up the hardware before each usage and dealing with things such as tree cover.
We have been much happier with our internet service set-up since we started to focus on redundancy. The use of Google Fi and Skyroam as paid services, paired with free wifi where we can get it, has worked well for us. You might find this is not the right set-up for you, or you might discover some other cool hack. But keep in mind redundancy, data limits and cost, and your happiness with your connection should be much better on future trips.