Updated: 7/17/20 | July 17th, 2020
Dave Dean from Too Many Adapters is a tech expert. In this guest post, he delves deep into Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to explain what they are, how they work, and why you as a traveler should be using them.
These days, everyone travels with a computer. Whether it’s a smartphone, tablet, or laptop, we’re all connected when we’re abroad. While this technology does make travel easier, it also opens us up to new risks.
From stolen credit card numbers to governmental spying to hacked emails, cybersecurity is usually something we overlook when we’re planning our trips. Sure, we’ll buy travel insurance to protect our health. But we often overlook ensuring that our data and information are kept safe too.
Free Wi-Fi is available pretty much everywhere to travelers, from coffee shops to hostels to airport lounges. Yet as we casually surf the web and connect with friends and family back home, we’re opening ourselves up to some serious risks.
Anybody on the same network (which in some cases could be thousands of people) can easily grab your unencrypted data as it flies through the air. Usernames, passwords, credit card numbers, browser cookies, and other identifying information can be ripe for the picking from your web browser and mobile apps.
With so much potential risk out there, how do you stay safe?
You use a VPN.
A VPN (Virtual Private Network) provides privacy and anonymity by creating a private network from a public internet connection. In short, they hide your online actions. This makes them virtually untraceable and prevents would-be thieves from accessing your private information.
How Do VPNs Work?
VPNs were originally created for business use, but it didn’t take long before consumer versions started appearing from dozens of different companies. After all, security matters to everyone, whether they’ve got an expense account or not.
To understand how they work, think of the Internet as a river. Drop a load of dye into the river — that’s your (unencrypted) data. Anyone standing along the riverbank can see that dye: what color and consistency it is, and where it ends up.
Now, put a small pipe in the river, running from wherever you are to somewhere along its length and dump your dye into that instead. Until it emerges from the end of the pipe, nobody on the bank can see the dye or knows anything about it. Your VPN is that pipe.
Using them is quite simple: you download and install a VPN app for your phone, tablet, or laptop, then start it up after you’ve connected to the Internet. Choose the server (or “endpoint”) you’d like to use (good VPN apps offer several different locations) and after a few seconds, all of your data is encrypted and passing through the virtual network.
VPNs are generally designed to protect all of your Internet traffic, regardless of its type. This includes email, streaming music and video, voice calls, and anything else you can think of.
What Should I Look for in a VPN Service?
With so many different VPN providers and plans, it’s not all that easy to figure out which one’s best for your needs. These are the features that matter most.
- Has apps for the platforms you use – Make sure that all of the devices you’re taking with you are supported. If you’re carrying a Mac and an iPhone, look for MacOS and iOS versions of the VPN software. If you’re using Windows and Android instead, make sure you’ll be able to download apps for those.
- No restrictions or extra fees for simultaneous connections – Restricting the number of devices that can simultaneously use your VPN account is annoying. Phones, tablets, and laptops are all equally at risk from insecure networks, and you don’t want to disconnect one and connect another every time you want to use them. Look for a service that lets you connect several devices at the same time.
- Works in as many countries as possible – Not all VPN software is created equal, and some types are easier to block than others. Look for support for the OpenVPN protocol and user reviews that mention an ability to work in China in the last few months. The Chinese government is probably the best at blocking VPNs, so if it works there, it’ll work anywhere.
- Has acceptable speeds – Using a VPN will usually slow down your connection, mainly because your data are going via another server rather than direct to their destination. How much it decreases depends on all kinds of factors, including distance, bandwidth restrictions, and overloaded networks. As an example, my speeds in Spain dropped by about 20% when using a VPN endpoint in Madrid, and 40% when using one in New York. Try to use a trial version of any VPN before paying for it, and run speed tests to see how fast or slow it really is.
- Includes an auto-connect feature – VPNs only protect you when you use them. It sounds obvious, but it’s an easy thing to forget when you’re in hurry. Look for an auto-connect feature, either for every network or at least unsecured ones. Enabling it will enable your VPN within a few seconds of connecting to a Wi-Fi network, keeping you protected even when you’ve got other things to think about.
- Has endpoints where you need them, and as many as possible – The more endpoints a VPN service has, the better. Occasionally, one particular endpoint can be blocked by a site you’re trying to use. If you’ve got others to choose from, it’s nothing more than a minor inconvenience. This happened to me recently when trying to watch a video on Hulu. The New York endpoint was blocked, but the Chicago one worked just fine.
