If you travel and use WiFi to access the internet you need a VPN. It’s relatively easy to snoop on a public WiFi network and a good hacker can easily capture your credit card details by monitoring the unencrypted connection between your web browser or app and a website server. The solution is a Virtual Private Network or VPN. This clever piece of software could potentially save you a fortune. It also has other uses apart from online security. Read on and find out which are the best VPNs for international travel based on my extensive experience as both a professional geek and traveller.
Connecting to WiFi networks in bars, hotels, libraries, buses, and hostels without security from hacking is like leaving your credit card behind the bar in a random bar in some strange country. Paying for services online without encryption leaves your credit card details exposed. Your email passwords, online banking login, and other sensitive data are also passed unencrypted across public WiFi. Think about that next time you connect to a wifi network you have no control over.
- 1 The VPN Solution For Travel
- 2 What you can do with a VPN
- 3 When To Use A VPN
- 4 What to look for in a VPN Service
- 5 Testing VPN Services
- 6 Free Trial?
- 7 VPN List
- 8 Hide My Ass VPN
- 9 IPVanish
- 10 Winner: Best VPN for International Travel
- 11 VPN Unlimited
- 12 Express VPN
- 13 TunnelBear VPN Review
- 14 Private Internet Access (PIA) Review
- 15 Other options
- 16 VPN Review Table of Features
The VPN Solution For Travel
What is a VPN and how does it work? Beating the hackers involves using your own network to communicate with websites on the internet. VPNs let you bypass or tunnel through the WiFi network, to appear on the other side, invisible to the WiFi hackers. This tunnelling happens by encrypting the communication from your computer and decrypting again at the VPN providers network. It’s a complicated process made simple by software.
In this article, I will compare VPN products for a travel-minded audience. Learn why it's an important piece of software for travellers that work online or use the internet regularly.
Secure Internet Access For Travellers
Don’t take browsing the internet on public and private networks for granted. Hackers are out there looking for opportunities to steal your data. A VPN is one of the best ways to combat this threat. Why am I making a distinction between a VPN for travel and a VPN in general? Well, travellers, travel bloggers, digital nomads, and holiday makers require different feature sets than say, someone who works from their home office and is extremely focused on personal security.
Using a VPN overseas to keep your connection safe from hackers is something that will benefit most travellers. However, an online gamer will use a VPN to improve their gaming experience and protect against a different type of hacker.
So there are different types of customers for VPNs but as a long-term traveller and a computer geek, I’m specifically researching what is the best VPN to use for travel.
One thing to note. If you’re heading to China then you’ve got a completely different set of problems. China bans many websites, including Google and Facebook) and their country-wide firewall is powerful. Tunnelling your way through the Great Internet Wall of China is no mean feat. Some of the VPNs on this list work in China (IPVanish, for example) but the rules change so contact the service before purchasing.
So what’s an unencrypted connection? Think of it as a plain text ‘letter' sent from one person to another that everyone can read. You don’t want your credit card details appearing on this letter. Otherwise, anyone viewing the letter can easily see the credit card details. An encrypted connection, on the other hand, is like a letter in which the characters have been encoded. Impossible to read unless you can decode or decipher the characters. Communication between computers and the internet over normal WiFi connections is usually unencrypted. This makes it easy for anyone with some technical chops to view what you are typing and reading.
What you can do with a VPN
The main reason I use a VPN is for security. Making sure that my phone, laptop and tablet are all sending encrypted traffic over WiFi connections makes me sleep better. There’s nothing worse than checking your bank account to find out that your credit card has been used to buy products on some random site (it's happened to me). Or that your email account has been hacked and now the intruders have access to lots of sensitive information (thankfully, I've never experienced this). I send money via the internet and to do so I need to login to websites that hold my banking and credit card details. I try to keep this information off public WiFi networks.
Hackers even set up fake WiFi hotspots to lure unsuspecting people into connecting. If you don’t encrypt your connection then everything you do can be viewed on these networks. How can you tell if a WiFi network is legit? Truth is that you can’t. Imagine heading into a cafév in, say Hanoi, Vietnam. Imagine also that this particular coffee shop doesn’t offer free WiFi (or the service is down).
