Mobile Internet Providers for Your Road Trip

If you're eager to hit the road but can't live without email, consider looking into mobile internet providers before your next road trip. Just in the past few years, your options for broadband-on-the-go have improved and expanded, making it less and less necessary to know where the wifi hotspots are.

Your cell phone service provider probably provides mobile broadband service, too. Call them or, better yet, check out their website to get an idea of what they offer and at what price.

Want to comparison shop? Here are three oft-overlooked mobile internet providers you'll want to check out:

CLEAR. Never heard of CLEAR? That's probably because it's not also a cell phone service provider. CLEAR specializes in 4G internet. With CLEAR, you pay a monthly fee for unlimited data - and there's no long-term contract.

To get started, simply buy a CLEAR device (a Spot, Stick, or Hub, depending on your needs), and start a CLEAR month-to-month 4G service plan. You can enjoy the 4G service at home or on your road trip.

So, what's the catch? CLEAR is still far more geographically confined than the typical cell phone service. But depending on where you're heading, you may find CLEAR to be a perfectly adequate provider.

Cricket. Cricket is another provider that offers pay-as-you-go mobile broadband. Just buy a USB broadband modem at your local Walmart, stick it in your laptop, pay for a month of service, and you'll be good to surf the web on the road.

If you just need email and light web access, you can pay for a really cheap plan. If you plan on streaming audio and video, plan to spend more (or at least don't look surprised when you use up most of your monthly bandwidth in the first three days and are stuck with super-slow access the rest of the month).

Use Cricket's interactive coverage map to figure out whether you'd be able to get broadband service on your next road trip. Looks pretty good to me in heavily populated areas, but patchy at best in remote locations.

For example, if you're planning on taking I-80 across Nevada, don't count on wifi until you get to a coffee shop or your hotel. And Cricket has no love for Montana - at least, not yet. We've also randomly had trouble getting Cricket reception in both Monterey and (a sketchy part of) Sacramento, California within the past year.

Virgin Mobile. Virgin may be the most overlooked of the mobile internet providers, simply because many Americans probably think of it as an airline. With Virgin, you can also buy either a hotspot device or USB plugin to connect to the service you purchase, and can "top-up" your service as you go along. As with the other providers, there's no contract, so you can pay only for the service you need.

At this point, Virgin's broadband coverage appears to be pretty similar to that of Cricket. Plans start as cheap as $10, but if you're a serious internet user, you'll probably find that $50 per month for unlimited usage is a pretty good deal.

One word of warning as you check out mobile internet providers: if you're planning a working vacation and absolutely must have internet access at X time of day, always have a plan B. The fact is, mobile internet is still far from failsafe. You'll feel much better if you can easily get to a coffee shop or other location that offers free wifi for paying customers.

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