The internet provides us with so many opportunities to be location independent. But it also exposes us to some risks.
This is especially true if you are using a free, unsecured Wi-Fi at a coffee shop or at the airport.
There are always news reports of reporters being hacked or regular people being spied on at coffee shops. So in this post, I want to help you stay safe on your adventures, show you why you should use a VPN for travel and how to use it.
There are also some really cool things that you can do with a VPN, like watch Netflix while you are overseas or get around internet filtering in other countries. But a VPN for travel can be used to protect any type of internet traffic. Protect Skype calls, email, music and everything else.
The best part is that it is super easy to use a VPN and you can be protected with just a click.
VPN vs. VPS
First off, let's not confuse a VPN and a VPS, like they do here. A VPN is a Virtual Private Network that allows you to use a private network to create a secure internet connection.
I'll get to how it works in a minute.
Now back to VPNs.
How Does a VPN Work?
Virtual Private Networks were originally used for businesses, to protect private company information. I used to install VPNs for companies back in the early 2000's and they were not fun to setup.
It was done over dialup and there where 20 different settings that you had to mess with before you could get it to work. Even if you got it working, the connection was so slow that it was barely usable, many times.
But today's VPNs are much, much faster and easier to use. They are also a necessity for travelers and remote workers.
The Dangers of an Unsecured Internet Connection
First, let's talk about how the bad guys can get your private information. This will help you understand why you need a VPN.
Let's say that you go to a coffee shop and connect to their “free Wi-Fi.” That internet connection could end up costing you more than you think.
Basically, hackers sit between your computer and the unsecured wireless router at the coffee shop. Then they watch the traffic moving back and forth to see if they can pick up any useful information.
Like your credit card, for example.
This stuff is just floating through the air, just waiting to be plucked. Scary right?
The details of how that can be done are extremely boring. All you need to know is that it can be done.
Now let's take a look at how a VPN works and how it can protect you.
How a VPN Protects Your Data
When you use a VPN service, you create a secure connection between your computer and the VPN servers. Data between your computer and the servers is encrypted, so it makes it almost impossible to decode the information that is being passed back and forth.
Hackers would have to go through a lot of time and energy to decode your information. Even if they did manage to crack the encryption on one piece of data, you might have just been shopping for underwear on Amazon.
The bottom line is that there is a lot more low hanging fruit at any coffee shop or airport Wi-Fi connection and most hackers won't have the ability to crack your VPN encryption anyway.
You can think of a VPN as a “tunnel” through the internet (thick blue line). This allows you to connect safely to the VPN server and eliminate anyone lurking in the middle.
Once connected to the VPN server, you are now free to surf the internet.
An added benefit is that you can connect to VPN servers in different parts of the world, depending on what your service offers.
For example, let's say that you are eating bear in Estonia, but you want to watch Netflix or listen to Pandora. Since you can only use those services in certain countries (mainly the US), you would otherwise be out of luck.
But if you have a VPN, you can fire up your connection and connect to a US server. Now you can watch and listen all you want.
Netflix will think that you are hanging out in Texas and let you watch movies.
This is also great for watching international sporting events like the Olympics, for free. I really enjoyed the BBC coverage, it is quite good.
How to Use a VPN Service
These services are so easy to use. The good ones anyway. Just download the software from your provider's website or your app store, then start it up, and you will be protected.
There isn't much more to it than that. You can choose a server location manually, or you can have the software choose one for you.
This is how is looks on an iPhone. Just flip the switch in Settings and you are connected.
VPN vs Proxy VPN
You might also see things called proxy services that promise to provide the same protection. Many of them are free.
They use term proxy VPN, to make them seem like a real VPN service, but the are not. They are less secure and when stuff is free, it makes it much more likely that they will do some shady stuff to pay the bills.
A couple of the popular proxy services are Zenmate and Hola.
A real VPN isn't that expensive anyway, so why not save yourself the headache?
Now let's take a look at how to pick the right VPN service for you.
Things to Look For When Choosing a VPN For Travel
Not all VPN services are created equal. Here are a few things that you should be aware of.
You never know where you will be in the world, or where in the world you will need to connect to a server. If you want to watch the Wife Carrying World Championships, but your VPN provider doesn't have a server in Finland, then you are out of luck.
So look for a service that works in as many countries as possible and provides connection servers in as many countries as possible.
The type of encryption that a VPN provider offers is key. If they offer a weak encryption, it is almost like not having any protection at all.
Currently, the most secure encryption is OpenVPN. But some devices may not support this encryption, so be sure your other devices can be protected with another protocol.
Make sure that your provider allows you to protect all of your devices in their plan. You need to protect your phones and tablets too.
Often our phones carry more valuable information than our laptops, so don't forget about them. Also be sure that your provider allows concurrent connections.
It's a pain to have to log off one device to use another.
Ease of Use
I mentioned before that VPN services are easy to use. What I actually meant was that the one I use is easy to use.
Just like VPN services from my IT consulting days, some VPNs nowadays are still hard to install. If possible, try the free trial of a VPN service first, to see how easy it is to use.
Provides Good Speeds
You want a VPN to help you, not hinder you. A slow VPN connection could be almost be worse than taking a chance on an unsecured internet connection.
So read some reviews and make sure that your provider has a history of giving customers great connection speeds. Your sanity (and your work) depends on.
Has an Autoconnect Feature
Wouldn't it suck if you did all this research and paid money for a VPN service, then you forgot to turn it on…and got hacked?
Having an autoconnect feature may seem like a small thing, but it can save your ass. Even if you do have this feature turned on, be sure to double check that you are protected.
VPN providers can be like mobile phone companies and limit your bandwidth. Be sure to check for this because working on the road often requires a lot of bandwidth.
If you get throttled, or even cut off, after you hit your threshold, that will lead to a lot of frustration. It may even cause you to lose some money.
How Much Does a VPN Cost?
There are free VPN services out there, but I believe in paying for stuff that I want to work well. This is one of those things.
I've gotten to the point in my life where I would rather spend a few bucks to get something that works, than trying to save some money, but wasting time.
So I'm not even going to mention the free options out there.
Some are more, some are less. So look at the different options and see what works best for you.
Some Things to Remember
Before we end this post, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- A VPN might be too slow on some connections – Realize that in some parts of the world, it may be hard to use a VPN. Since the existing connection is so slow to begin with, using a VPN over that connection will pretty much bring it to a grinding halt. If this is the case, then don't do anything that requires a secure connection, until you can get to a better internet hotspot.
- VPNs provide security, not anonymity – You can't go and do illegal shit on a VPN and expect to get away with it. You will be protected from people trying to intercept your data during transmission. But the websites you buy things from will still log your name and credit card information and they will report you to the authorities, if you do something illegal.
- Use the closest VPN sever – This will usually give you the best speeds.
Final Thoughts on Using a VPN During Your Travels
So whenever I travel to another country or just to the coffee shop down the street, I turn on my VPN and I can work a little easier knowing that my internet connection is secure. It is a small price to pay for some peace of mind.
I don't leave home without it.
…and I suggest you do the same.
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