What’s to stop a hacker setting up with his own ‘internet router’ and creating a network called ‘Coffee Shop’, ‘Starbucks' or something similar? Nothing. If you join this network and don't protect yourself you may be in for a shock later. The only protection you have is to make your internet traffic invisible to snoopers. How do you make your internet traffic invisible? Create a closed circuit between your computer and the server (web or email) that you are connecting to. Use a VPN!
- Hiding banking activity
- Keeping your login sessions on financial applications such as money transfer services completely hidden from hackers
- Watching TV shows in countries where international streaming via the web is not permitted
- Preventing governments and other entities from spying on your internet activity
- Searching for flights based on location. Also good for hiding user session information, which travel booking websites use to increase prices for individuals
- Avoid being blacklisted by companies for using Torrent.
But what about HTTPS?
Secure websites, ones that use Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), use browser-to-server encryption. You may have noticed these types of websites. Google Chrome now declares websites secure (HTTPS) or non-secure (HTTP). HTTPS websites encrypt data between the browser and the server. If you check the web address of this website in your browser you should see the URL start with https://. This means that the site uses a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) to encrypt traffic. But not every site uses HTTPS.
A VPN is the best defence if you are serious about security.
Unblock TV Shows
Travelling overseas but want to keep up with your favourite shows on TV? A VPN can help with that. Because your internet traffic is tunnelled to servers in another country you appear to be browsing from that country. Many cable providers and channels offer their shows for download or streaming on their websites. The problem is that they often provide access only for visitors in the target country. If you happen to be in, say, France and want to watch a show that is restricted to US visitors only simply connect to a VPN server in the US. The website will see your IP address as originating in the United States.
Another benefit of using a VPN is the ability to browse anonymously. This is slightly different to the security aspect I mentioned above but it falls into a similar category. These days Google, Facebook, and other online giants of the industry track you continuously. Your every move is tracked, analysed, and added to a database to build up a profile of your likes, dislikes, and online behaviour.
Whether you like it or not, that’s how the internet works these days (if you use these companies’ services, which most people do). Google knows a lot about your browsing history by the fact that you are probably logged into Gmail as you browse the internet. Chrome’s personalisation features also add an element of tracking. Google also tracks via IP address. If you change your IP address at will you’re effectively making your browsing anonymous.
When To Use A VPN
- When logging into your email or social media accounts on a public WiFi network. Having a private internet connection means you are invisible to hackers
- When accessing your bank account online outside of your home network (sometimes it’s worth connecting to a VPN at home too)
- When watching a tv show online that streams from a website which blocks international traffic (example: BBC)
- When browsing sensitive websites where you do not wish to be tracked even by IP only.
What to look for in a VPN Service
- How many countries are supported? Very important if you want to watch TV shows from certain countries. Also important for buying flights in other countries.
- Bandwidth restrictions? The free options look great until you realise that they have a cap on bandwidth. Make sure you know roughly the amount of data you will need to download. If you plan on streaming video over the connection then a paid VPN will be essential.
- All devices can connect. Multiple connections on different devices simultaneously? If you travel with a Macbook, iPhone and iPad (or similar devices) then you’ll probably want to connect all three to WiFi. Make sure the option you choose allows several simultaneous connections from different devices.
- Speed. How fast is the connection? Many providers throttle speed, especially for free accounts. If you plan on working online and using large files, a fast connection is preferable.
- Is the traffic logged? One of the benefits of a VPN is the security and anonymity. Your ISP and government will not be able to look at logs of which sites you’ve visited. But some providers record user sessions. Check with the VPN service before signing up.
- Customer Support. Your connection might go down at 3 am on a Saturday night when you urgently need to connect in some Shanghai Internet cafe. Is customer support available at this time? Are they fast to respond? Is the support team efficient and professional?
- Find cheaper flights. Checking the price of flights based on geographical location is another great benefit of using a virtual private network. If you travel a lot this can save you money.
Testing VPN Services
Evaluating VPN software comes down deciding which features are most important to you. If your main use of a VPN is for travel then you have different requirements than a gamer, hacker, or security consultant. If having multiple locations to connect to is the most important then test each service to see which ones offer the most locations and how fast the service is in your main target countries. The average traveller will be interested in having only a handful of locations and speed, ease of use, or cost might be the most important factors in considering the best VPN for their purposes. For many people, the connection speed will be the most important element.
