Why you should avoid Wi-Fi access points at Airbnb rentals, and more internet security tips for travelers

man with laptop at airport. photo by Priscilla du Preez.
Photo by Priscilla du Preez.

If you work and travel, you know the feeling when you have managed to arrange a reliable and secure internet connection in a new destination. Big relief. Connections to work, friends and family depend on network access. Often, the temptation to quickly connect to a public Wi-Fi hotspot is too much, and risks are taken. Don’t do it. Read our tips for keeping your online work and life secure on the road.

Don’t rely on Google, Yahoo or other free services when you travel from country to country

Email, messaging, document sharing and calendar are critical services a traveling professional must have access to every day. If you cross borders during your travels, many of the free online services, like Google and Yahoo can go nuts. It is difficult, time-consuming, and frustrating to convince the services and their support staff that it is really you who knows the password and wants to login to your mailbox.

Years ago, I was trying to access Google services on the road, but quickly realized it was a waste of time. These popular free services are an attractive hacking target for criminals. The services seem to overreact when you try to login from another country. It looks like it is impossible for the services to understand that people can travel. If you travel, move your email, calendar, document sharing and critical work accounts away from Google, Yahoo, or similar free services, and pay a little for your own mailbox, or get a free mailbox with a purchased domain name from an ISP.

Don’t connect to Airbnb or any other shared tourist rental Wi-Fi access points

It used to be a really positive feature if a short-term Airbnb rental had a Wi-Fi access point. Not anymore. Why? Home Wi-Fi routers tend to be easily accessible. Sometimes, the router stands on a table, sometimes in a closet, but it is easy to find. A tech-savvy traveler, who has stayed in the rental before you, may have tweaked a thing or two in the router.

After reading an article and viewing a video where a hacker explains what he does to Wi-Fi access points in Airbnb rentals he stays, I have never accessed them anymore.

huawei 4G mobile network/Wi-Fi router

Huawei 4G Wi-Fi router access point

Get a battery-powered 4G/Wi-Fi router

A portable 4G mobile network/Wi-Fi router connects your computers and mobile devices to a 3G or 4G network through your own router securely. This is how it works: your mobile devices connect via Wi-Fi to your 4G router. It relays the data from your Wi-Fi devices to a mobile network. You can connect multiple Wi-Fi devices to the internet via the same router simultaneously.

I have been using a compact 4G/Wi-Fi router for years, and it hasn’t let me down. Every time I land in a new country, I have to check the configuration, but that’s it. Well, roaming cost can occasionally be so high that I use mobile network access very sparingly. In those cases, I use VPN to secure the connection via a public Wi-Fi hotspot.

The thing that makes your own Wi-Fi access point secure is that the communication between your devices and your Wi-Fi router is secured, no one else can access the same Wi-Fi signal (because they don’t have the password), and communication over 3G or 4G network is regarded secure.

Have a data SIM card that has roaming enabled

If possible, purchase a prepaid SIM card or subscribe to a mobile network plan that allows roaming before you leave. I tend to use prepaid SIM cards, because it is impossible to accidentally accumulate a massive bill in countries where roaming is expensive, or when Microsoft Windows or MacOS decides to download a few gigabytes worth of updates to a computer (this can be avoided by configuring internet connection as Metered in Windows Settings).

If you are traveling in Europe, buy a prepaid SIM card in an EU country, because there are no roaming charges in other EU countries – you only pay the base price. Watch out if you move out of the EU zone, because roaming charges will hit you with vengeance.

opera browser with VPN

Ensure you have access to a VPN service from all your communication devices

It is not always possible to use your own Wi-Fi access router – perhaps there is no mobile network signal, or the cost is prohibitive. In these cases, the practical choice is to access public Wi-Fi hotspots, but first you should ensure you can do it securely. The piece of software you need is VPN, Virtual Private Network. Find a VPN service you like before you leave, and install the client app to all your devices.

Many VPN service providers have a free tier with restricted amount of data. After it is consumed, you can subscribe to a paid service – if necessary. Opera has a free VPN service in the browser. It is reliable, and you can choose between a few servers. The important thing to remember is that Opera VPN can’t secure communications outside the browser app.

Memory card backups, screen locks, USB sticks

Backing up data is a vital security measure, but often it is so troublesome to actually do it on the road that it is easy to forget. I have noticed that I make backups more often because I now have a large-capacity SD memory card reserved only for that purpose. It is a fast process to stick the memory card into its slot and run the backup app. Also, I can keep the SD card along with credit cards in a safe but easily accessible place.

Andrew Arnold has identified a few additional issues that remote workers should always be aware of.

  • Laptop computers are prime targets for thieves, especially, at airports. Turn on the most secure screen lock option your laptop has, and check if the laptop has the Find My Device feature.
  • If you get a USB stick – perhaps as a freebie at a trade show or as a sponsored product – never insert it into your computer. Throw it away or let a security expert examine it.

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