Most modern travellers depend upon our devices to keep track of our lives. Our tickets, itineraries, and instructions are often digital and we need to be able to access that information while travelling. We research and book excursions online. We may need to do banking transactions. Every time we make an insecure connection (such as public WIFI), our data is at risk from bad actors. We have become used to being connected and rely on our various apps for communication, organization, navigation, and entertainment. On the other hand, especially for North Americans, adding international data roaming onto our phone plans can be expensive. Luckily it isn't difficult nor does it need to cost a lot to keep yourself safe. It is well worth it to avoid having your data and identity stolen or your accounts hacked. Here are some tips to give you some peace of mind.
Basics Make sure your devices are updated with all security updates. Install anti-virus software. AVG has been popular among users and even the free version gets excellent reviews. It is available at no cost for PC/Android users but there is a cost for the Mac version. Avast offers a free (and a paid) version for Mac users.
Enable two-step authentication on all your devices and programs. Two-step authentication requires and extra step when logging in, combining a password with a code or biometric scan to provide single use passwords. With this authentication process no one can get into your systems. Be aware however, that if you choose to use two-step authentication through text, you will need a phone connection in your destination. You may need another option such as Google Authenticator so you can do the entire process online. Avoid Public WIFI In an ideal situation, you would have no need to connect to public WIFI. However, as we all know, ideal situations can not be guaranteed. Keep in mind that if a network is open, it is insecure: anyone can connect. Places that post their passwords publicly may have hundreds or thousands of people who have access to the network. Never, ever access personal or financial data on public WIFI.
Upgrade Your Cell Plan to Include International Data and Roaming Check with your provider to add international calling and data to your phone plan. Ask about the security of the connection outside of your home country. This is often the most expensive but most convenient solution. You can connect to the internet through your phone plan and can create a secure hotspot for your tablet or laptop. Your home phone number will remain the same and you will be able to send and receive texts and calls using that number. Be aware that businesses in your destination country may not want to return calls to an international number. Get a Personal Hot Spot Device Adding international data to my phone plan is more money than I want to spend. In years past, when costs were even more prohibitive, I purchased a portable hot spot device. These devices offer a secure connection for multiple devices. Different companies offer different packages: some are based on data used and some offer daily/weekly/monthly rates.
I use the Solis Skyroam. It also includes a camera for stills, video, or streaming, a port for charging other devices, and a flashlight. Their passes go on sale regularly and I stock up when they have their 40% off sales. I have found it works everywhere that there is a cell phone connection. I can connect up to 10 devices... not that I've ever done that but it is nice to share a secure connection with a travel partner. This is my preferred connection when travelling. It's small, discrete, powerful, easy to use, and less expensive than my provider.
Buy a Burner Phone or SIM card If you do not need to be available through your home phone number, consider a SIM card or burner phone purchased at your destination. It is possible to get full service or data-only plans. Apps such as WhatsApp, Facetime, iMessage, Skype etc can be used to make VOIP calls. There are often kiosks in airports to purchase phones and SIM cards that can help you get everything set up. If you are planning on using your regular phone, ensure it is unlocked and that you know the unlock code.
Avoid Public Computers The dusty computers tucked into the corner of the lobby of your hotel or hostel have been used by many people over the years. They are typically slow because so many travellers and staff have installed all sorts of software, possibly even key-logging software that captures everything you type, including user names and passwords. The security and updates are rarely maintained. If you must use a public computer, try to find a local library.
Don't use these computers for anything other than random browsing. Always use private/incognito browsing mode so your details will not be saved. For extra protection, don't forget to log out of all the sites you logged into, then reboot the computer. Don't log into your financial institutions, email, or social media. Don't do anything involving money or where you need to enter your credit card information. Use a VPN (Virtual Private Network)
Simply stated, a VPN is an app or program that creates an encrypted connection to the internet. There are many options available, most of which offer at least a month of free service. If travelling to China, look for one that specifically states it will work there. I use ExpressVPN and have been pleased. An added benefit to a VPN is that you can set the server as if you were in your home country to access your streaming services such as Netflix.
If you don't have a VPN be aware of the pages you visit. Most webpages nowadays are secure but there are still some out there that aren't. Look for the little lock in front of the url in the menu box or a url that begins with https rather than http. Back Up Everything For many travellers, our devices are essential to our travel. In the awful event that we lose, break or have our devices stolen we would be truly in trouble. Back up all your documentation in your email, notes, Dropbox, Cloud, or files folder before leaving home. Some people may wish to use an external hard-drive. Set up your storage system to automatically save to your preferred external storage location. Download photos frequently. A piece of advice I was given years ago is "anything stored online in one place is not stored". Unfortunately, I got this advice after I lost over 1,000 photos of an amazing European trip.
Use a PIN or Password
It takes less than a minute to set up a password on each of your devices. Use a strong password with capital letters, symbols, and numbers that is as long as possible. Enable biometric scanners if available on your device.
To prevent determined bad guys, encryption is another layer of protection should your device land in the wrong hands. With encryption, even if the bad guy somehow bypasses your PIN or removes the hard drive, your data will still be protected. This is very easy to do in the security settings of your device. Newer devices often enable encryption by default. Trackers Sadly, our devices may go missing, get stolen, or misplaced. Using a tracker won't prevent that but it may assist in locating the missing item. Consider using a GPS tracker such as AirTags or Tile. If you use Apple products, make sure you add your devices to the "Find My" app. Android users can use the Android Device Manager. Set the tracker up and check that it is working before leaving home. These programs allow you to remotely delete all data if you decide that your device is gone forever.
Final Thoughts Planning to keep our data secure isn't the most exciting part of travel but it is crucial. VPNs, anti-virus software, automatic backups, location, and encryption need little to zero effort, beyond updates, once installed. Avoiding dodgy WIFI connections can take just a couple of extra clicks to get on secure pages. It doesn't cost much time or money to take steps to prevent the loss of important data but it does take an awful lot of headache and effort to recover from the attention of a bad guy.
Thanks for meandering with me! What do you do to ensure your data is safe when travelling? Share your thoughts, ideas, tips, and questions in the comments. Send the link to a friend. Become a member to get notified of new content, access to our members' only forum, and a monthly newsletter full of behind-the-scenes chat, useful travel tips and links, plus more!