A VPN will slow your browsing speed considerably
A VPN will slow your browsing speed considerably. This is inevitable as each byte of data is encrypted, passed through the tunnel, and decrypted at the VPN Server. When testing the connection speed to each service I take the following approach.
- Test the internet speed at home (office, base location, known WiFi) with and without the VPN.
- Test the internet speed at another location with and without a connection.
I use Ookla’s SpeedTest to test the speed of my internet connection. I also use Netflix’s incredibly simple web app called Fast.com Unless you're really paranoid or have reason to believe that a neighbour is trying to hack you, keeping a VPN on at home is not very useful.
The connection will slow down your internet speed and won’t add any benefit unless you are planning on hiding your internet activity or booking flights, for example. One last thing to look for if you plan on downloading torrents anonymously is your VPN provider’s support for P2P protocol. Many VPN services don’t support this. IPVanish supports it. TunnelBear does not.
This isn’t strictly something that relates to travel but if you need to transfer files between remote work colleagues, or get the latest Linux distribution, or download a game update while travelling this is an important feature.
Of course, you might be interested in torrents strictly for sharing and downloading software or music. I’m not here to judge but that’s illegal, kids. Another feature worth looking for is a kill switch. This is more of a nice-to-have feature for most people. If you are particularly concerned about anonymity or security it becomes a very important VPN feature. Kill Switch sounds scary, but it’s not. This feature is merely a safeguard in the software which prevents your real IP address from being exposed in case of a break in VPN service.
If you’re VPN connection drops (which happens from time to time) then the software automatically disconnects you from the internet. This will happen immediately so there’s no risk of your real IP address being logged anywhere. IPVanish (review below) was criticised before for not including this but it is now part of their software.
A feature not enabled by default, but you might want to turn on is the Kill Switch, found in the Preferences to add this feature.
Most of the services listed here do not offer free trials. However, many offer money-back periods and some, like IPvanish have a free trial limited to iOS devices. Hide.me offers a limited free version which will give you a good idea of how the premium VPN offering works. VPN Unlimited's 7-day free trial is more of a money-back guarantee but it's a good way to test out the product. Hide My Ass VPN has a 30-day money back guarantee so you'll have plenty of time to test out the service.
An unordered list of the best products I've used for travel.
Hide My Ass VPN
Hide My Ass is one of the best-known VPNs out there. Their catchy ( and slightly risqué) it not the only reason for its popularity.
HMA Pro VPN offers one of the most extensive networks of any VPN provider with servers in 190 countries. You shouldn't have any problems finding a server to log on to for whatever purpose.
In tests, I found the software to be fast and responsive on desktop and mobile. Connection time is a few seconds. Testing via connection to the London, UK server showed slower speeds (upload & download) and longer ping response than most of the other VPN services reviewed here.
The results from the ‘auto' or ‘best server' tests were slightly better than the majority of the competition. The takeaway here is that Hide My Ass Pro performs better for users that don't care about the exact location of the server they connect to.
What does this mean for travel-focused VPN users?
From a security point of view, HMA works perfectly well for most purposes. The software will give a slightly better response from a speed point of view. However, if you spend a lot of time booking flights and like to change geo-location to check price differences then you will experience a slightly slower service than other options. (Obviously, these results are only based on my limited tests so this may not apply across the board)
Price-wise Hide My Ass is in the mid-to-expensive range of VPNs. At almost $80 a year, based on a prepaid account, it's certainly an investment if you only travel occasionally. For long-term travellers, however, HMA is a great choice.
There are some privacy concerns over the logging policy of the UK-based company as some high profile hackers were arrested thanks to HMA allegedly providing logged details to authorities. If you're not planning on performing illegal activities using a VPN service then this will most likely not concern you.
But I should point out that the company claims not to log any activity at all yet mentions in their legal policy that they may track activity if it's deemed to be illegal. I do not condone any illegal activity on the internet but I'd prefer to have clarity with the terms & conditions of any service that I plan to pay for in the long term.
