As summer temperatures start to rise, people are already planning road trips to escape the heat. Many people travel in the summer, and cable access at home doesn’t necessarily provide coverage while on the go. Fortunately, the proliferation of internet-connected TVs and Hollywood’s focus on delivering mobile content are making it easier than ever to watch TV on the go.
How to Get TV on the Road
Challenges of getting TV on the road
More auto manufacturers are adding flat screens and DVD/Blu-ray players to vehicles, allowing passengers to entertain themselves while the driver focuses on the road. These systems connect to the vehicle’s speaker system to provide a surround-sound system that’s ideal for viewing content on the go.
Unfortunately, these systems don’t pick up live TV broadcasts out of the box. This means road trip planning for many people typically includes creating video playlists on disks or hard drives.
You can purchase TV antennas just about anywhere, but over-the-air (OTA) TV service while traveling is limited. When driving between cities or camping in the wilderness, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to pick up a quality signal. If you do, you’re likely to get only a handful of channels.
Keep in mind you won’t be able to watch special events, your favorite sports team, or cable channels like Comedy Central, Disney Channel, or ESPN using an antenna. So what's the solution?
Mobile apps for road warriors
To help alleviate these problems, many cable and premium channels now offer mobile apps that can be installed on your smartphone or tablet. These apps use your device’s data connection to stream both live and on-demand programming directly to your device.
Some of this content is free, but in order to gain full access to content libraries and livestreams, you’ll need a valid cable or satellite subscription. Premium channels like HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax also offer mobile apps for their subscribers for free.
Not wanting to be left out of mobile app marketing revenue, cable and satellite providers also provide mobile apps allowing subscribers to watch TV content through smartphones and tablets. Not all content is available, and which channels allow on-demand or live viewing depends on the agreement between the channel and provider.
From a consumer perspective, the only difference is whether you’ll be able to watch a station’s programming on your cable/satellite provider’s app or need to download the individual channel’s app.
For those who don't want to wait for live content to become available the next morning, a Hulu + Live TV subscription allows you to stream both live and on-demand content from their mobile app. Hulu's Live TV plans even include Disney+ and ESPN+, so the $75-$90 a month price might be worth it for the kiddos restless in the backseat.
The downside to these apps is they rely on your device’s data connection. Similar to OTA TV antennas, the further you get from civilization, the less reliable the service gets. On top of this, most wireless data plans have data limits. Sprint and AT&T are a couple of exceptions, as both offer unlimited wireless data. Check out our review of the best unlimited data cell phone plans if you're looking to shop around.
Best cable options for road trips
With all this being said, the best option for watching TV on the road depends on what programming you’re seeking:
People who spend a large amount of time on the road (including truckers, bus drivers, and RV dwellers) benefit the most from a satellite TV provider. DIRECTV’s satellite packages start at $74.99 per month for the first year (which jumps to $86.98 in year two), while DISH starts at $69.99 per month. Both services require a two-year agreement.
Although standard satellite dishes work while stationary, you’ll need a mobile dish to watch TV while moving.
DIRECTV partners with third-party distributors KING, KVH Industries, and Winegard to provide mobile satellites capable of receiving satellite content while moving. These companies also provide DISH-compatible units, though DISH also provides a Tailgater dish specifically designed for RVs. These satellites cost anywhere from $300 to $2000, so they’re probably only worth the investment if you spend a lot of time on the road.
Cable subscribers who don’t want to sign a contract can opt to turn their vehicle into a mobile hotspot to increase the signal of the tiny antenna in smartphones and tablets.
OnStar, Uconnect, Verizon, and AT&T all offer devices that plug into your vehicle’s ODS connector or have a USB port, which is available on all vehicles manufactured in the last 20 years, that turns your entire vehicle into a hotspot. Plans range from $5 to $150 per month, depending on the amount of data needed.
Fans of sports have several options to watch their favorite teams play while on the road.
You can sign up for the NFL Game Pass on NFL.com for $99 per season. This provides the same access through any Internet-connected device.
Basketball fans can subscribe to the NBA LEAGUE PASS on nearly any cable provider for $49.99 per season, providing live and on-demand access to all NBA games. Hockey fans can subscribe to NHL CENTER ICE for $59 per season for the same access.
Viewers looking to access as many TV stations as possible will find satellite TV to be the most convenient option. However, the majority of live events can be accessed by cable subscribers online.
TV programming can be accessed on the road utilizing a smart TV or connecting one of these Internet-enabled devices:
Otherwise, consider tablets with a large viewing screen:
Movie lovers will need access to premium stations such as HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax. Each of these stations costs about $15 per month to add to your cable or satellite subscription. The subscription fees also provide access to the stations’ mobile apps, which allow both livestreaming and on-demand access to content libraries.
Adding a subscription to Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube Red, or Netflix to your cable package also gets you access to these libraries of movies.
Ready to spend summer streaming?
Accessing TV programming on the road used to be a pipe dream, but these days it’s becoming the new normal. Just because you’re on vacation doesn’t mean you need to take a vacation from watching TV. With a mobile satellite dish or hotspot connecting your tablets and smartphones, it’s possible to watch all the latest TV shows and events live with the same quality you get at home.