Being able to get online from a sailboat while cruising is fundamental. It’s important for passage planning, looking up weather information, searching for the nearest grocery store, and staying in touch with family and friends. However, for us it’s even more important – our livelihoods essentially depend on it, as we earn our income by working from our laptops.
So far, most of our sailing has been coastal, so getting online has been fairly easy. Mobile networks have a huge reach, so we’ve often had some of the best coverage a couple of hours from shore.
Let’s go through some options for getting online from your boat.
Use a SIM card + your phone as a hotspot
This is our current preferred method. We use 4 different SIM cards with different data plans on them, swapping them around based on the country we’re in and our needs. A mobile network can be fifteen times more powerful than a public Wi-Fi, as we found out. It’s so much faster, we try to use mobile data for our work and uploading videos on YouTube, when we can. It definitely saves some money – mobile data is usually cheaper than spending four to six hours in a bar or café where you have to keep on ordering drinks (and sipping them veeery slowly).
The main options for using a standard SIM card are:
- Get a good contract at home, before setting off, taking a close look at their international plans and restrictions. This is what we’ve done, so we have both British and Italian SIM cards at the moment. We can use them across the whole of the EU.
- Buy a SIM card in each country. This one can be time-consuming and tricky, as you have to provide your address in the country you buy the SIM in. Some companies will accept a marina address. It’s always a good idea to ask other liveaboards about their experience in that country beforehand. Just check out the different sailing groups on Facebook or go on a forum and ask about the network providers in the country you’re going to.
Google Project Fi
If you are in a position to switch phones, you can buy a Fi-ready Google phone. Through Google Project Fi, you can use one SIM worldwide (check the coverage here), and simply change data plan based on your travel needs. We’ve not tried this, as we don’t feel like investing in an expensive new phone, but some people swear by it.
Another expensive option is to buy an iPad that supports Apple SIM. The concept is very similar to Google Project Fi – you can use your Apple SIM in 180 countries by buying local data plans directly from your iPad. Again, not an option within our budget, but some cruisers love it, as it saves them the time and effort of going to shore to purchase a new SIM in each country and they don’t need to register with a local network company.
Some budget-conscious cruisers choose to keep their mobile plans low-cost, to use mainly underway or on shore, and use Wi-Fi boosters. These are little boxes you mount on your mast, backstays, or spreaders that can catch shore wi-fis directly from your boat. You can usually spot this type of cruiser in an anchorage – they scout the whole area checking where the connection is stronger. If you want to try this option out, you have to keep a few things in mind:
- It’ll only really work well in populated areas where there are bars, cafes, marinas, and hotels by the shore,
- You’ll need to choose your anchoring spot based on the Wi-Fi signal, so if anchoring is stressful for you, this may not be the best solution,
- Each time you get to a new place, you’ll need to go to shore and eat or drink something (or stay in the marina for a night) in order to get the local Wi-Fi passwords. In a crowded anchorage, you can just ask other cruisers if they have any of the passwords, but it’s still time-consuming.
There are some booster models which can be coupled with a SIM card. This means that when there are no Wi-Fis around, you are be able to get a better mobile network signal than you would from your phone at sea level.
None of the above options will work in open sea or on an ocean crossing. So if you’re heading off-shore and need the internet, you may want to invest in a satellite phone. These are extremely expensive, and data is so costly that you’ll only want to use it for basic needs, such as downloading weather grib files or sending a short message home every now and then.
Satellite Wi-Fi hotspot
A satellite wi-fi hotspot, such as the Iridium Go!, is a cheaper option than the satellite phone for off-shore connectivity. This is a small box which generates a wi-fi hotspot anywhere in the wold. You can access the Wi-Fi on your phone, laptop, or tablet. The Iridium GO! offers an unlimited (and pricey) data plan. The catch here is that you need to have a working (and charged) device with the Iridium apps on it to access the internet.
If you absolutely cannot stop working while bluewater sailing, this is probably the best option, as you can contain the cost of data by buying the all-you-can-eat plan.
We hope this article was useful for you. If you have any extra tips or questions, please leave them in the comments below. Cheers!