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How to Stay Safe Online When Traveling

Travel Safety Insider Guides
by Jerry Nelson Apr 26, 2018

“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” Grandma said. In the digital world, travelers ignore this advice at their own peril, leaving all of their precious data on one device, and taking that holy grail out of the relative safety of their homes and onto the uncertainty of the road. Insurance may help replace lost hardware, but the data may be gone forever, and that’s often more valuable than the collection of plastic, gold, copper, and silica. Safeguarding your digital data is one of the most important parts of being a responsible, well-prepared traveler.

Today, nearly everything is on a laptop or cell phone. If access is lost, life shuts down until we can piece together the directories and files. Insurance doesn’t protect against data loss — it’s up to you, and you need to take action before you lose travel docs and itineraries, valuable contacts, or worst yet, your trip photos.

Office workers and remote workers have protections not ordinarily available to full-on freelancers. Your data may be protected by your company’s virtual private network, a safe WiFi connection, corporate firewalls, and antivirus software. Independent travelers, though, are probably leaving themselves open for attacks. Whether you’re earning a livelihood overseas or heading out on a trip abroad, here are some tips for fundamental online security — no matter where in the world you wake up.

How to keep your data safe when using public WiFi

The threat of WiFi hacks is not imminent if you are working from the sofa at home. But when traveling, or even when working from your favorite cafe, beach bar, or poolside, the risk of a security breach is much higher. The solution? A Virtual Private Network, or VPN as its commonly known.

A VPN is kind of like cloak for web browsers. It makes your network connection much more private than your browser’s ‘Incognito’ mode, going so far as to hide your location and even make websites and service providers think you are somewhere where you’re not. Both paid and free VPNs allow for the creation of a secure connection to a public network using the internet.

VPNs may be used to access location-limited sites, such as using Facebook when in China, but also serve to shield browsing activity and data transmissions so that if you participate in activities like shopping online, your credit card information won’t be stolen. A VPN is easy to setup and most operating systems come packaged with integrated VPN support.

For travel, use a paid VPN service. Being able to access the entire internet without fear of firewalls or tracking is a peace of mind worth shelling out a few bucks for. VPN service such as ExpressVPN or Buffered are built exactly for this. Plan to pay between $5-$9 per month for services like this. You will even be able to download their app to your phone and browse via mobile.

On the free side, browsers such as Opera make the process incredibly easy. All you need to do is turn on HTTPS for browsing after downloading and installing their browser. Next, turn on its ad blocker option in the “Preferences” section, and turn ON its VPN, which is also located in the “Preferences” section. You can set the VPN to another country in the settings, which will make websites think you are in that country — this is how users access sites like Facebook in China, for example. You can also buy VPNs from monthly-based services, if you don’t want to use the Opera browser. A quick Google search will turn up plenty of options.

Once you’ve done this, your data will be encrypted before it leaves the computer. Still, avoid signing into sensitive accounts at internet cafes and coffee shops, such as your online banking. Save that for the hotel.

Protecting your data from software or hardware error

Your data lives on the computer, and any individual file can succumb at any level: the file could get ruined (you accidentally deleted a file, destroyed a valuable earlier version of a file, or got hacked and either had the files corrupted or your data held for ransom) or your computer itself could be physically lost, destroyed or stolen.

Recent versions of Windows and Mac ship with integrated backup utilities which simplify making a local backup. The only cost is the price of an external hard drive — options start at about $50 and go up into the thousands, depending on how much you’re looking to store.

Other options for backing up your files

Time Machine (Mac) and Backup and Restore (PC) only manage the first two levels of loss should your computer crash or something else go wrong. Therefore, backing up regularly doesn’t help much if your computer is destroyed entirely. If your accommodation burns down or gets swamped in a flood, the data may be salvageable by recovery services, but it is a time-consuming, expensive, and seldom complete process.

Off-site backup options are going to cost money, so your best bet is to use a thorough, comprehensive backup plan. Consider the expense as a sort of “data insurance” policy. To safely and thoroughly backup your data, make use of either A/B drives or the cloud. A/B drives simply means having two external drives on which backups are alternated. The more often you backup data and swap files, the less data is lost in an accident.

With a mobile-intense lifestyle, a cloud backup is also a great solution if you have a solid internet connection. Files can be updated or retrieved from anywhere you can access the internet. If all of those trip photos are especially important to you, backup your files to the cloud as often as possible (you can set it up for automatic backups) while you’re on your trip — not just when you return home.

There are a number of ways to go about setting up cloud data backup. The easiest for most Google users is Google Drive, a free file storage service which gives each user 15 GB of storage space, more than enough for most people to backup their basic files and documents. You can buy more space if needed. Smartphone users can purchase cloud backup plans for the data on their phones as well. iPhone users can enjoy 200GB — far more than most ever need — for $2.99 per month.

For those worried about data safety overseas, cloud storage is the best way to ease your anxieties. Once your files are on the cloud, you have the added benefit of being able to access them from any device as long as you can log in. This means that even if something awful happens and you lose your phone or computer, you can still access your travel docs, photos, and everything else necessary for your trip. Whether you’re an experienced traveler or heading abroad for the first time, that’s a nice assurance to have.

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