During your travels, you might have noticed that some countries block websites or limit media because of government censorship laws. Luckily, VPNs exist and they can be used to counter censorship, increase your privacy on open networks, and change your internet location with one click.
In this article, I go over why VPNs are needed during your travels, key features that VPNs should have, and what VPNs are the best.
What is a VPN?
VPN stands for “virtual private network”. Simply put, the VPN connection you create will encrypt your data from your device to a server that then decrypts your data. Once your packets (aka data) are decrypted it then gets routed to the internet.
Think of it as a private tunnel from your device to a server that allows you to bypass government, ISP (internet service provider), or other lurkers spying on the local network or between your device and the internet.
Use cases for a VPN can be endless like using a VPN on open public wifi or when you want to access content when it’s blocked by an ISP or government.
You could be wanting to access Google in China. As we all know, Google is blocked in China. So, you connect to a VPN that allows you to connect to the internet that isn’t blocked as the VPN server you are connected to would be outside of China.
For example, I connect to a VPN server in Hong Kong and visit Google on my device. When I am connected to a VPN all my data goes through the VPN server in Hong Kong before it goes to me or Google.
Therefore, all data between my device and the VPN server will be a secret to China as only myself and my VPN server will have a secret key that decrypts my data. However, any data between the VPN server and websites (Google in this example) would be decrypted as it’s now the regular internet.
Basically, a VPN is a network that is all about hiding before it goes outside to the internet, hence the name virtual private network.
Down below I explain everything you need to know about a VPN during your travels all around the world and at home.
Why should I use a VPN during my travels?
VPNs can be used for many different reasons, but during your travels, you might realize that some countries block certain sites you use every day. Sometimes a VPN can be useful to make the website think you’re in another country. Then there are public wifi networks where there is no password making it easy to intercept your internet traffic with ARP spoofing attacks.
No matter if your goal is to avoid censorship or virtually move to the other side of the globe, you can do it with a VPN.
Avoid website censorship and blocks
You might be aware of some countries that block websites like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, YouTube, Gmail, Netflix, and Wikipedia to name a few. Mainland China, in particular, has the “Great Firewall of China” which blocks many of our favorite sites, like all that I listed above. If you want to see all the websites blocked in Mainland China, you can find the list here.
Good VPNs are able to bypass any country’s censorship and blocks. Very good VPNs are able to work within China bypassing the Great Firewall or other countries’ website blockers.
For example, I was in Turkey in October and they blocked Wikipedia, so I had to use a VPN to access Wikipedia. Then when you are in Indonesia, Telkomsel (a cell phone service provider and ISP) blocks Netflix.
So, all you have to do is turn on the VPN and connect to a VPN server outside of the country you are in to access blocked sites and content.
A VPN can easily bypass the country or ISP that blocks certain websites making it easy to keep your regular internet habits.
Virtually move your location
VPNs give you the ability to change your server that you connect to. So, you could connect to a server in Japan making you have the appearance of being in Japan when you are sitting at home in the USA.
Why would you ever want to connect to a server in another country?
Well, once you select a VPN server in another country, websites will think you are in that country. When you are connecting to a server in another country, websites or services will display content based on the location of the VPN server you are connected to.
Netflix is a good example of a service that has different content libraries in each country. So, the US Netflix library is different than the Japan Netflix library.
In the past, this has also been a way to take advantage of cheaper airfare tickets that go on sale in a given country (though this method does come with some risk).
VPNs allow you to virtually appear like you are in another country.
Public and open wifi networks aren’t secure
When you are connected to a public or open wifi network, anyone can see what websites you visit. Luckily, people cannot see what you are exactly doing on the website, but they can see the website name. Some older websites or apps might not be secure enough making everything you do on that website visible. A VPN basically wraps your internet traffic in a secure packet that you and your VPN service have the key for.
Think of the VPN acting like a secure line between you and the VPN server you are connected to so people on the same wifi network cannot see what you are doing.
Then there is the risk of ARP spoofing attacks (basically someone creating a clone of the open wifi network that intercepts your internet traffic.) ARP spoofing attacks are less of an issue now, but if someone is spoofing a wifi network, it would mean they can see everything you are doing without you ever knowing.
Open wifi networks are still super common. Hotels use open wifi networks. Airports use open wifi networks. Coffee shops use open wifi networks. The list can go on, but a VPN will hide all your traffic from anyone else trying to look at network traffic as all they will see is an encrypted packet.
Key features that VPNs should have
Various server locations
VPNs most importantly need various server locations so you can connect to the closest VPN server for the best speeds.
If you were in Mainland China, a VPN provider that has a VPN server in Hong Kong is important as that would be one of the best location for a VPN server when you are in China. However, if you were in Europe, connecting to the Hong Kong server would create latency which impacts your speeds. Therefore, VPN server locations within Europe would be important.
So, when looking for a VPN provider, you should check if they have VPN servers in the country you are visiting or nearby countries.
Unlimited bandwidth and data
No matter if it’s your home ISP, cell service provider, or a VPN, unlimited bandwidth is key for consistent speeds without throttling or limits.
If you have limited bandwidth, which is typical with free VPN providers, you will find that speeds are sometimes slow. With limited data, then one Netflix movie in HD could eat up most of your data.
