I believe that it's important to have a VPN for travel for four reasons. It
- Protects me from online identity theft.
- Lets me safely use my credit card on public WiFi.
- Delivers English sites even when I'm doing a Google search in a country with a language I don't know.
- Gives me access to sites that are blocked in certain countries such as Netflix.
- Protects me from having my online activities, including the data I enter into web pages, from being sold by my ISP provider.
Number 5 above is a new reason for using a VPN and why I'm updating this post which was originally published June 14, 2016. At the end of Obama's administration, a bill was passed that disallowed ISPs (Internet Service Providers such as AT&T, Verizon…) from selling the data of their customers. As reported in Techcrunch, on March 28th the current government voted to repeal these broadband privacy regulations. Fifteen Republicans broke rank to vote against the repeal. According to Techcrunch, “for consumers, the rollback is a bad deal no matter how you slice it.” So yes, another reason for using a VPN.
Here's what this post covers. If you already know that you want to set up a VPN, skip to the fourth link below. If you're not sure that it's important and whether you need it, read through the first three sections as well. While the issue above is important, this post will emphasize the value of a VPN when traveling.
What's a VPN?
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. But that doesn't mean anything to most people.
So, let's say that it stands for Very Protected Network – which is the OPPOSITE of Very Public Network which puts your identity at risk and is the status of most public WiFi you'll find in coffee shops and restaurants at home and as you travel.
A VPN protects your identity with end-to-end encryption of your personal data – data that could otherwise be grabbed by the wrong people on public WiFi. One of the fastest growing areas of credit card fraud is CNP fraud, or Card-Not-Present fraud. Your card number, expiration date and the security code from the back of your card can be gathered if you buy or book something using with your credit card while on public WiFi and without using a VPN for enncryption. Of course, a person inclined and capable of grabbing it must be nearby but why risk the possiblity.
In the past, my recommendation was to use a VPN every time you go on a public WiFi network. Now I believe that it should always be used so that all your information, from your browser history to your credit cards, is protected from your ISP as well. A note on this, if you plan to use it all the time I would make sure that you choose a server in your home country so that should you use your credit card online it doesn't look like it's being used from the wrong country.
A VPN is a simple app that's added to your computer, phone or tablet to increase security. Below is a step-by-step VPN setup guide.
The Reasons I Use a VPN for Travel
As I travel internationally I rely a lot on public and semipublic WiFi. Whether it's in a hotel or hostel, at a coffee shop or restaurant, I often go online to book my travel as I go, Skype, watch Netflix from my Canadian account, bank, arrange hotel rooms… I've just returned from Ireland where I used it yet again. (Note: many VPNs do not get around the country restrictions imposed by Netflix. My last test was September 2016 and StrongVPN worked for this. I'll try to keep this point updated.)
A VPN protects you from cyber crime. Just as pickpockets hang around places like subways where there are easy marks, cyber criminals hang around places such as airports where travelers are using public WiFi. Protecting your identity and data from cyber criminals is the principal reason a VPN is important.
You can get your own personal virtual private network (which big companies use to protect their data) from a service company such as StrongVPN which is what I have been using for about four years. For $US69.99/year I get my very own, very protective network that works with my computer, phone and tablet.
What does it do?
- It secures my identity for financial transactions. When I turn the VPN on (this is as simple as throwing a switch. Please see below.) it encrypts all my online data so that it can't be hacked. I can use my credit card to book hotels, move money from my saving account to my travel account with online banking, go into secure accounts like my email or even my tax account without the concern that someone can see my personal information.
- It gives me Google search results in English. Even when I'm in a country such as France or Japan, I can turn on my VPN and get Google search results as if I'm searching at home so that there is no language barrier.
- Gives me access to sites that some countries block. When I was traveling China I needed to turn on my VPN to see Solo Traveler! Yes, even this site was blocked by the Internet wall of China. Travelers often need a VPN to access sites in countries like Vietnam, Spain, Portugal and Thailand. What it does is make it look like you are located in a country that does have access to the site. When I was in China it made it look like I was in the US so that Solo Traveler could be seen.
- Gets me on sites like Netflix even if I'm out of the country. Not all countries have Netflix and after a long day of travel I sometimes want to just chill out watching a show on Netflix. Once I turn on my VPN it looks like I'm at home so I can access my home Netflix account.
While I save money by using free public WiFi as I travel I also protect my money and my identity by using StrongVPN.
How to Use a VPN
A VPN is really simple to use. Once you have it installed all you have to do is flick a switch when you want it on.
