How to stop burning up your cellular data plan

Bert G. has an important question:

“We have a good phone plan with a major cellular carrier that gives us a generous data allowance each month, but we’re burning gigabytes like camp wood,” he said. “We can’t figure out why. What’s happening?”

This problem seems to be epidemic lately among travelers. Part of the reason is that we’ve got more data-capable devices now, including laptops, tablets, phones, game platforms, fitness bands, cameras, etc. You should be careful about which devices you allow to connect to your wireless hotspot.

The other part of the problem is the fault of new software that automatically updates itself to the latest version. Go through your laptop and tablet and look for settings to disable “automatic updates” of any kind. If you have a choice, tell the device to “Ask me” every time before loading new software.

You’ll find these settings in several places, including for the operating system itself (Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, Android, etc.) and for individual programs like browsers, Adobe Flash, Microsoft Office, iTunes, and many other commonly used programs.

Be wary of a setting that says something like “Update only when connected to Wi-Fi”. When your laptop or tablet connects to your hotspot, it thinks that’s free Wi-Fi. The device can’t distinguish between the unlimited Wi-Fi from a coffee shop and the Wi-Fi your “pay-by-the-gigabyte” hotspot provides.

Finally, don’t let friends and campground neighbors “borrow” your Wi-Fi for a little while. Once their device connects to your hotspot, it will continue to automatically connect (and possibly download massive software updates) without being asked, unless it is specifically told to “forget” your hotspot.

The Dark Side of Being A Digital Nomad

Over the last decade cellular and wifi coverage has gotten so good that it’s feasible for many people to break free of their office desks and work from their recreational vehicle. This has spawned the term “digital nomad” or “technomad” and for many, it’s the ideal life.

Digital Nomad
Photo courtesy of Weaselmouth

Compared to just ten years ago, things are great today. Back in the bad old days, cellular internet was based on slow “2G” networks, which meant that you’d need to find a wifi hotspot to do serious

downloading, usually miles away. Campground WiFi was spotty and indifferently supported by the campgrounds, meaning that usually it didn’t work. (That part hasn’t changed much.) Some people used satellite connections on tripods, and if you’ve ever seen the rigamarole involved in setting one of those up, and then suffered the tedious upload speeds, you can understand that they were really desperate.

Today it’s an entirely different situation. We have high-speed 4G cellular all over the country, and with usable signal in places we could only fantasize about a few years ago. Even campground WiFi has gotten a little better (although still terribly unreliable on the whole). The bottom line is that anybody can get online almost anywhere.

Because it’s getting easier to get online and bosses are starting to recognize that “work form home” doesn’t always equate to “slacker,” the number of digital nomads living in RVs seems to have skyrocketed. But before you pack up to work from the road full-time, keep in mind that finding usable and fast internet can still be a challenge, because everyone else is looking for the same thing.

It’s hard to find an RV that doesn’t have a laptop or two inside it, along with smart phones and tablets for every member of the family. Even the dog might have a GPS tracking collar that uses a cellular network to send his location. Every one of those devices is pinging the same cell tower, creating local congestion.

Photo courtesy of Weaselmouth
Photo courtesy of Weaselmouth

The result is that in many popular places, internet data speeds still suck. It’s not because of any fault of Verizon or AT&T, or the campground management, but simply because too many people are inundating the local network. Just a few years ago you might have been flying along and getting work done efficiently because you were the only person in the park working on a laptop in your Airstream trailer on a nice day—while everyone else was sensibly out on a hike or starting their campfire. Now they’re sitting inside their trailers and watching YouTube.

Campground managers say they can’t keep up. One manager of large Arizona KOA said he had spent $20,000 in the previous month upgrading the campground wifi system, and boosting the data plan to the maximum available, and it still wasn’t enough. Most campgrounds try to lighten the load by blocking certain services, like streaming video (Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, etc) and streaming audio (Skype, iChat, Facetime, etc).

That doesn’t make customers happy. Many view blocking as an unfair restriction, like telling you that you can use the campground water for drinking but not for showers.

The digital nomad is at the forefront of this problem. Come Monday morning, working people can’t afford slow internet. This has spurred a sort of arms race, because he who has the biggest antenna and booster setup will get a stronger signal and hence more bandwidth. Specialty stores have popped up to advise you on the latest technology to get an edge over the average person using a basic Jetpack or MiFi-type device. High-gain antennas, cellular-compatible routers, wi-fi extenders, low-loss cables, and signal boosters are the tools of the serious RV-based digital nomad.

There are also tricks for working around slow internet. First, at peak times do only the bare minimum that you must do online, because otherwise you will be staring at your computer waiting for things to load. Wake up early or work very late at night on things that take serious bandwidth.

Second, save a list of things that require high-speed internet (like big file uploads) and do those jobs at some public wi-fi spot in town, like Panera Bread, McDonald’s, public library, coffee shop, etc. This has the side benefit of getting you away from your desk for a few hours.

Third, when possible, use your smart phone instead of a laptop. Mobile apps are designed for narrow bandwidth, and you can do quite a lot with a tablet or phone on slow internet connections. For jobs like online banking, short emails, checking weather, and social network updates, today’s smart phone apps are definitely a great way to go.

