What the HECK is a VPN? A fair question to ask yourself if, like me just a few years ago, you’ve never heard of a VPN or Virtual Private Network.
Now I use a VPN whenever I get on the internet, but most especially when I travel. Today I’m going in to detail about VPNs and why you need one for travel and at home, plus comparing the most popular VPNs and sharing my top recommendation.
What is a VPN?
A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, protects and secures all of your data while online, creating a private connection between you and the web while you’re on the internet or using any apps. This includes all of the data that you access – banking information, email, downloads… everything.
When you’re using public wifi networks accessible by many people, hackers often target these networks to steal personal data like passwords, credit card or banking info, or other information they can use and sell at your expense, even if you need a password to sign in to the network.
This is where a VPN comes in handy – it basically creates a block between you and lets you use the internet privately without this fear, by routing your information to servers elsewhere.
VPN for International Travel
VPNs are particularly important for international travel, as you’ll be using unfamiliar wifi networks for the duration of your travels. But more than that, they’re also needed to be able to use the internet as you normally do at home.
In many countries, there are government blocks and censorship of certain websites or apps like Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, or news websites. This goes for China (famously) as well as many other countries like Turkey, Thailand, Cuba, Indonesia, Russia, and many more you might not think of.
Having a VPN allows you to use the internet more freely and access pages you normally couldn’t while traveling to these countries. Since we spend so much time in Cuba and connect to wifi in parks and other public places, we knew that we had to have a VPN to be using the internet safely – and now we use it everywhere we go.
How to Use a VPN
Using a VPN is extremely easy even for those who aren’t tech-savvy. Once you get a subscription to a VPN, you’ll be prompted to download the VPN’s app. Go ahead and download the app for your computer, phone, and any other devices you may want to connect.
Companies will usually have a Mac and PC version of these apps available on their websites (or through the app store).
Once you download these apps you can login and you’ll be able to start browsing safely. It is really that simple!
Many VPN services offer a kill-switch which will remind you to connect to the VPN before getting online, and which you can activate to disconnect you from the internet if you’re not using the VPN. This feature alerts you so that your information is not unintentionally put at risk.
Upon logging in, the VPN will usually connect you to the server closest to you to best conserve internet speed. After connecting, you’ll be able to choose which country you’ll appear to be browsing from.
Top VPNs for Travel
There are many great VPN services out there these days. When looking for a VPN for travel, I recommend considering a few aspects of VPN use:
Especially when traveling, you never know what kind of internet you’ll find at a hotel, Airbnb, or in a cafe. Looking for a VPN that doesn’t reduce your internet speed significantly is one of the most important considerations!
Number of Device Connections
Each VPN service offers certain number of licenses, allowing you to connect a specific number of devices at once. If you have a lot of gadgets to connect to the internet at once, it might be important to make sure that the service you select will cover you.
Here are some of the top VPNs for travel (and, in general!) and the ones that I have either used myself or heard rave reviews about from other travelers.
My top pick for a VPN, and the service that I use in Cuba, the US, and whenever I travel. NordVPN has the fastest connection speeds of all VPN providers. It allows you to connect up to six devices at once on a massive network of servers offering military-grade protection.
With their limited-time offer and a cost of about $3.50 a month, it is a steal.
Surfshark lets you connect unlimited devices for just $1.99/ month. It also boasts fast connection speeds (not as fast as NordVPN!) and allows you to access over 15 Netflix libraries from around the world.
They’re running an 85% off limited-time offer – check the link below before it expires!
My Top Pick: NordVPN
I’ve used and loved NordVPN for a while now – its average speeds soar past the competition, and it offers unmatched protection for a bargain price. It allows you to connect up to 6 devices at once – far more than I’ve ever needed! – on a massive network of servers offering military-grade protection.
There are an increasing number of free VPN services cropping up out there, or free plans with limited data allowances from some of the paid VPN services. I would caution you against using those for a few important reasons:
Free VPNs Often Contain Malware
Yes – it’s true! Many free VPNs actually contain malware. This accompanies the fact that many of the free VPN services show advertisements to their uses as a way to recoup the cost of the free service they’re providing. Not good if you’re looking for security.
Free VPNs Are Often Slow
Some VPN services that offer a limited free version also intentionally make the speeds of their free service slow as a way to entice users to upgrade to a paid version of the service. Especially when browsing the internet in places that have slower internet connections such as developing countries you may be traveling to or on public wifi connections, this can make connecting to the internet challenging. Or, impossible.
Free VPNs Often Track Your Activity
Many free VPN services keep “logs,” essentially tracking your activity online. These logs can contain information about what you post on social media, what content you stream or webpages you visit, and more. While a free VPN might protect this information from hackers, you probably don’t want that information in the hands of the VPN provider either.
Free VPNs Don’t Unblock All Content
If you’re looking for a VPN to help you access content restricted by geographical location (keep reading into the next section for more details on this!), free VPN services generally will not cut it.
Especially with content streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and others, they put a lot of effort into strategically allowing content to be accessed only from specific locations. Free VPNs generally don’t have the resources to allow you to jump these online walls. Or, they’ll only offer this service with a paid subscription plan, another way to entice users to pay.
VPN for Netflix
Using a VPN is not just about protecting your data. On a fun note, VPNs will also help you get the most out of your Netflix subscription, or other streaming service.
Did you know that in other countries there are other Netflix libraries with even more movies and TV shows? Due to legal rights over this content in different countries, Netflix and other services can only show certain things in certain places. Using a VPN, you can unlocking the Netflix and Hulu libraries in other countries, or cable streaming services from TV providers, and more.
Remember, if you’re looking to access some of this geoblocked content and different Netflix libraries from other countries, free VPNs won’t cut it. Surfshark is know for unlocking the most Netflix libraries of any VPN service, and it costs less than $2.00 per month! While I’ve heard that some free VPNs can unblock some Netflix libraries, it is generally at speed reductions that don’t make it feasible to stream content anyways.
Scoring Cheap Flights with a VPN
While there are several ways that VPNs can help you save money, my favorite trick with VPNs is using them to help access cheaper flights.
Have you ever noticed how once you’ve searched for a flight, if you look for it again the price has gone up? This is because airlines and booking websites can track your flight searches with cookies. Using an incognito window on your browser can help with this, as does a VPN.
If you’re searching for a flight, try switching your browsing location using a VPN before booking. I’ve found that there can be a difference in ticket prices by hundreds of dollars. Try changing your IP address with your VPN to one in a developing country to see if this will save you money – this has been the most effective for me!
This is why I absolutely love VPNs – using a trick like this even once can save you enough money to more than cover the cost of having the VPN to begin with! For travelers that travel with any frequency, this should be reason enough to get a VPN as soon as you can!
I consider a VPN to be a travel essential these days. Not only will VPNs protect your information when traveling (or otherwise), but their added features like unblocking geo-filtered content and helping you find the cheapest flights will help you get so much more out of them.
Make sure you have a VPN before your next trip abroad…or to the coffee shop down the street! With how much of our lives and information is digital these days, it is such a small price to pay for securing information, and can actually save you money, too!