Having unlimited bandwidth and data will keep your VPN experience consistent without any hiccups.
Which VPN is the best for traveling?
There are many VPNs in the market place. I personally use VPNs consistently no matter where I am in the world. I have a few important things that I look for in a VPN:
- Consistent fast speeds
- Wide server footprint
- Netflix capable servers
- Unlimited bandwidth and data
One of my favorite VPN providers has to be ExpressVPN. I have personally been using ExpressVPN for four years now as I originally got it during my trip to China back in 2015.
Now I use it regularly during my travels and at home as speeds are consistent with plentiful servers on every continent. ExpressVPN offers 3,000+ servers in 160 locations and 94 countries. I never had an issue finding a nearby server during my travels.
ExpressVPN offers unlimited bandwidth and data. You can also have five simultaneous connections on five different devices at a time.
It offers Netflix and Hulu capable servers in various countries like the US, Canada, UK, Australia, France, Germany, Italy, South Korea, and Japan making it easy to access Netflix and other country’s libraries.
ExpressVPN has easy to use apps on Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, and other devices. With the app, you can see all the locations that have ExpressVPN servers or run speed test on your Windows or Mac app to determine which server will be the fastest from where you are at that moment. ExpressVPN also offers a feature called “Smart Location” for a one-click connection to a nearby premium server without the hassle of finding a server.
You can also manually set up the VPN on other devices without installing an app.
I guess the only negative thing about ExpressVPN is the price.
- 1-month plan: $12.95
- 6-month plan: $59.95
- 12-month plan: $99.95
While there are certainly cheaper VPNs out there, ExpressVPN is the one of the most consistent VPNs out there. And as someone that works online, I need consistency. You can learn more about ExpressVPN here.
Other VPN providers
ExpressVPN certainly isn’t the only VPN provider on the market.
Another global VPN provider is VyprVPN. It’s known for bypassing the Great Firewall of China and other countries that censor websites and content with their Chameleon technology.
Servers are widespread across the globe, but fewer than ExpressVPN. With a total of 700+ servers in over 60 countries, you won’t have to worry about being too far from a VPN server. Plus, unlimited bandwidth and data are in every plan.
Servers in the US, Canada, and the UK support Netflix and Hulu.
There are two plans, vyprvpn and vyprvpn premium. The premium version is substantially better than the regular vyprvpn plan as the premium one offers Chameleon protocol for bypassing country censorships and 5 simultaneous connections. The prices for the premium plan are:
- $80 for one year
- $12.95 for one month
VyprVPN is a good alternative to ExpressVPN for world coverage and bypassing censorships. You can learn more here.
NordVPN (aka the fallen)
You probably have heard of NordVPN before. It’s usually the most frequently advertised VPN on the market.
Unfortunately, NordVPN had a server attack by a hacker. It wasn’t targeted at NordVPN as two other VPN providers had been attacked the same day. However, NordVPN wasn’t aware of the attack since they used a third-party datacenter.
The third-party datacenter failed to notify NordVPN making NordVPN unaware of the breach. Once NordVPN was made aware of the breach, they terminated their contract with the third-party data center and did a security audit of all their servers. This attack was on one server out of 3,000+ in their whole network at the time.
However, there is something slightly unsettling. NordVPN claims no user credentials were leaked, but reports note that 2,000 user credentials were leaked and a couple was still valid. The credentials that got leaked had emails and plain-text passwords.
With all of this known, can NordVPN be recommended?
Maybe, it can be. While it wasn’t my favorite VPN, it is still fast and worldwide. NordVPN has 5000+ servers worldwide in 59 countries. It also bypasses a country’s firewall like China or others. Plus, it supports Netflix on servers in the US, Canada, Germany, UK, France, and Italy.
Prices aren’t too bad and still cheaper than ExpressVPN. NordVPN always discounts its service with prices like:
- 1-month plan: $11.95
- 1-year plan: $84.88
- 2-year plan: $119.76
- 3-year plan: $125.64
NordVPN was and is still a good VPN. Would it be my first choice? No, I think there are better VPNs and find it surprising that a breach happened like this with user account information in plain-text with no encryption.
The best free VPN
Most modern routers will have a VPN server feature built-in. So, you could be in Mainland China and create a VPN server on your router that can handle multiple connections so you can access any website just as if you were in the US.
This method works just fine if you have a solid internet connection in your home with at least 100mbps download and 20mbps upload. Now, this won’t be the fastest VPN solution, but it’s free and would work better than other free VPN providers as there would always be bandwidth limitations and data caps.
I think VPNs are important when you travel as open wifi networks and censorship is still an issue. Sometimes it’s better to be safe than sorry when using a VPN in public places.
Steve is a senior contributor for UponArriving and spends close to 300 nights a year in hotels while traveling the world and trying to eat as much as he can. Steve has spoken at summits like the FBZ Elite Summit in Austin. He holds top-tier elite status with almost every hotel program as a Marriott Ambassador, Hyatt Globalist, Hilton Diamond, IHG Spire, and GHA Black. Utilizing credit card points and miles, Steve takes over 100 flights per year while experiencing some of the top first class and business class cabin in the sky.