- Easy to install and use – The best software in the world isn’t much use if it’s hard to use or install, and VPNs are no exception. On Mac and Windows, this would mean you just download and run the installer from the company’s website. On Android and iOS, you grab it from the App or Play Store. If you didn’t sign up for an account beforehand, you’ll be asked to do so during installation. You might be asked a few questions about how you’d like to use the VPN (automatically or manually, and perhaps what kind of connection it should make), but the default options are usually fine.
Using it shouldn’t be any harder. Either the software connects automatically (if you’ve set it that way) or doesn’t need more than a couple of clicks or taps to get it going.
Unfortunately, not every company makes it this simple. Setting up mobile VPN apps, in particular, can sometimes be surprisingly difficult. Read reviews and install trial versions where possible, to make sure the service is user-friendly enough to keep you using it.
The Best VPN Services
The first decision you need to make is whether to go for a free or paid option. Free VPNs generally exist as a way to get you to upgrade to the paid version, and they come with one or more of the following restrictions: bandwidth and speed limits, advertising, fewer endpoints, time limits, and busier (read: slower) servers.
Here are some suggested companies you can check out to get started. They all have free trials, as well:
- ExpressVPN (best overall)
- NordVPN (most secure)
- TunnelBear (great free trial)
- VyprVPN (budget friendly)
Expect to pay anywhere from $3-10 USD per month of a reputable VPN service. Usually, you can sign up for an annual plan to save beween 50-75% off the regular price. If you’re going to be traveling often, that’s a great deal.
How to Use Your VPN
Once you’ve chosen a VPN service, here are a few things to remember:
- Don’t forget to use it (or turn on the auto-connect option mentioned earlier)! Yes, this includes when you’re using Wi-Fi on your phone or tablet, using any hostel, airport, or any other public/semi-public network. This is especially true for anything that requires extra security, such as online banking, shopping, or email.
- Use nearby locations for better speeds if you can. If you don’t need to connect via a specific country, use an endpoint close to you instead.
- Realize that as a traveler, there are times your connection will be too slow to use a VPN. If your connection is horribly slow to start with, your VPN may not even connect, or be unusable if it does. In such cases, just limit what you do online to things that don’t require high levels of security.
- If you’ve got an unreliable Internet connection, make sure your VPN stays active. If your Wi-Fi drops out, or the Internet stops working, your VPN will disconnect — and it won’t always reconnect automatically afterward. Always keep an eye on the app’s icon in your task or notification bar, and reconnect if you don’t see it.
- Finally, understand that most VPNs provide security, not anonymity. You’re protected from hackers and other malicious people anywhere between you and the VPN endpoint you’re using — but most VPN companies do log the sites and services you connect to, along with your account and credit card information. In such cases, especially if they’re U.S. based, those details can be provided to law enforcement in certain situations. Long story short: don’t do anything stupid.
Even though VPNs aren’t anywhere near as exciting as, well, almost any other aspect of your travels, they’re a cheap, easy way to protect yourself online, keep up with the Kardashians (and any other TV show you might like), and get around governments that would like to monitor and block your Internet usage.
They’ve been an indispensable part of my digital travel toolkit for years, one that I use every day on the road. I simply wouldn’t travel without one.
I’d strongly suggest you don’t either!
Dave runs Too Many Adapters, a site devoted to technology for travelers. A geek as long as he can remember, he worked in IT for fifteen years. Now based out of a backpack, Dave writes about travel and tech from anywhere with half-decent Internet and a great view. You can also find him talking about the life of a long-term traveler at What’s Dave Doing?
Book Your Trip: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Book Your Flight
Find a cheap flight by using Skyscanner or Momondo. They are my two favorite search engines, because they search websites and airlines around the globe so you always know no stone is being left unturned.
Book Your Accommodation
You can book your hostel with Hostelworld as they have the largest inventory. If you want to stay somewhere other than a hostel, use Booking.com, as they consistently return the cheapest rates for guesthouses and hotels.
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. It’s comprehensive protection in case anything goes wrong. I never go on a trip without it, as I’ve had to use it many times in the past. I’ve been using World Nomads for ten years. My favorite companies that offer the best service and value are:
Looking for the best companies to save money with?
Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel! I list all those I use — and they’ll save you time and money too!