When I first heard about VPNs, I remember not understanding what it was for. I thought it was something I might need someday if I ever pick up hacking as a hobby or if I happen to share the hostel WiFi with known drug smugglers — you know, shady stuff. But as it turns out, it’s pretty much essential to have a VPN for travel — yes, even if you don’t plan on doing anything shady.
What is a VPN?
I suspect most people don’t understand how VPNs work.
But you don’t have to fully understand how something works to know that it’s useful and actually make use of it. I don’t understand how a plane stays in the air either and yet I’ve flown countless times. Heck, I don’t understand how my smartphone can do everything from depositing checks to playing funny cat videos, but I use it every day.
In the same way, I find it more useful to discuss the things I can do with a VPN rather than the technical details of how it works.
What a VPN is, in techie-speak: “a Virtual Private Network, or VPN, is a group of computers (or discrete networks) networked together over…the internet. When you connect to a VPN…your computer exchanges trusted keys with a far away server. Once both computers have verified each other as authentic, all of your internet communication is encrypted and secured from eavesdropping.” [quoted from lifehacker]
In English: A VPN keeps your online activities secure and private so no one can see your data.
If that doesn’t sound all that exciting to you, believe me, I get it. Bear with me.
Why would you need a VPN for travel?
1. Safety over public connection
Who doesn’t like free public WiFi? It can be a lifesaver. Like that time when I almost ran out of local currency in Taiwan and managed to make a Skype call over the WiFi connection at Starbucks. Or all those different times when I got lost and finding my way was as easy as going to the nearest McDonalds’ and firing up Google Maps on my iPhone.
But there’s a problem with public WiFi connection. It’s not secure and somebody can steal your passwords, credit card details, and other sensitive information.
VPN encrypts your connection and keeps your data secure.
What I use my VPN for: Securely check my emails and bank accounts over airport/hotel/café WiFi connection.
2. VPN for travel booking — at cheaper prices
Travel booking sites track your location using your IP address and decide what prices to show depending on where you are. You can save hundreds of dollars on one flight alone if you appear to be making the booking from the right country. This can also work for booking hotels, car rentals, and train tickets.
What I use my VPN for: Compare prices for airfares and hotels.
3. Shopping with VPN
Online retailers often have different offerings and set different prices for different countries. You can enjoy wider selections and get some savings using a VPN. This is especially true if you like to buy digital products like games and e-books.
You may have to be a little sneaky about this, though. Some websites hate it when their users do this and may ban your account. Before you proceed, do a little Googling about the details of shopping safely with a VPN at the particular website that sells the stuff you want.
What I use my VPN for: I don’t buy many digital products. So I just compare prices of the same Banana Republic dress on their various international websites, and then get annoyed about the fees. I usually end up not buying because the dress is cheaper locally without the shipping fees, taxes, and duties. :/
4. Get around country-specific restrictions
China has blocked thousands of websites. Without a VPN in China, you’ll be blocked from: news sites (Bloomberg, The New York Times, The Independent); social media (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram); emails (Gmail); and documents you store in the cloud (Dropbox).
The so-called China’s Great Firewall is an extreme example of Internet censorship. But the practice is not limited to China. Many countries all over the world block websites to a certain extent.
With a VPN, you can bypass these restrictions and surf the web as if you were somewhere else, somewhere with more freedom for Internet users.
What I use my VPN for: Access reddit from Indonesia.
5. Enjoy your favorite shows and music from anywhere
Have you seen this annoying message on YouTube: “This video is not available in your country”?
Sometimes it’s not the government that places Internet restrictions. It’s websites such as Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, and Spotify. Some web services or applications also limit usage by location. For example, the offerings in the iTunes store vary by country.
There’s an easy way to fix this. A VPN lets you access all that content and enjoy those location-specific features.
With some shows that are censored in certain countries, you can also use a VPN to watch the uncensored version. (Game of Thrones, anyone?)
What I use my VPN for: Watch British shows for free on BBC iPlayer.
6. Stream live sports events from geo-restricted websites
Imagine your favorite soccer/ice hockey/footy/American football/tennis/cricket team or player is playing in the World Cup/Stanley Cup/AFL Grand Final/Super Bowl/Australian Open/Cricket World Cup. Now, imagine you happen to be traveling during the event.
How are you going to watch it?
Sports broadcasters like to limit their content to specific locations. Also, the particular sports may not be popular enough at your travel destination to be shown on the local TV channel. Even streaming sites often place geographic restrictions.
You can bypass these restrictions with a VPN and simply stream the event online from the comfort of your hotel room.
What I use my VPN for: I don’t watch sports but I can see this being useful. For watching the Olympics opening ceremony, for example. ;)
7. Anonymous whatever-you-do-online
Various governments all over the world access your personal information without consent. Many websites track your online activities and collect your data. Your Internet provider, to some extent, also monitors your online activities.
VPN secures your connection and keeps you anonymous as you do your stuff online. Including uploading or downloading stuff, legally or…otherwise.
On that note, using a reliable VPN that doesn’t store logs of your online activities the only way to safely use a torrenting app. For example, the VPN service that I use, Private Internet Access, has stated, “we do not log and do not have any data on our customers other than their e-mail and account username”.
What I use my VPN for: Sometimes I do things on the Internet that I don’t want people to know about…which is why I use a VPN in the first place. So writing it here for the world to see would kinda defeat the purpose…you know?
Which is the best VPN for travel?
Okay, full disclosure. I know I run a website and everything, but I’m no techie. If you start mentioning scripts and servers and protocols, you’d see my eyes glaze over.
But not to worry. What I’m good at is research. Specifically in this case, research on what actual techies think is a good VPN provider.
PIA is highly rated by PCMag and even made it to their Editor’s Choice list. Here’s what they have to say: “Private Internet Access’ tempting price, excellent performance in our hands-on testing, and powerful security tools make it a clear Editors’ Choice winner and one of the best VPN services”.
I’ve been using PIA for a few months now and so far I really like it. I now honestly believe it’s essential to have a VPN for travel.
I’ve set my VPN to auto-connect whenever I have Internet connection, so I can simply forget about it and have the VPN run in the background. Whenever I want to access country-specific content, with two clicks I can choose “my location” from 24 countries.
On my one account, I can enjoy VPN protection for up to five devices. It works on all my devices (Macbook, iPhone, Android smartphone) and it’s fast.
If I run into any problems with PIA, I’ll update this post. But so far it has been working beautifully and I can see myself sticking with them for a long time.