Traveling on a long flight or road trip has rarely been enjoyable, but think of just a decade ago, when one-at-a-time overhead movies were the sum of the in-flight entertainment you could access over hours—or, if you were on an endless car ride, not even that. Today, travelers are getting spoiled thanks to in-plane Wi-Fi and anywhere access to 3G/4G data plans. This opens up a world of streaming entertainment during traveling. So once you’re up in the air or on the road, what should you stream? There are a broad range of choices: free, free with caveats, subscription-based, and individually purchased. Let’s take a look.
Network Apps: Many broadcast networks now provide an app with on-demand episodes from popular programs. For example, the FXNow app has episodes from shows such as Sons of Anarchy and The Simpsons. These apps often have a selection of movies that the network has licensed to broadcast. While these apps tend to be free to download, some require an authenticated account login from a partnered cable/satellite provider. These are also regionally based, so American users won’t be able to access BBC iPlayer, and UK users won’t be able to access the NBC app.
Cable/Satellite Apps: From DirecTV to Xfinity, cable and satellite providers know that their customers want content on the go. Based on the configuration of your home hardware and your account setup, that could mean anything from basic streaming of curated on-demand content to full streaming access sourced straight from your home DVR. But fear not, if you don’t have access to a subscription, there are plenty of options for streaming online without cable.
Premium Cable Apps: HBO and Showtime have created some of the best TV shows in the history of the medium, in addition to large libraries of movies. Their respective apps (HBO Go and Showtime Anytime) provide access to the complete archive of TV shows across their history, meaning that during your 11-hour direct flight from San Francisco to London, you could stream an entire season of Game of Thrones via HBO Go. The only requirement for premium cable apps is that you often must be a current subscriber to the channel via your cable/satellite provider (although HBO has in recent years been made available as a standalone service, HBO Now).
Streaming Providers: Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and other streaming content providers are among the most popular ways to watch TV and movies these days. All it takes is a subscription, which is often less than $10 a month. While there is some overlap in content, each provider has its own unique library of TV shows and movies. If there’s something you’re curious about, best to look it up before you get in the air—in fact, it might be the best thing to do while waiting to board.
Purchased Media: Amazon and iTunes also offer per-item purchasing and streaming, usually for less than a cup of coffee. The advantage to purchased content is that these are often the latest releases available before they arrive on subscription streaming—in the case of TV episodes, usually within 24 hours of initial broadcast, so if you missed the last episode of The Walking Dead, a quick purchase will fill your device with zombies.
While streaming is the ideal way to pass the time on a long flight or car ride, don’t forget to follow your airline’s guidelines regarding technology and devices—and if you’re the driver, please keep your eyes on the road!
Also, keep in mind that even though Wi-Fi may be available, your flight may charge for access per device, speeds may be limited, and streaming video may be throttled unless disguised with a VPN. (If you’re worried about this, many services will let you download programming to your device beforehand.) Still, your options are a far cry from the old days of paying for a headset to watch an in-flight movie or watching a single DVD in the car. In fact, if you’re behind on a particular season of a TV show, it might be the best way for you to finally give yourself the time to sit back, relax, and catch up on some episodes.