Along with free breakfast and beds with two pillows, there are few things that can make travellers pee their pants with excitement more than this sign:
And most of the time, we’re so excited to check our ex-girlfriend’s Instagram that we don’t even think twice before whipping out our phones and connecting.
But how safe is it?
You may be shocked to know (or maybe you won’t) that public wifi is a playground for internet snoops looking to leech details of unsuspecting users. When you connect to these free wifi networks on your phone or laptop, you share the connection with hundreds of other users, and everything you do on the internet (emails, passwords, files) is unprotected and available for prying eyes to see. It’s not difficult, either. Anyone with the right tools or software can be snooping on your every move.
If you’re lucky, the best they’ll get is a little peek inside your kinky Facebook conversations, but things can get a lot more serious if they manage to pick a few credit card details, your online banking info, or access to your Paypal or business interests.
So what do you do?
Luckily for us, there’s a very simple solution.
Using a VPN
A VPN is a “Virtual Private Network”, which acts as your own private and secure connection to the internet. You may be familiar with using one for work; often a requirement when you work remotely so that your connection back to your office is secure. However, your personal details are just as, if not more, important than your work stuff, and so in this age of constant connectivity it is wise to ensure you take measures to protect your personal information too. These days VPN’s are cheap and accessible, so there really is no excuse to not be using one. There are also many benefits to them beyond simple data security. Let’s go through them.
When using a VPN, all the data you send across the web is encrypted and scrambled. That means everything you write in your emails, everything you download, and all your banking passwords are safe from anyone who’s trying to snoop around on your wifi network. If your connection is unsecured, there’s a good chance someone sneaky could be watching your every move. Think about the number of times you’ve logged onto a Starbucks, hostel or airport wifi without even thinking twice. If there was a password, how hard was it for you to get it? Think about it! These connections are not secure – people can see you.
When using a VPN, your real IP address is cloaked and the VPN will give you a “dummy” IP address, which basically means websites and internet services won’t be able to monitor your activity, searches or location. With a VPN, you can stay anonymous on the web, just like you’re supposed to.
Bypass censorship restrictions
When I lived in China, there were countless websites I wasn’t able to get onto because of China’s “Great Firewall” (Facebook, Youtube etc). Even news websites and blogs can get censored for the most petty reasons, and this is not unique to China. In fact, with the madness of political correctness these days, even countries like Australia and USA are starting to dabble in internet censorship. Thankfully, a VPN solves all this. While in China and other countries around the world, I’ve been able to use a VPN to surf the internet freely without any restrictions whatsoever.
Access country-restricted content
Whenever I need my reality TV fix, the site I normally use to stream it is a Canadian one. Unfortunately, the stream is only available to Canadians. Luckily because I have a VPN, this isn’t an issue. I simply connect my VPN to a Canadian server, and I get my fix of cheese TV without a problem, regardless of where I am in the world:
This holds true for all websites that restrict their broadcasts to within their own countries, which can drive travellers mad, especially those in need of their weekly fix of sport or television.
Prevent banking lockouts
Fortunately this hasn’t happened to met yet, but I’ve met one or two people frustratingly trying to Skype their bank to get their account unlocked from some remote country. Banking websites tend to go overboard on security (which is a good thing, really) and if you log in from somewhere strange like Nigeria or Venezuela it might tick off one of their security censors and lock down your account. After that, it’s a matter of getting your bank on the phone and pleading your innocence (Paypal also has it’s share of lockdown stories). By using a VPN, you can connect through servers in “safer” countries and prevent the headache altogether.
Where can you get a VPN?
The VPN I currently use is Private Internet Access. At $40 a year, it is by far the best value among the reputable VPN services out there as far as I know. The speeds are good, and it has a wide range of servers around the world you can connect to. It also allows you to connect to 5 devices simultaneously with no extra charge which is a huge bonus for me as I often am switching between both my phone and laptop while working (almost all VPNs charge a fee for multiple devices). It doesn’t have any fancy frills or sexy interface, but it works perfectly which is all that matters. I’ve used around 3 different VPN services in the past couple of years, but have stuck with Private Internet Access for a while now and am very happy with it. You can click here to read more about Private Internet Access and how it works.
If you’re feeling tight, there are free VPN’s available out there, but none that I’m going to recommend here. All the ones I’ve tried either bombard you with ads, are slow, or simply don’t work at all.
Do you need one?
As I do most of my work on public wifi connections these days, a VPN is a must-have for me, but even if you use public wifi casually I’d still highly recommend getting one, particularly if you use the net to access/send sensitive information like banking/credit card numbers etc. If you only travel sparingly and aren’t a big public wifi user you’ll probably be ok without one, but being so inexpensive, I’d say it’s a small price to pay for the peace of mind while you stay connected around the world.
Disclosure: I am a Private Internet Access affiliate. This post is not sponsored and I pay for my VPN service in full. You can read my Disclosure Policy here.