HideMyAss Pro is a solid product with some nice features. I found it easy to use and the wide range of servers is also very convenient. Where the service falls short compared to other VPNs is in the number of simultaneous devices. Currently, the company offers a maximum of 2 devices connected at the same time.
If you travel with a laptop and mobile phone this might be enough. But if you need to connect a tablet and your travel partner's devices you can open another account or set up the VPN on your internet router. This second option is most likely not viable if you're using someone else's router. Minor privacy concerns aside HMA is still one of the best VPN solutions for travellers & digital nomads.
IPVanish has probably the best looking interface of the products reviewed here. Beauty is only skin deep of course, and having a slick interface isn’t enough to win fans if the underlying VPN system is not up to the job. Whereas many other VPN products simply connect you to their servers and don’t offer any kind of connection information, IPVanish provides a detailed display of statistics relating to the VPN connection currently active.
A graph of upload speed (green) and download speed (red) continuously updates throughout your connection. The total data uploaded and downloaded during your session is also displayed at the bottom left of the IPVanish window. Finally, the connection protocol is displayed. IP Vanish has a network of over 700 servers to choose from. That’s a lot, and more than the average user would need in most cases. When connecting to a VPN there are many different protocols that make this happen in a secure way.
IPVanish offers five different protocols for desktop (PPTP, L2TP, OpenVPN TCP, OpenVPN UDP, and IPSec) and two for mobile (IPSec and IKEv2). IPVanish defaults to the OpenVPN protocol running on the UDP port (for speed). UDP uses 256-bit encryption so the information passed through the VPN network cannot be accessed by hackers.
This might appear a bit “high-level”, especially to those not interested in internet protocols, but the main takeaway is that IPVanish offers a range of secure protocols and defaults to the most useful for 90% of people.
Winner: Best VPN for International Travel
Payment options include all major credit cards, Paypal, Alipay, and Bitcoin. IP Vanish also gives you the ability to install the VPN client software on your router so that your entire network can have the benefit of a VPN network. How does this benefit travellers? So-called ‘travel routers’ are becoming more common these days and offer a useful way for people on the road to connect multiple devices to the internet quickly. Imagine you install yourself in an Airbnb somewhere and you need to get your devices connected. So you start with your mac, then your tablet, then phone, and possibly something else.
Too much? Connect and set up a travel router with the apartment’s wifi and then all of your devices will automatically. As you’ve preconfigured your router and always use this particular wifi network for your devices you will have complete connectivity in no time. IPVanish recommends it's own-brand router but you can use any travel router you like.
The TP-Link N150 is one of the most popular routers for travellers and digital nomads. Choosing the best server to connect to is slightly more convoluted with IPVanish. With most of the other apps reviewed, there is an option to simply connect to the best server available. Choosing this option lets the software decide which country, city, and server to connect to. With IPVanish you must select at least the country.
So if you're looking for a faster VPN connection (and don't care about geo-location) it will make sense to choose the country you are in or a nearby one. But searching for a nearby country takes a little bit of time. It's not a big complaint but there should be some kind of automatic country selection option available.
The sheer quantity of servers available is a big selling point for IPVanish but I found that some servers performed badly. Without going through each individual server it's hard to know how many are like this but it's a small percentage. And this appears to be for servers in Asia only. Overall, IPVanish is an excellent product and one of my go-to VPN services. It's hard to beat on value for money ($6.49/month), choice of servers, user interface, and support. Try it today and leave a comment below with our experiences.
VPN Unlimited from Keepsolid.com has one of the slickest interfaces for both desktop and mobile devices. I use both this VPN and IPVanish for working all over the world. I was impressed by the easy installation and the ease-of-use for someone unfamiliar with the software.
VPN Unlimited used to offer a very wide range of pricing options but they've recently (2018) changed to a simpler pricing model. There are three tiers: Monthly, Yearly, and Lifetime. The lifetime deal is a steal. Get this and never worry about paying for a VPN gain. VPN Unlimited is priced very competitively and the features are as good as any of the other options here, if not better. I use it on an almost daily basis and it's a solid performer.
