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Virtually at Home: Why You Should Use a VPN While Traveling

Costa Brava, Spain

Online in Costa Brava, Spain (photo: David Lee)

The internet has made travel much easier on several fronts: it’s easy to compare lodging prices, book tickets, and navigate foreign cities. And yet even as we seek the allure of the foreign, it can be hard to give up the convenience of our familiar online environments.

Despite the web being world-wide, the digital landscape can vary significantly across countries.

There are blocked websites, pages in a foreign script, and the never-ending carousel of public networks in airports, cafes, and hotels—each one making vague claims of what it might do or not do with our user information.

If you’re looking to keep your online connections consistent while traveling, you should consider investing in a virtual private network (VPN) service.

A VPN establishes an encrypted connection between a user’s device and server or “endpoint” under the service’s control.

This provides many benefits to travelers regarding safety, convenience, and comfort.

Protect Your Data

Unless you get yourself a mobile hotspot before you go, you will probably rely on a public network for your online activities.

The flimsy security of public WiFi, coupled with travelers’ tendencies to keep important documents (e.g., itineraries, bookings, contact details) online can make for an information security nightmare.

The encryption provided by a VPN, however, makes up for the lapses in public network security.

With your VPN active, you don’t need to worry about other users on the network—in airports and hotels, there could be hundreds—snooping around your emails and transaction data.

Access Blocked Sites

The accessibility of web content can vary from country to country for many reasons, usually involving private licensing restrictions or government censorship laws.

Sometimes it’s no more than an annoyance, but other times it can get in the way of work or other essential tasks. Whichever it is, though, VPNs can help you get around it.

When you connect to one of a VPN’s endpoints, the server you’re using assigns you a new IP address based on where it’s located.

This effectively masks your IP address and tells any web service you’re accessing that you’re located in another region.

This will get you past the most common means of blocking web content, aptly called geoblocking.

With this, you can watch any shows you might be following on streaming services like Netflix, or you could keep up with news that might be censored in the country you’re in.

But if you’re circumventing policies and censors, are you going to get in trouble?

The answer is a bit of a gray area. Hardly any countries have established policies on VPN use.

That said, it’s a good idea to read up before traveling. The United Arab Emirates and China are both stricter than usual on them, for instance.

China’s hostility toward VPNs means that a VPN that works in China likely works anywhere in the world, though, making it an excellent litmus test for potential VPN services.

Savvy Shopping

Just as a VPN’s encryption protects your documents and correspondences, it can also safeguard transaction information, including payment details and receipts.

This is great for making online purchases abroad, especially if you’re limited to public or semi-public networks.

Moreover, because a VPN can make it seem as if you’re in another country, you can sometimes use it to get better deals on travel-related purchases.

Tourists often pay more than locals do for products, services, or access to places of interest. A VPN won’t eliminate this problem, but it can mitigate it in some cases.

Domestic flights, for example, are sometimes cheaper when booked locally—so you can have your VPN mark you as local when you book the flight.

You should note, however, that your transactions will be kept hidden from third parties, but not from anyone directly concerned with the purchase.

If you make online purchases from vastly different locales, your credit card company is bound to notice.

Choosing a VPN Service

All that being said, there’s still the question of which VPN service to use.

There are many reviews available online, but when it comes to VPNs specifically for use while traveling, here are a few things to consider:

  • Choose a VPN that lets you automatically connect to it. A VPN can’t protect you if it’s not active and in the rush of travel, you might forget to connect manually. (Unreliable WiFi signals can also cause disconnection from the VPN.)
  • Find one with endpoints where you need them. This might be endpoints in the country you’re visiting (for faster connections while staying secure), or one near your home region.
  • Make sure it can support as many devices as you’ll need. This is mainly for paid VPNs, which restrict the number of devices that can connect to them and often charge premiums for more devices. If you use several smart devices while traveling, make sure your VPN can cover them all.
  • Again, make sure it works in the country you’re going to. Run searches to see if it’s been working or not within the past few months; this will be a good gauge of reliability.
  • Finally, look up the VPN provider’s reputation. You might think you’re getting a good deal with a free service, but some providers have been known to sell user information to fund their operations.

This story was provided in partnership with Hotspot Shield.

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