What is a VPN (and Which VPN is Best for Travelers?)

This post may contain affiliate links, which means if you make a purchase through one of these links, I may earn a commission (at no extra cost to you).

When I’m on the road, wi-fi hotspots are essential to my work and they’re relatively easy to find.  However, these hotspots are horrifically insecure unless you use a VPN.

Most people know they shouldn’t log into their bank accounts or transmit personal information over public internet connections, but frankly that’s only half the battle.  Simply checking your email could open up your account — including all previously sent messages — to the world, putting you at risk of identity theft.  Think about it: having your email account information could let someone reset passwords, look up paperless billing statements, or find information on where you’ll be at a certain time.

I never used to bother with using a VPN, but now I wouldn’t consider any other way.  As much as I hate to admit this, bringing my laptop around the world and pulling it out on a regular basis is what lets me travel as often as I do.  My phone’s data connection is great for looking up a few things and I love disconnecting for short spurts of time, but realistically I need to work while traveling and I need a laptop to do so.

What is a VPN? It's a tool to keep your internet data secure when connecting through a public wi-fi hotspot. Here's how to use the best free VPN.
Pin this post!

What is a VPN?

The short answer is that a virtual private network (VPN) is a tool that protects your data and privacy when you’re on a public wi-fi network.  It encrypts the data sent to/from your computer so hackers will see gobbly-gook instead of your personal information.

You Especially Need a VPN When You Travel

Even if you don’t plan on going to any private websites while you’re traveling, there’s a good chance you’ll change your mind while you’re there.  Off the top of my head, I can think of times I had to…

  • check my bank account balance daily in Sri Lanka because an ATM overcharged me by $5,000 and I was desperately close to a zero balance (thankfully Charles Schwab sorted it all out for me, but not until I was home)
  • use my credit card online to buy a last-minute plane ticket from Beijing to Harbin because I had missed a connection in Hong Kong
  • send a document full of personal information as part of a last-minute mortgage package while I was on a business trip to California

On a lighter note, a VPN can also help you pretend you’re connecting to the internet via a different country than the one you’re actually in, so you won’t face things like censored articles or blocked websites and mobile apps.

laptop with lock screen on it to represent vpn

How to Choose a VPN

There are a few things that you should consider before choosing a VPN: efficacy, ease of use, speed, and price.  I’ve tried several, some of which have user interfaces that only tech geniuses can understand and others that are easy to use but slow your data transfer speeds wayyyy down, which obviously gets annoying.  Additionally, many VPNs don’t work in China (the government shuts them down), which means you may need a specialty product.

Efficacy

My tech knowledge is too limited to understand precisely how each individual VPN works on the back-end, but I know I see the same 10 companies listed over and over through online reports written by tech gurus.  Check to make sure sure the company you’re subscribing to is highly regarded among experts and considered reputable.  On your own, check to see if they compile your data and how often they improve their service to keep things up-to-date.

I also wanted a single software subscription that would work on both my laptop and my Android phone so that I didn’t have to pay for two separate programs!

Ease of Use 

I want two things: a VPN that’s easy to turn on and off and one that gives me the option to select a specific country I want to “pretend browse” from.  I often don’t need that, and let it auto-select, but sometimes I want to specifically choose I’m browsing from the USA.

Speed

Wi-fi hotspots aren’t always blazing fast, so I want a VPN that doesn’t slow things down even more by re-routing my data transfers.

Price

Everyone wants to spend their travel budget on fun stuff (like sightDOING tours or great restaurants), not on software.  Most VPNs are affordable but that doesn’t mean they’re all the same.

Some price based on the amount of data you use (so streaming YouTube will eat your allowance quickly) and some base on a timed subscription period, like all-you-can-use in a month.  Light users will do better with data allowances; power users do better with unlimited.

vpn travel lock

Best VPN For Frequent Travelers

For people like me, who travel often and need frequent access to a VPN (or if you work from coffeeshops or other public hotspots near home), you’ll want to look for unlimited subscriptions.  With these, you can sign on anytime you want, for as long as you want, to download or upload as much as you want.

I personally use and recommend NordVPN.  It meets all of my criteria for working easily, quickly, securely, and affordably.  It also worked like a charm on my trip to China this winter so that I could still post Instagram updates, etc. even though the app is officially blocked there.

nordvpn

I also like NordVPN because they have a “no logs” policy – meaning they don’t track, collect, or share your private browsing history.  They won’t keep records of which websites you visited, what software you used, or what files you downloaded (some American companies collect all this even if they don’t share it with anyone else!).  It’s ultimate privacy.