The company offers a 7-day money back guarantee so it's definitely worth a try. At $29.99 for an entire year, VPN Unlimited is challenging its competitors on price and value. It's one of the cheapest VPNs around but it doesn't skimp on features. You can use torrents on 5 servers only. The company policy states that they permit legal usage of P2P file sharing in certain areas and on 5 different servers. Connection time is super fast and download/uploads speeds match the other providers. VPN Unlimited performed in the top 3 for speed when connected to the ‘best available server' option.
VPN Unlimited challenges competitors on price and value
You can use torrents on 5 servers only. The company policy states that they permit legal usage of P2P file sharing in certain areas and on 5 different servers. Connection time is super fast and download/uploads speeds match the other providers. VPN Unlimited performed in the top 3 for speed when connected to the ‘best available server' option.
VPN Unlimited's policy states that they permit legal usage of P2P file sharing in certain areas and on 5 different servers. Connection time is super fast and download/uploads speeds match the other providers. VPN Unlimited performed in the top 3 for speed when connected to the ‘best available server' option.
With ExpressVPN, Installation of the app is easy. First, order the subscription level you prefer and you will receive an activation code. Simply pop this code into the software on each device and you're good to go. ExpressVPN's interface is simple and offers an on/off type button. I have to admit to feeling a small amount of satisfaction by simply clicking the button. It's a button that makes you want to click it. Connection time is fast.
ExpressVPN is one of the longest established VPN providers and offers 24/7 customer service and support via email and web chat. With 145 servers in 94 countries, there's certainly enough choice to satisfy the most demanding travel The kill-switch in Express is called ‘Network lock' and is automatically selected by default in preferences (found by clicking the three bar icon at the top left of the app's screen).
In testing, ExpressVPN was slightly behind on download and upload speeds on both the London server and ‘best local VPN server' options.
The company is based in the British Virgin Islands, which means it's officially a UK company. However, laws for ‘internet usage logging' and privacy are a lot less strict in the BVI. The same pressure that UK companies come under from the government will not apply here. From my research on the company's support service, it appears that they are doing all the right things. They are keeping their customers happy and from my own experience, ExpressVPN understands that the customer's happiness is very important.
TunnelBear VPN Review
TunnelBear offers one of the best free VPN services for light users (or the very thrifty). It's one of the few options you can use to browse securely without paying a cent. However, as with anything free, there are limitations. The free option only allows 500MB of data (hint: you can get more by tweeting about the service). Half a gigabyte isn’t much but it will get you started. It's also a great way to trial the software on a long-term basis. You can try out the service and if it works for you and you like the interface, simply upgrade.
Upgrading is just a matter of switching over to a paid plan. TunnelBear's VPN plans work out more expensive than most of the other options reviewed in this post. But only if you pay monthly. Paying yearly gives you a pretty substantial saving on the 12-month price.
- Monthly: $7.99 – Works out at $95.88 per year.
- Yearly: $39.99 – Works out at $3.33 per month.
TunnelBear (paid versions) allow 5 devices to use the same account and offers 20 virtual locations. This might be enough for most people. IPVanish, Private Internet Access, and VPN Unlimited offer ten times the number of virtual locations. However, if you just want access to a VPN and don't care where the server is located, TunnelBear's offering is fine for you.
TunnelBear promotes the ‘lightning fast speed’ of their VPN and although it's pretty quick it fell slightly behind some of the other products when connecting to the ‘auto' or default VPN server.
TunnelBear offers plugins for Chrome and Opera allowing secure browsing without the need for installing the entire TunnelBear software. Obviously, this won’t protect other types of internet access such as Apps, etc. The browser plugin is actually an encrypted proxy so if you want full VPN features you would be better served with the full software.
The free version requires you to create an account with the website. You can do this when you download and run the app for the first time. My first attempts at trying out the software were not successful. The server was having a difficult moment, “TunnelBear server is acting up (403)”, so I had to wait and try again later. Not long after that, I received an email from the support team asking if I was having problems.
I decided to deal with it later but by the time I got back to trying the software it worked. So no panic, and good work on the support side. As far as security goes TunnelBear appears to be doing a good job. I’ve seen it mentioned on the internet that the company will hand over personal information to the Canadian government if requested. If this were true it would negate one of the benefits of using the service.