Fourth, be very careful about cloud-based applications and automatic updates. Today’s laptop operating systems are loaded with options to automatically synchronize data, including emails, calendars, preferences, passwords, photos, files—even entire hard drive backups and operating system updates. This is frustrating when you are paying for every gigabyte of data, and it slows things down. Seek out and turn off everything that sends data to the internet without explicitly asking you for permission first. You’ll probably be surprised how many apps and features are doing this on your laptop and cell phone.

The bandwidth wars probably won’t get better when faster networks become available. Cellular networks have come a long way, but as they gain, there’s always some new application that will suck up every bit of excess bandwidth plus some. The “arms race” for serious mobile workers will continue.

Finally, if it all becomes too much hassle, remember why you are in an RV. You’ve got wheels. Consider moving to somewhere less popular. Or, take a break and go for a hike where cell signals don’t penetrate anyway, and get back to work at another time!

-By Rich Luhr

How to Weigh Your Airstream, part 1

When you ‘stream by a truck stop and notice a “weigh station” sign, are you tempted to pull off and see what your rig weighs? Most new (and many expert) Airstreamers are intimidated to join the line of 18-wheelers—but don’t be. Most RVers report that they have a pleasant experience at the scales.

“It’s not scary to weigh your trailer,” said Jon Gold, Alumafiesta seminar leader. “And everyone should weigh their Airstream to make sure you haven’t exceeded any gross weight capacities.” Here’s how:

Load it up

Weigh your trailer when you are fully packed, “when you’ve got everything in it, ready for a trip,” advised Gold. “Food, water, clothes, pots and pans…anything you’re going to take along.” This also includes passengers and pets, and a full tank of gas.

Look for a CAT sign

—big and yellow, with a friendly cat’s head logo. A Certified Automated Truck Scale (“CAT Scale” is a franchise business) can be found “at most truck stops,” said Gold. “It’s only ten dollars, and if you weigh your trailer once when it’s fully loaded, you don’t have to do again.”

Pull up onto the scale until your driver’s side window is even with the intercom sign; painted lines on the scale will guide you as well. You’ll be required to push a “call button” that may be situated high above your head. (You could stand on your running board to reach it, or take this tip from those in the know: bring a stepstool, or better yet, a broom handle to punch the button.)

Have your trailer license number ready. A “weighmaster” will greet you, guide you through the process, and tell you when you’re done. Pull away, park, and walk into the building to get your scale ticket at the fuel desk. (The computer printout you receive includes gross vehicle weight as well as individual axle weight.) That’s all there is to it!

(Want more detail?  See our followup article on using the CAT scales)

Weigh twice

Typically a truck scale will provide three separate weights: front axle, rear axle, and trailer axles (all counted together). To get started you’ll need a baseline. Take your first trip through the scale without your trailer, so the report will reflect the amount of weight on each axle of your fully loaded tow vehicle. (Find the Gross Axle Weight Rating [GAWR] for both the front and rear axles in your vehicle owner’s manual, or on the sticker inside the driver’s side door jamb.)

Now hitch up your Airstream and pass through the scale again. This time your report will show all three axle weights: front, rear, and trailer.

CAT-scale-form

Compare the two reports, line by line. The trailer weight should be below the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) stated by Airstream. Find these specs for your coach on the serial number plate on the lower front streetside of the body, or on a sticker on the inside of a mid-closet door about 60″ from the ground. (2009 and later trailers also have max cargo weight on a sticker on the screen door.)

If you exceed any weight ratings—

“take stuff out,” said Gold. “I worry about the people who go to the Gem and Mineral Shows,” he laughed. “But don’t take out the tool kit!” It’s easy to overload your Airstream without even knowing it. If your trailer is too heavy, you must reduce your cargo before going further.

Tire inflation matters

An overweight Airstream and under-inflated tires are a bad combination. Look on the sidewall of your tire for the recommended tire inflation pressure and adjust accordingly, and stay on top of optimum tire pressure with a good monitoring system; find one at the Airstream Life store. “When you’re rolling down the road, it’s almost impossible to feel when a trailer tire loses air pressure,” cautioned Rich Luhr, Airstream Life publisher. “Most people find out far too late.” The tire pressure monitors—as with all items in the store—“are the things we tell our friends about,” said Luhr. “Things that can save your Airstream from disaster, or improve your travel experience.”

How to Weigh Your Airstream, part 2

Here’s a bit more detail on how to use a truck stop scale, following up on our previous article “How To Weigh Your Airstream, part 1“.

“Don’t be intimidated by the truck stop and the Big Truck dudes there,” says Lexie Kensington, an avid vintage owner. Here’s more you need to know about weighing your rig:

“A weigh costs money. Usually about $10, but each additional weigh for the same equipment is only $1 extra for a 24-hour period at the same scales. The weigh will come to you from a licensed weigh master and is a legal document. Sometimes it will be stamped or embossed like a notary seal. It will show the individual scale sections and the total of the entire combination of equipment.

