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.

RV Internet Options

“For anyone thinking of hitting the road, figuring out how to best keep online while exploring the world offline becomes critically important,” said Cherie Ve Ard, co-author of the recently-updated The Mobile Internet Handbook.

Many Airstreamers are acquainted with fulltimers Cherie Ve Ard and Chris Dunphy—the technomadic couple who began traveling and working together in a tiny T@B before graduating to a customized 17ft Oliver trailer, and now a “geeked out” 1961 GM Greyhound-style bus.

“Mobile technology has come a long way since we first hit the road in 2006,” said Cherie. “Chris and I have always traveled a lot while keeping connected, and we’ve witnessed an incredible amount of change in just a few years’ time.”

“The technology for connecting while on the go has advanced at an incredible pace,” agreed Chris. “There’s a vast difference in speeds and coverage today, and it’s only getting better.” The price per gigabyte of data has plummeted too, says Cherie, though “typical monthly usage has gone up even faster than prices have gone down—so things certainly don’t feel any cheaper!”

As mentioned in the last issue of Outside Interests, “public WiFi spots are all over now,” said Cherie. “So many improvements in cellular coverage have been made that you can now get usable connectivity across the bulk of the nation, and sometimes connection speeds while on the go actually exceed what you could get via the fastest fixed-place connection.“

“Despite all these advancements, there are still limitations and plenty of frustrations,” she said.

“The most important thing you can do to prepare yourself for relying on mobile internet is to reset your expectations,” said Chris. “We’re not trying to scare you away, but we do want to make sure your expectations are realistic. Keeping online most of the time while traveling is entirely possible—but it’s not necessarily easy or cheap.”

The Mobile Internet Handbook will help you navigate the confusing world of cellular data plans, and offers advice for employees who travel. Here’s a sneak peek at some of what’s inside.

Common options: pros and cons

“There are multiple ways to access the internet while on the go these days, and each of them has attributes that make it more attractive than the others,” explained Chris. “By far the two most common ways that RVers get online is via a cellular data connection or campground or another public WiFi network.”

“More than likely, most RVers will create a personal arsenal that combines multiple options.”


The short-range local wireless network technology built into all current laptops, smartphones, and tablets. Via WiFi, you can connect to a nearby hotspot that is at most just a few hundred feet away (without special equipment). A hotspot may be one you create and host yourself, or it may be one provided by a campground, cafe, library, or hotel. The hotspot itself is providing access via whatever its own upstream internet source is—cable, DSL, satellite, or even cellular.

Pro: Often free or low cost; no special equipment needed.

Con: Can vary vastly in quality and are frequently too overloaded to be a reliable source. And unless you’re wiling to take your laptop closer to the physical hotspot, you may need additional gear to get a usable signal from the comfort of your RV.

Cellular Data and “mobile hotspots”

Longer range data connection established over the same basic wireless network that carries cellphone voice calls. When using cellular data, you are “talking” to the internet via a cell tower typically up to five miles away. (In a remote area the tower may be 15 to 20 miles away or more; in a busy urban area there may be cell towers located every few blocks, or even inside buildings.)

Pro: All smartphones, some tablets, and even some laptops have cellular data capabilities built in. If you want to make connecting via laptop easy, you can get a “mobile hotspot” (a small dedicated device called a MiFi, Mobile Hotspot, or Jetpack) from major cellular providers, which turns the cellular signal into wifi. And coverage is good: “It’s now available in some surprisingly remote locations,” according to Cherie.

Con: Cellular data is rarely free, and priced by how much you use, “which can add up fast,” she said. “And you might need extra equipment or boosting gear to optimize utilizing cellular in remote locations.” Selecting your carrier(s) and equipment wisely to best match your planned travel destinations and routes can be a hassle.

Satellite internet

Once the ultimate option for getting online at better than dial-up speeds while mobile; now nearly a thing of the past. “The glory days of relatively affordable, available-almost-everywhere satellite broadband are now fading for mobile users,” said Chris. “Cheap and increasingly widespread cellular 3G and 4G has eaten into the advantages of satellite.”

Pro: “Still a great option for some situations,” said Cherie, “especially those situations where it is the ONLY option.” Can be picked up anywhere with access to the southern sky—even remote locations and across borders into Mexico and Canada.

Con: Comes with a host of drawbacks: slow speed, high price, latency (the time it takes for data packets to be sent or retrieved), complexity.

What Is—and isn’t—“Data Usage”?

Though it may take a few weeks or months to fine tune the data plan you’ve selected for your mobile device, you can mitigate surprises by anticipating the bandwidth amount you’ll need.

“There are plenty of things you can do on a computer or smartphone that will not count against your monthly data usage,” said Cherie. For instance:

Stay offline.

“If you’re not currently connected, then you’re obviously not consuming any internet data.”

Work with pre-downloaded files.

“Even when you’re connected, anytime you view files that are already stored on your computer, tablet, or phone you don’t have to worry about affecting your data plan,” she said. Viewing photos and documents stored locally doesn’t use data—only transferring them via the internet does.

The same goes for photos.

“You won’t use data when viewing and editing photos copied from your camera or phone,” Cherie advised, “unless you decide to share them on Facebook, Instagram or upload them online to a service like Flickr, Picasa, or SmugMug.”

Read an ebook.

“Usually no data usage is involved once the book has been downloaded the first time.”

Talk on the phone.

Voice time is not considered data. “If you make cellular phone calls using your carrier’s regular voice service, the call won’t count against your data usage,” Cherie said. “However, if you use an internet-based service like Skype, Google Hangouts or FaceTime to have an audio chat or make an outgoing call, that will.”

Common RVer tasks that draw down your data plan

Planning your route

Example scenario: Using RVillage and RVParkReviews to scout out future potential campsites, and then planning the route in Google Maps (including checking out the satellite view of the destination campground to make sure the spot looks like a good fit), and finally, using GasBuddy to scope out fuel prices along the way. Data use: 17.6MB.

Paying bills

Example scenario: Sync transactions to Quicken, check balances and schedule two credit card payments online at two different online banks, transfer funds between accounts, and check your investments. Data use: 13.7MB.

Sharing a photo

Example scenario: Posting to Instagram or Facebook. Data use: 2.6MB.

Staying in touch

Example scenario: Sending an email letter to friends and family back home, with a “large” picture attached. Data use: 747KB. (A short iMessage text chat exchange, including a photo and a contact transfer, will set your plan back 500KB.)