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What is a VPN, and why do you need one when you travel?


VPNs explained for travellers and tech-phobes

For some of us, making sure you’ve got a VPN downloaded before you travel is as normal and essential as getting currency and vaccinations. For the rest of us, it’s more a case of “VPN? What’s that?”

VPNs might sound complicated – acronyms have that effect – but they’re surprisingly easy to use. And once you’ve experienced the extra online security, privacy and browsing freedom they offer, you won’t travel without a VPN again.

Image by Brooke Cagle on UnSplash.


When we discussed VPNs on our women’s travel buddy Facebook group, the comments ranged from fully clued-up to “What is a VPN, what does it look like and what might happen if you don't have one?!” That last comment was ours, and it turned out there were quite a lot of women travellers who felt the same way so we did some research and are now proudly VPN savvy.

Here’s what we learned about VPNs and why it’s a good idea to have one when you travel.


What is a VPN?

VPN stands for ‘Virtual Private Network’. A VPN is an app you download onto your tablet, smartphone or laptop for extra security when you’re using public Wi-Fi.

Public Wi-Fi is anything other than your password-protected home or work network. It could be the co-called ‘secure’ Wi-Fi provided by your hotel, the Wi-Fi in a café or a library, or even on the aeroplane. As travellers, we tend to use these a lot and they’re not as secure as you might trust. A VPN transforms these public networks into a private network just for you, making them super secure, and there are lots of other benefits too. I’ll go into these benefits in more detail below.

Why do real female travellers in the Thelma & Louise community already use VPNs?

  • “For security while using public Wi-Fi.”
  • “I primarily use it when doing online banking or purchases using my credit card. Extra security protection.”
  • “In addition to some of the things that are explained above, it will give you information in your home country’s language rather than the language of where you're travelling. If you've ever been in another country trying to look something up and everything you're getting is in that country's language and you're trying to deal with translations, you will really appreciate that too.”

How does a VPN work?

A VPN changes your IP location, encrypts your data and allows you to access apps and websites that would otherwise be blocked in the country you’re visiting.

A VPN tricks a website into thinking you are located somewhere other than where you are

really logging in from. It does this by allowing you to use an anonymous IP address from almost anywhere in the world. (Your IP – Internet Protocol – address is like your computer’s street address, so the Internet knows where to send your emails, notifications and essential photos of cats.)

When you use a VPN, no one else can see what you’re doing on the Internet – or even know you’re using it. VPNs provide you with unlimited, secure access to social media, email, voice calls, music and video streaming anywhere in the world.

How do I use a VPN?

Simply download and install a VPN app to your tablet, laptop or smartphone then, once you’ve connected to the Internet, flick a switch, choose the server location and browse as usual.

The data you send will be encrypted and transmitted via one of the VPN company’s servers, which can be located in dozens if not hundreds of different countries around the world.

“So you could be in China, but if you choose to use a server based in Chicago, as far as Facebook in concerned you’re in the USA.”

If you don’t understand why that might be useful, read on!


Why do I need a VPN when I travel?

VPNs aren’t just for techies and business travellers. There are lots of reasons why you would benefit from having a VPN when you travel.

  1. Security. A VPN protects your identity and data from cyber criminals, the virtual pickpockets of the Internet. People using the same public network as you could easily steal your unencrypted data from your web browser and mobile apps: your credit card numbers, browser cookies, usernames, passwords and so on. This extra security protection is especially important when you’re doing things like online banking or paying for services online.
  1. Censorship. Sometimes our Internet browsing habits don’t cross borders as easily as we do. A VPN can be a work-around for government-sanctioned Internet filtering, which is particularly handy if you’re travelling to a country where the powers-that-be place high levels of censorship on the Internet, such as in Iran and North Korea. So if you want to access Facebook on your next trip to China, where the service is banned, a VPN could be your best bet.
  1. Watch your favourite TV shows wherever you are. Get a VPN and trick geographically restricted services into thinking you’re using your device in your home country. For example, I live in the UK and pay a licence fee to the BBC but can’t access BBC iPlayer when I’m abroad – unless I have a VPN.
  1. Save time and hassle. Telling your bank that you’re travelling isn’t always a reliable way to ensure your account won’t be locked for unusual activity abroad. Instead, use a VPN to by-pass your bank’s (rightly hypersensitive) fraud squad. If I’m in Budapest trying to book and pay for a hotel room in Madrid, for example, I could save a lot of hassle and time on the phone to my bank if I choose a VPN server in my home country or, even better, my home city.
  1. Save money. You can use a VPN to beat location-based price targeting. Some companies save their cheapest offers for people with a local IP address. So switch your VPN to select a server in the country of the place you’re going to and take advantage of promotions usually only available to citizens. You could, for example, buy a KiwiRail ticket that’s cheaper for locals before you even arrive in New Zealand.


When choosing a VPN to travel with:

  • Make sure the VPN covers – and works with – every device you own, in one subscription
  • Look for a VPN that’s easy to install, connects automatically and offers technical support
  • Find a VPN that won’t slow your Internet speed too much. Some decrease in service is to be expected, but don’t settle for substantial reductions in speed. This is where a free trial can come in handy – run speed tests before you commit, if possible
  • For goodness sake, make sure the VPN works in the country you’re visiting!


VPN recommendations from the T&L community

When we discussed VPNs in the Thelma & Louise community, the women travellers who knew what they were talking about recommended:


Now that you’ve got your VPN, log in to Thelma & Louise and find your perfect travel buddy as you explore!

Are you convinced you need a VPN, or are you still planning to travel without one? Tell us what you think about VPNs in the comments below.