Never drive on a scale the wrong way. Wait your turn if there is a line which almost never happens. It’s painless, easy, and the employees at the truck stop will be glad to help. They work hard for lousy money. By just being a cheerful customer you’ll make their whole day.

The scales platform you drive onto is in two or three sections. Usually each section is marked by yellow or white stripes. These sections are for semi trucks to place the steering axle, the driving (rear) axle of the tractor, and the actual trailer on individually. The tractor and the trailer are weighed in two sections, on two scale platforms.

For best results, go onto the scales all packed for your intended trip, tow vehicle along, with your Airstream, kids, pets and spouse.

Unhook and park the Airstream in a section of the lot out of the way of other traffic. Note: It is considered poor form for a semi-trailer driver to “drop” a trailer and unhook at a truck stop, evidently abandoning a load, or engaging in some other suspicious behavior. As an RVer, you have more latitude, but be courteous in using up blacktop space.

Drive onto the scale platform when clear, with your passengers. If you can, park with your steering axle on the most forward platform, and your driving (rear) axle on the platform just behind it.

Your rig might be too light. Some scales are are set up so that the modest weight of your tow vehicle divided between the two platforms does not register on their equipment. In this case you may need to get both of your tow vehicle’s axles on the most forward platform. It will fit, but you may need to get out and inspect it.

Call for a weigh. There will be a push button call box located for the semi tractor driver to push and ask to be weighed. Since most of the calls for weighs are by semi drivers, it will be far out of reach from your tow vehicle’s window!

An almost unintelligible person (many times a young overworked lady) will holler “COMPANY NAME?” meaning to which trucking company should the bill for this weigh be sent to. You should respond “private weigh,” meaning you are going to come inside and pay for this on the spot. While this is unconventional, they will understand that you are not a big semi tractor.

After a few seconds, they should call back or signal you that they have the weigh. Pull off the scales, go inside to the Fuel Desk and identify yourself as the person with the “private weigh” and they will charge you and hand you the certificate.

Now is a good time to review the weigh and see what your different axles are bearing. With your tow vehicle’s published data, you’ll see what each axle is rated to carry and what it is actually carrying. Also you can see what your tires are carrying per axle, and if you need to unload or leave a family member at home after all. If the numbers are all inside the published guidelines you can proceed. If not: UNLOAD SOME STUFF! Some like to leave a safety margin of +/- 10%

You’re half done. Now hook up your trailer and again drive onto the scales, with steering axle, driving axle, and trailer axles sets all on their own platform if possible. Ask for a Private Weigh again, wait for the weigh master to get the data. Pull off, park, and get your additional weigh (it should be only $1 this time) and review the data. You can now deduce the following:

The hitch weight (the static pressure on the hitch ball) is your second driving axle weight subtracted from the first. Have you overloaded your hitch? Check against the published numbers of your hitch.

The gross weight of the trailer is the trailer platform weight plus the hitch ball weight. Are you within the weight range of your trailer’s gross weigh limit? If you exceed it, your brakes will be mighty unhappy.

The weight on your trailer tires is the trailer platform number. Are you over? Are you inflated correctly to manage this load?

The weight upon the rear tires of your tow vehicle (the driving axle platform number). Are you over your driving axle or tires limit? It will be different (heavier) now that you have the trailer hooked up!

And finally—how much weight has your front axle lost by the weight of the trailer pushing down on the rear? (Second front axle weigh subtracted from the first.) Do you need to adjust your weight distribution system? If driving feels uncomfortable with that weight loss on the front axle, you can fine tune it by successive weighs. At only $1 per, it’s cheap insurance. Insufficient weight on the front axles can make steering feel weird, and in an emergency, leave you without good control if you have to make a sudden-avoidance maneuver.

Don’t be intimidated by truck stops, folks who use them, or those who work there. They all wish they could be you: enjoying RVing with an Airstream!

Recommendations for your mobile office

Julie and Ken C.—on the road to Georgia—need some tips about Airstreaming with office electronics.

“Please share with us the various electronic office equipment you take with you. What is the small size printer (and scanner/copier?) you take along? We are needing to purchase one soon!”

Julie and Ken, if you’ve got a mobile office and need to print and scan documents, there are several good solutions to consider. The smallest and lightest printers are ink jet printers. Hewlett-Packard’s Envy series are medium-sized and very inexpensive, at about $80-100. They print in color, scan, and copy.

However, if you boondock frequently and want a battery-powered printer, or need something physically smaller (and don’t need scan capability) the HP Officejet 100 Mobile series might be your choice at about $200. For that price, you also get Bluetooth wireless connectivity, so you have fewer cords to deal with.

There’s another option for scanning, too: your smart phone. Look for a smart phone app like Genius Scan, which uses your phone’s camera to “scan” documents. These apps are surprisingly good for routine document scanning. Genius Scan will help you crop and optimize the scans for best readability, organize your documents into folders, upload them to cloud storage like Dropbox, or email them to yourself as PDF or JPG files.

It’s much quicker than pulling out the scanner and laptop computer, and so convenient you may find yourself scanning fuel receipts and bills just because you can!