#FrugalCongressLife Resource Spotlight: The Virtual Private Network (VPN)

[Disclosure: As of the time of this writing, I am not directly affiliated with nor have been sponsored or hired by any companies or organizations whose services I mention in this article – everything you read from me regarding these companies is my objective advice. Any advice in this blog does not constitute legal or medical advice and is provided as is with no liability to #FrugalCongressLife or the author.  There may be affiliate links in a later update to this article; I will specify if this is the case.]

I’m going to start this article off by stating the obvious.

Going to dance congresses is travel, or at the very least, some form of travel.

I consider this blog to be a dance travel blog, ultimately. Even when attending a local dance congress, one is often simulating various aspects of travel, albeit close to home, such as staying in hotel rooms and being away from home for extended periods of time.

Most modern travelers want to stay connected to the Internet via their smartphones, tablets, or laptops, and dance travel is no different.

What is the modern dance congress experience for most people without being able to hit up the group chat for details about the preparty, make your friends at home jealous by tweeting about how litty the event is, or go live from the ballroom? This is to say nothing about catching an UBER from the airport to the hotel or using Citymapper to navigate an unfamiliar train system.

Most people with smartphones are on limited monthly data plans as of the time of this writing, with overages being very costly. If you aren’t on WiFi when doing the above activities (particularly going live, which involves uploading large amounts of video), you will burn through your allotted data quickly.

Fortunately, most congress hotels (as well as many coffee shops and restaurants) offer either free or paid public WiFi.

There’s just one very dangerous problem with that: hotel Wifi is usually unsecured.

Chances are, your home WiFi has some type of encryption, which serves the purpose of both keeping outside users from connecting to your WiFi and hackers from stealing your information.

Public WiFi offers no such protection from the latter. That is pretty scary when you consider how much of ourselves we have tied up in our phones these days. Work, intellectual property, financial information, passwords and active logins, social media (which is a part of our identity in and of itself in 2018 and beyond)…. its all there and can all be easily stolen by enterprising cyber criminals while on unsecured public WiFi.

So what is a savvy dance traveler and mobile internet user to do about this conundrum? This is where the subject of today’s profile comes in: the Virtual Private Network, known commonly by its initials: the VPN.

According to Microsoft TechNet, a VPN is an extension of a private network across shared or public networks. In layman’s terms, you connect to the private network of your choice through the public WiFi and to the Internet through that network. The effect of this is, even though you are using the physical bandwidth or your hotel’s WiFi (or whatever you’re using), since you are actually connecting to the Internet through the private network, you benefit from the private network’s encryption and security to protect your data from opportunistic “man in the middle” attacks and other low-level cyberattacks and possibly connect at a slightly higher speed.

There is a lot more technical info in the above post, but this layman’s description of what a VPN is is the absolute most that casual Internet users need to know.

Actually all you really need to know is “use VPN, protect data from hackers”. It really is a must have if you travel frequently or are otherwise on unsecured public WiFi a lot.

The way you connect to a VPN service is through a low cost subscription plan with one of several VPN providers. Usually you connect to the VPN through your provider’s phone, tablet, or computer app.

On iPhones, which is primarily what I use my VPN with, you’ll know you’re connected to the VPN when the “VPN” icon in the below screenshot appears in the upper left corner of your phone next to all the others.

VPN plans average $3-10 a month and I’d say that paying the cost of a latte or two every month to protect your priceless data from cyber criminals while you travel is absolutely worth it.

Granted, a determined hacker can get around anything including a VPN, but 99% of hackers and identity theives are opportunists who don’t want to put in a large amount of effort. Using a VPN will absolutely deter these crimes of opportunity.

My VPN provider of choice is NordVPN. 3-year plans with them run about $11.99 per month, although there is currently a two year deal for a limited time offering plans for $95 every two years (a value of about $3.99 per month). Jump on this deal before it goes! Setup could not be more intuitive. Once you sign up with them, you download the app and hit the Quick Connect button to connect to the fastest and closest VPN server. Either that, or you have the option to manually choose a server. NordVPN has more than 4,800 servers all over the world and allows for six simultaneous connections per account. Another key feature of NordVPN is the “kill switch” option, which automatically kills your connection to the WiFi network if you lose connection to the VPN server, a very valuable bonus for those dedicated to protecting their privacy and their data at all times.

StrongVPN, available for $10 a month or $69.99 for one year, is another excellent contender, notable for their no-logging policy and their entirely company-owned-and-operated network infrastructure.  StrongVPN gives you access to 689 servers in 70 locations.

IPVanish VPN has a similar no-logging policy, and gives you access to 900 servers across 60 locations for $7.50 per month or $58.49 per year.   They also allow for five simultaneous connections and have a kill switch similar to NordVPN’s.

Also notable is the amusingly named Hide My Ass VPN service, boasting hundreds or servers around the world and a user-friendly interface, but also a comparatively higher price tag at $11.99 per month.

On the opposite side of both the price and name creativity spectrum is Private Internet Access VPN, with plans available for as low as $3.33 per month for a two year commitment and access to 3,274 servers in 28 different countries. The interface is very basic and new VPN users may find it offputting, but it is a very good service for the price.

In this age where big parts of our life and identity are tied up in our online activities and hackers and identity thieves lurk around every corner, a VPN is an essential tool for the savvy connected traveler. I never use public WiFi or any unsecured WiFi without it, and you should not either.

As always, hit the comments with suggestions and I hope this helped someone!

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