There are free VPNs but they either slow down the Internet for you or don't come with the same level of security as a proper VPN does. The low security options are often proxy servers like Hola which was caught in some shady dealings. I think for the small price of $US69.99 annually or $US10 for a month of travel, it's worth paying for a proper VPN like StrongVPN.
What to Look for in a VPN
Assuming that you want the real security of a real VPN, what do you look for when making a choice? Here are a few things:
- Compatibility with your devices. You want a service that is not only compatible with your current devices but with many devices. If you change, say, from iPhone to Android down the road, your VPN service should easily make the change as well.
- Ability to use it on multiple devices at one time. Sometimes life's like that. You're searching on your phone while booking on your computer… Being able to connect your VPN on more than one device at a time is helpful.
- Sufficient speed. Some services can slow down the speed of the Internet. This would certainly apply to a free service. I don't find any difference when I have StrongVPN activated.
- Ease of installation. This is where StrongVPN shines. Follow the step-by-step guide below. It will take about 10 minutes and it's easy.
What Readers Have Had to Say
“Simpson – Thank you! I purchased a year's subscription to “Strong VPN” on your recommendation before I left in August,and have loved it, both for the added banking security as well as being able to watch certain YouTube clips not available as I travel.
Meg – Thank you for all this info!! Never even knew something like this existed! So far, so good!
How to Set Up Your VPN Step-by-Step
When setting up your VPN your first decision is about the service you want. For US$69/yr or US$5.83/mo I have StrongVPN‘s annual plan. (I've arranged for a coupon code on their annual plan. Just enter Solotraveler when when you sign up.) However, for $US10 you can get one month of service if that's all the travel you'll be doing in the year. Plus there's a 5-day money-back guarantee.
Here are the steps for setting up StrongVPN.
Repeat for all your devices and turn you VPN on whenever you're on public WiFi and want to protect your identity.
Special customer support.
If you have any trouble with this you can use StrongVPN's 24-hour email support or email me and I'll contact them for you. Given that ST readers are not typically technical I asked about support for you. I was promised that Solo Traveler readers referred by me would be given priority service. (Please note: if I'm traveling there can be a few hours delay in my response but I will endeavour to respond quickly.) Want to Exercise your 5-Day Money-Back Guarantee?
If for some reason you want to cancel your StrongVPN account, it's easy. Go into your account, under “Accounts” click on “Cancel Request Form”. You will then be sent to a screen where they try to keep you as a client. Click to confirm that you don't want to protect your data which will send you to another page on which you have to click to confirm that you want to cancel your subscription. Yes, that's three clicks to unsubscribe but really no big deal.
It's Not Sexy Travel Gear but Important
There are a lot of ways of spending your travel dollars.
In fact there are six categories to a travel budget. You need to address them all when planning a trip as described here: How to Plan Your Solo Travel Budget – on Any Budget. But there are two items that don't fit into the standard categories that most of us think about and they tend to get overlooked: travel insurance and a VPN. Neither is sexy. You can't travel to them, eat them, drink them, show them off or tell great stories about them – with the exception of a story like this one where my VPN saved my bacon: Eek! I Lost My Credit Card.
So this is not the most popular post on Solo Traveler. But it is, in my opinion, an important one. If you are a regular traveler I recommend an annual plan. If not, a one month plan is good enough. And if you already have your own VPN, why not buy it for a traveler who refuses to invest their hard-earned travel dollars in such an intangible.
And now I'd like to contribute few more tips about securing your identity as you travel.
Why a Free VPN is Not the Answer
There are free and cheap VPN options but, as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. In this case what you get is often very slow, without the same security levels or simply proxy servers as I mentioned above. Here's that link to the story where a VPN actually leaves you vulnerable to hacking rather than safe from it. That's the opposite of what you want. The investment for a month of online security is less than the price of two lattes. To me that makes the purchase an absolute no-brainer. For an annual plan with the Solo Traveler discount the cost is $US59.50 for the year. Cheap peace of mind.
Tips for Using a VPN for Travel
Before You Travel.
- Use your VPN when booking flights. It can be cheaper to book a flight in one part of the world than another. Yes, you can input the same starting and ending points in Scandinavia and be delivered a different price than you would get if you were in Australia. That's because algorithms determine flight prices and location is one factor in the process. However, airlines and booking sites know where you are based on your IP address and that can be changed. Your IP address is the address the Internet sees when you're connecting to it. It will be different at home than it will be at a hotel or in another country. With your VPN on your IP address changes based on the server you're connected to and it's location which can be almost anywhere in the world. You decide what server you want to be connected to and the algorithm will serve up a price based on the location of that server not on where you actually are. Test a few options to see if you can get a better price on a flight.
As You Travel
Here are more tips for using a VPN on the road and at home:
- If you're about to use your credit card, enter personal information into a form or do online banking stop, think about how you're accessing the Internet and decide whether you should turn on your VPN. If you're using hotel, hostel, airport… WiFi, any public WiFi even if you had to enter a password, you are not protected so turn it on. Basically, if you're on any WiFi other than your own protected network at home, consider your personal information at risk and use it.
- If you're in a location where the WiFi is really slow, your VPN may not connect. After all, you're routing your data around the world and back again so it is a bit of a big deal. If the WiFi isn't good enough don't do anything with personal or financial information online.
- Sometimes the WiFi connection is good enough but it tends to drop now and then. If your WiFi drops, your VPN will disconnect and your data will not be secure. If the WiFi is unreliable keep checking your status.
- And a word to the wise (though I don't think that any readers of Solo Traveler need this), don't try to use your VPN to anonymously conduct illegal activity online or to visit inappropriate sites. While your information is secure, the service does have your data, what sites you visited and the like. It can be accessed by the authorities in some countries.
If you use public WiFi as you travel I really hope that you'll sign up for a VPN service, whether it's StrongVPN or another. I consider it essential as it allows me to securely use public WiFi safely, keep current with my favorite shows while I'm on the road and save money.
Tip: When you upgrade your computer make sure you set up your VPN service on it as well. I bought a new computer the day before leaving for Germany and while I got everything transferred over I forgot about setting up this service. I was surpirsed by the number of times I had to stop myself from doing something online because I didn't feel it was safe without a VPN active.
More Ways to Protect Your Identity Online
- Use strong passwords. Here's how to do so easily. Passwords are a pain which is why I use LastPass. I have one password to remember and, as long as I'm signed into my LastPass account, it will automatically fill in the password for whatever site I'm entering. Ah, your computer already does this you say. Yes, but not securely. Those passwords that autofill from your computer are on your computer and can be grabbed easily by a hacker or should someone get hold of your computer. In my case, the passwords are securely held by LastPass. It was another recommendation of our technology consultant and I love it. You can get a free version for one device or, if you want it on every phone, tablet or computer you own, it costs $US12/year.
- Use “https” when possible. The “s” on the end of the http is a designation that is acquired and confirms that the site you're visiting meets certain security standards. It doesn't mean that you can't be hacked while transmitting to and from these sites but the sites themselves tend to be more secure. If you are logging into a site it is especially important that it is an https:// site.
- Keep your software up to date. Software updates may be to eliminate bugs from the systems but they can also be to patch up holes to increase security. When offered a software update, take it.
- Beware of “shoulder surfing”. All the online security in the world won't protect you from someone looking over your shoulder and gathering information from you. It may seem unlikely but it's wise to be careful.
- Use a credit monitoring service if… From time to time the news reports on major companies being hacked for their customers' data. If one of these companies holds your data get in touch right away and ask if they will supply a credit monitoring service. If not, buy one yourself. The service will run your credit reports, look out for new accounts, and monitor for other flags like a change of address that indicate that someone is using your identity online.
- Wait till you're on a secure system. If you can't connect via your VPN or secure your WiFi by another means wait till you can before accessing sites where you'll use important information. Better safe than sorry.
More Ways to Protect Your Identity as You Travel
- Don't take unnecessary documents with you. For travel you likely need your passport, driver's license, visa if the country you're visiting requires one as well as your travel insurance. (Read: Do I Need Travel Insurance?) You don't need your social insurance card, check book and the like. Leave the latter documents at home. Likewise, when at home don't carry your passport and travel insurance with you.
- Carry multiple copies of your docs. I carry my original documents with me as I travel. I like the security of knowing where they are at any given moment. I also have photocopies of my documents in my suitcase or backpack which is, on a typical travel day, in the hotel or hostel. Finally, I leave copies of these documents with my partner at home. You can also store copies of your documents in a cloud service if you are sure it is secure.
- Guard against pickpockets. Click here for 10 tips on how to protect your money and docs from pickpockets. One tip that surprises people but is so obvious when you think about it: If you see a sign in a public place warning you about pickpockets DO NOT touch your pocket to check on your valuables. Pickpockets hang out in such places waiting for innocent people to point out where their wallet is.
- Check your credit card statement on occasion. Check periodically to ensure that there are no unexpected charges to your credit card. You'll want to do this as you travel by phone or online with your VPN on.
In my book I identify the four priorities of safety. From most to least important are:
- Your person
- Your documents
- Your money
- Your stuff
Obviously taking care of yourself is paramount. However your documents, including all identity information, comes a close second. Money and stuff can be replaced.
Please take good care as you travel.