NordVPN starts at $12/month for unlimited use on up to 6 devices (so you can share with a spouse or travel companion).  If you think you’ll be a heavy user, but only on a single trip, this is your best bet.  After all, $12 is a small price to pay for secure browsing…I’m not even sure I can buy a sandwich at the airport for that price anymore.

If you’re really a frequent user (I am), you’ll save 40% if you prepay the whole year ($84 vs. $144).  Find a family member to split it with — six devices, remember — and it’s quite affordable.

If you’re looking for a full-year subscription, I have a privately available deal through my affiliate link for $69 for your first year.  That’s a nice discount compared to their publicly available price and you can feel good about supporting sightDOING.

–> Subscribe to NordVPN Here <—

My TunnelBear Review: Best Choice for Occasional Users

For years, I used TunnelBear instead of NordVPN (I just switched in January).  It’s possibly the most user-friendly VPN out there.  There’s a one-time quick install and after that you can just turn the service on and off as needed with a single click.

The user interface doesn’t look too techy and doesn’t give you too many options, which means you have a few more limitations, but for basic use, it’s so easy!

what is a vpn? tunnelbear best free vpn
Turning the Tunnel Bear on to pretend I’m in the USA when I’m actually in Nepal

Amazingly, TunnelBear offers 500 megabytes of free VPN browsing each month.  This is awesome if you are only planning on a quick look at your bank balance partway through your trip or if don’t expect to need wi-fi except in case of emergency.

TunnelBear will also gift you an additional 1 gigabyte of access simply by sending a single promotional message on your Twitter account.  Assuming you get the full 1.5 GB of data, you can access quite a bit of protected surfing while you’re traveling.  For free, you can’t beat it!

I used the free version of TunnelBear for years, eventually switching to their paid version ($10/month or $60/year).  Even the paid subscriptions are relatively low-price, but I had to switch before my China trip since TunnelBear doesn’t work there.   Once I switched, I realized that NordVPN is definitely faster than TunnelBear, but I think this is still a solid option for occasional users.

–> Get a FREE TunnelBear Account Now <–

Bottom Line: You Need a VPN

Even if you just download the free TunnelBear app, you’ll have it on-hand and easy to access if you need to unexpectedly check your bank account, credit card statement, etc.

I use a VPN pretty much every time I connect to public wi-fi as an extra precaution; in that case, you’ll probably want an unlimited subscription, but even then, there are very affordable options that are still tried and true.

 

*     *     *

Do you use a VPN when traveling?  Do you have a favorite program?

15 thoughts on “What is a VPN (and Which VPN is Best for Travelers?)”

  1. I used Express VPN for a hot minute and I was not impressed! It’d constantly log me off and I couldn’t stream anything on ShowtimeAnytime. (The horror!)
    I’m excited to try TunnelBear!

    1. Strange. What system were you using it on? Ive been using ExpressVPN on my MacBook Pro for more than a year and have never had an issue

  2. While it is a pay VPN, VyprVPN worked well in China which is notorious for firewall blocking of may VPNs. Additionally, you can VPN into many different countries so if you don’t care about tunneling back to the US, then you can tunnel into many other “good internet” countries as well. The other benefit it that VyprVPN has a client for iOS as well as Android so you can protect your mobile data as well.

  3. Nice info – will give tunnelbear a go! I currently do not travel – but sitting in the center of South America (German expat in Paraguay) you have the same problem: for some things you have to “be” either in the US or at (ex-)home in Germany. Plus local ISPs are not always trustworthy and tend to read emails etc…

    Since I have my websites on my own VPS I can use that as a personal tunnel/proxy system, but it has to be configured manually and puts additional load on the webserver. So an additional VPN service is a great thing to have – even more since I plan to be traveling again in a couple months!

    1. @Martin the Wanderer, Sounds like you’ve got quite a solution figured out! I like TunnelBear because it’s so simple and straightforward…and when it’s easy, I’m more likely to do it 🙂

  4. Your comments about security apply equally to your local Starbucks or Panera. Most email providers allow you to set up an SSL (secure connection)

    1. @Scott – Completely agree! I just happen to use public wi-fi WAY more often when traveling. I choose to use a VPN because it’s a broader protection than just email and it’s 100% simple.

  5. Connecting through a VPN is always a good idea especially if you’re always on the go and connecting using unsecure channels. I think it’s a must-have for a techy traveler. And… I’m always looking for a good VPN. Thanks for this.

    1. @Cheryl, When you have the application open, there should be a button that says click to tweet and it will auto-generate the message for you.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *