Van Life

Getting Online While Traveling in a Van

By on June 27, 2016

We’ve been asked many times by our followers how we stay in touch with friends, family and get online while traveling. And how we can work steadily and keep connected – while we’re traveling in our van.

This post will try to give you some ideas on how to get online while traveling and how to find Internet access, where ever you might be in the world.

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Mobile Phones

Having a phone where you can be contacted is a great idea – and one we’ve found so useful. The costs depend on how much you travel and where you go, of course. The phone itself is not very expensive nowadays.

In each country you visit you just need to find the best offer from the different mobile companies. We go for prepaid SIM cards, because if you want a contract (which is usually the best deal) you need a proof of residency in the country or a local bank account.

In Europe, roaming will soon decrease.  You’ll (hopefully-!) be able to use a single SIM card that will work for all EU countries. Amazing, no?

And lastly, in order to make phone calls or have live chats, we use free systems like Skype, Viber, Hangouts or even Facebook. The quality of the call is usually pretty good – and best of all, it’s free. Now let’s take a look at WiFi.

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Our WiFi System

Wifi is now a worldwide thing. In nearly every cafe, restaurant or mall you can find a free WiFi available. That’s one way we’ve stayed in touch with friends, family and clients for work. The method we use most is a device we absolutely love.

We discovered our solution back in 2013, when we bought a mobile router that can read all EU cards and even international (we used it in Morocco and it worked great).

Ours is a Huawei mobile router, though these days there are many more options available. Make sure when you get your device it can be used in multiple countries (some are limited to just one country, for example).

The system is pretty simple: in each country we visit, we look for the best prepaid Data SIM Card available from the different providers and choose the best one for us. Just like the phone card, we use ones without bank account or residency. It simply isn’t possible for us to get a contract, though prepaid are usually more expensive.

Once you find your card, you can insert it in the router and switch it on. Only  few countries forced us to go in the setup of the router and manually write an APN, because most are automatic.

Once the card is in and set up, you can get online while traveling, surf the net and work. You’re connected. Our router can share the WiFi signal for up to 10 devices, such as computers, smart phones and tablets. Inside the router, on the inside of the back cover, you can read the password in order to get connected. It’s below the ‘SSID’ and it’s called ‘WiFi Key.’

Go to the router’s website, and from the menu you can choose to rename your WiFi network and password if you like, for extra security. We’ve found this solution perfect for us. We’re always able to be connected, even from a remote forest or the middle of the desert.

The connection and the speed depends on your location, of course. It’s also important how many antennas the provider has placed in the country. Take a look at this link to find some example of prices and how many GB are available in cards for Europe.

The device also comes with a small battery that can be charged with a USB and it works for quite a few hours before getting low on power.

Again, if you’re thinking of buying one of these mobile WiFi devices, check to be sure that it’s not blocked by the provider, because you’ll only be able to use it with their cards and WiFi plans.

The average price for this device is about 45 Euros. For the cards, it depends on the country.*

You can also find other solutions, like buying a data SIM card that you can use on your phone and then create a hot spot (tethering) from your phone.It allows other devices to connect to you and gets them online, while traveling.

In some countries that sell the data card also sell a USB stick that works like a router, but only for the computer where you plug it.

*A note on price differences: Prices of the Data SIM cards can vary wildly. Here are a few examples from our travels:

Sweden: 10 Euro for 10 GB

Portugal: 30 Euro, unlimited GB (had to get a fiscal number- we went to the ‘fiscal office’ and Armando showed his passport- the fee was 10.20 Euro)

Morocco: 10 Euro for 12 GB

Germany: 15 Euro for 5 GB

Italy (changes often): 20 Euro for 7 GB

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Free WiFi

Another solution we use while traveling is to use free WiFi in cafes and bars, mostly. This solution is pretty straight-forward: you travel and you find a cafe or a bar with WiFi. There’s usually a sticker on the door (though sometimes they have the sticker but no WiFi). Just get a coffee in order to get online.

Malls, big chains shop or fast food places have free WiFi, usually without a password. They might not be the best or fastest connection you’ve ever had, but it’ll help you to get in contact with the outside world.

If you have a large uploads, like Armando does with some of his video film footage or editing, café connections work faster without draining our personal WiFi. Sometimes it’s trial and error with finding a good place with a fast connection.

When we look for free WiFi, we use 3 different things in combination: an app, an antenna and software.

The app is called WiFi map and is a user made app, with the location on a map of the available WiFi around your position. It shows a lot of the places with the password visible on screen. We can say that from the moment we discovered this app, it works at least 80% of the time. Sometimes places change passwords, or stop the WiFi signal.

Sometimes we were even able to park our van not far from the location and managed to get the WiFi signal from home.* We were able to work online without getting out of the van.

Get online while traveling with a data SIM card and adapter.

Recently, we bought a small antenna that can reach WiFi signals up to 3km distance. It was 25 Euros from a fellow traveler. This is pretty useful, since many times we didn’t like to park right in front of the place. We’re now able to be at a good distance and with a strong signal.

To give an example: Let’s say you’re at the beach next to the sea. When the bar is a km away from us, we can be online. Not too shabby, right? This antenna has to be plugged with a USB to a computer in order to work.

By switching off your computer’s WiFi, the antenna then starts its own search. You can find the connections that you want to be connected to from the list the antenna provides. Just insert the password (or not, if it’s an open one) and get connected.

These specific antennas don’t work for MAC. But we found a system with software to share the signal, called Connectifyme. When the computer with the antenna is connected, we can use this software to transform the computer into a hotspot with a separate name and password.

Then from the other computer, you just need to find the network and insert the password. Of course, you need the hot spot to be online in order to make it work.

There are larger antenna that can get WiFi signals up to a 10Km, which you can put on the roof of your van or RV.

A note on antennas: This kind of antenna works when there are no obstacles between you and the WiFi sources like hills, mountains or trees. To put it simply: if you can see the WiFi source, you’ll get the connection.

Conclusion

We hope this has been helpful for getting you online while traveling in a van. What about you? What do you use? Anything to add, or suggestions? Questions? Let us know in the comments below!

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8 Comments
  1. Reply

    Valine

    June 30, 2016

    Hey, thanks for the tip about the WiFi antenna. I knew something like that existed, but I never found the actual product online.

    I know finding good internet is one of the challenges when being a digital nomad in a van. I normally just use my phone as a mobile router, and buy a local sim card for data. I am in Italy at the moment and I bought 20 GB for 19 euros, a pretty good deal! And the app WiFi map is very useful indeed. I can only agree 🙂

    • Reply

      Hans

      July 7, 2016

      Hi, i will be in Italy in 4 days and stay for about a month. Which company is the 20Gb sim? That sounds pretty good. Greetings, Hans

    • Reply

      Melony Candea

      July 7, 2016

      Hi Valine, you are most welcome. And what a great deal you got in Italy-! Nice. We love the map app, it’s definitely been useful for us. Happy travels! Mel

  2. Reply

    Stefano

    July 18, 2016

    I’m trying WIFI MAP in South America, right now I’m in Ecuador. Surprisingly there are a lot of wifi in the database, but most of them are outdated either with an expired password, or even not there anymore.

    I think they need a couple of improvement (i’m contacting them to ask for it, maybe can you do the same?):
    – a sort of speed-test when adding a new hotspot (not reliable, but better than nothing)
    – a visual indication of older networks (for example green for less than 6 months, yellow 6-12 months, red older than 1 year)

    • Reply

      Armando Costantino

      July 19, 2016

      Actually I wrote them several month ago asking pretty much the same. I know and happens that some where older and some so slow 🙂 As I told is one of the solution we use. Not the only one.

  3. Reply

    Dirk Vermeerbergen

    June 22, 2017

    Hey guys,

    Get this one : http://nl.tp-link.com/products/details/cat-5691_TL-ANT2414B.html

    It’ll connect to the input of your Alfa USB wifi dongle and it’ll give you a range of +10km line-of-sight.

    You’ll absolutely love it !!

    • Reply

      Armando Costantino

      July 7, 2017

      Thanks for the tip! We don’t use anymore the antenna now as we both use Mac computers and the antenna (from what I know so far) still not work with Apple products! Anyway that’s a good tips for our readers!

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