As I mentioned earlier, browsing while using a VPN will slow your connection. This uses a technology called IntelliBear, which is available only to paid subscribers. There's also an option in preferences to allow Apple services, such as Facetime and iMessage, to bypass the VPN tunnel. TunnelBear is a great option for the budget-conscious traveller, digital nomad, or vacationer. It's simple to use and does exactly what it says on the tin. Note that TunnelBear does not allow torrents over VPN.
Private Internet Access or PIA VPN is the app I’ve used the longest to secure my internet connection when connecting to a hotspot WiFi network. It's also one of the least expensive VPN services and this is probably the reason I bought the service in the first place.
I'm not one to buy purely based on price but at the time I didn't fully understand the differences in value provided by each VPN service (fortunately, for readers of this blog, you can benefit from my years of testing and trying to find the best VPN). PIA is definitely in my list of top 3 best VPNs available and many other people seem to agree. TrustPilot has almost 3000 reviews listed for PIA and the average score is 4/5. Not a perfect score of course, but definitely in the right direction.
Typical reviews mention that “the service works well and is reliable”, and reviews with less than perfect score usually focus on aspects that, for most people, will not be a deal breaker (Chrome support, PayPal issues).
PIA supports PTP which means that torrenting is allowed, although is most likely frowned upon by the company. PPTP, OpenVPN and L2TP/IPSec Connecting to the service is simple and straightforward. Private Internet Access uses a taskbar icon (on Mac desktop) which opens a pull-down menu listing the server locations. Nothing fancy here but it certainly works without any issues.
Private Internet Access offers Ad Blocking technology which will be of interest to many users. Blocking ads not only reduces clutter and distractions but it will help speed up your connection. To switch on ad blocking simply select the PIA MACE tick-box in the advanced settings of the app.
Virtual Private Network services are plentiful but not all are equal. For anyone that travels and uses a mobile phone or notebook computer, a VPN should be an essential part of your online travel kit. What's the best VPN for travelers? I've tried most of the options available and ‘best' depends on your circumstances. You can always try one service for a while and then switch. The options above will be good enough for 99% of people that travel.
Pick one, try it for a while, and move on. Yes, there are other options to the ones listed here but if you're going to choose a VPN, make sure that you understand exactly the service that you're signing up for. My original service was PureVPN, which is quite popular. It's fast, inexpensive and works OK. But I don't recommend using it unless you are a very basic user. Why? Selecting a London-based server, for example, might get you connected to a server in Singapore! Yes, it works.
Yes, that gives me a secure connection but that's not the point. The point is that the server is not located where it claims to be. Avoid PureVPN, unless you want a really cheap option. I want to highlight this particular option not because I have a problem with PureVPN, but because it will help you understand that not all services are built alike and it pays to take your time in choosing.
VPN Review Table of Features
|VPN||Company Location||Servers||Countries||Devices||Support||Free Version or trial||Price/month||Price/year||Price/month if paid yearly||Refund Policy|
|TunnelBear||Canada||20||20||5||Email via contact form||yes (500MB limit)||7.99||49.99||4.16||No refunds|
|IPVanish||USA||700||60||5||No||10||77.99||6.49||Full (within 7 days of purchase)|
|PIA||USA||3288||25||5||No||6.95||39.95||3.33||Full (within 7 days of purchase)|
|Express VPN||UK||136||87||3||Live Chat / Email||No||12.95||99.95||8.32||Full (within 30 days of purchase)|
|Hide.me||Malaysia||31||31||5||Live Chat / Email||Yes (2 GB transfer limit) - 1 connection||9.95||59.95||4.99||Full (within 14 days and usage < 500MB)|
|VPN Unlimited||United States||50||39||5||Live Chat / Email||7 days||5.99||29.99||2.5||Full (within 7 days of purchase)|
|HideMyAss||UK||940||190||2||Live Chat / Email||no||11.52||78.66||6.55||Full (iwithin 30 days of purchase and usage < 10GB)|
Blogger, lifelong learner, entrepreneur & musician from Ireland. I've been travelling and living overseas for over 20 years. My mission is to build businesses that allow me to have a simple and independent lifestyle. In the process, I hope to help myself and others with my writing.