Ensure safe internet access at Airbnb rentals, and other security tips for travelers

North Portugal, office of a digital nomad on kitchen table

Every remote worker and digital nomad who works and travels knows the satisfied feeling when a reliable and secure internet connection has been successfully setup in a new destination. It is a big relief. Work, getting information about the new environment, connections to friends and family depend on access to the internet. Don’t just quickly connect to a public Wi-Fi hotspot or to an Airbnb rental router, but read the following tips for keeping digital work and life secure on the road.

Google, Yahoo and other free services are not ideal for people who travel from country to country

Email, messaging, document sharing and calendar are critical online services a traveling professional constantly needs. If you cross borders during your travels, free online services, like Google and Yahoo can’t manage it properly. It is difficult, time-consuming, and frustrating to convince the support staff of these services that it is really you who knows the password and wants to login to the mailbox.

A few years ago, I was trying to access Google services on the road, but quickly realized it was a waste of time. I was on the road in Europe, frequently crossing borders. The services have been designed to overreact and protect your account rather than let you in even when you have the correct credentials.

If you travel, move your email, calendar, document sharing and critical work accounts away from Google, Yahoo, or similar free services. Pay a little for your own mailbox, or get a free mailbox when you purchase a domain name from an ISP. If you have access to a secure cloud service, like Nextcloud, you can use its calendar and document sharing functions. There are plenty of good options for personal and business cloud services- free and paid.

a home wifi router
A Wi-Fi router.

Stay away from Wi-Fi access points at Airbnb and at other shared tourist rentals

Before I learned something from a hacker, I always booked apartments that had free Wi-Fi. Not anymore. Why? Home Wi-Fi routers are usually easily accessible. Sometimes, the router sits on a table, sometimes in a closet, but it is easy to find. You can’t be sure if a traveler who has stayed in the rental before you has tweaked a thing or two in the Wifi 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 connected to them anymore.

Instead, get your own mobile router that is small and easy to take along anywhere you go.

huawei 4g wifi router mobile portable

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

A portable 4G mobile network/Wi-Fi router connects your computers and mobile devices to a 3G or 4G network securely. This is how it works: your mobile devices connect via Wi-Fi to your portable 4G router. It relays the data from your Wi-Fi devices to a mobile network – today 3G or 4G and in the future to 5G network (if the router has the hardware to do so). 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 for network providers, but that’s it. Well, mobile network roaming cost is occasionally so high that I use mobile access very sparingly. In those cases, I use VPN to secure my 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.

Because the router connects to a mobile network, it requires a SIM card. Read on.

Get a mobile phone SIM card that has roaming for data enabled

Purchase a prepaid SIM card or subscribe to a mobile network data plan that allows roaming before you leave for a trip. I like to use prepaid SIM cards, because it is impossible to accidentally accumulate a massive bill in countries where roaming is expensive. Once, both my Microsoft Windows laptop and MacOS laptop decided to download a few gigabytes worth of updates when I was on the road. I thought that Portuguese mobile network was overcharging me, but no, the updates had been running all night. Later, I learned that this can be avoided by configuring the 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 between EU countries – you only pay the base price. Watch out if you move out of the EU zone. For instance, in Switzerland roaming charges will hit you with vengeance.

opera browser with VPN on laptop computer

Test that you have access to a VPN service from all your mobile devices and laptops

It is not always possible to use your own Wi-Fi/4G router – perhaps there is no mobile network signal, or the mobile roaming 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 trust 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 traffic. 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.

Easy backups, protective screen locks, and avoiding unknown USB sticks

Backing up data is a vital security measure, but it can be so troublesome to do it on the road that it is easy to forget. I have noticed that I now make backups more often because I 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. Another benefit is that I can keep the SD card along with credit cards in a safe, but easily accessible place.

Andrew Arnold has identified a few additional items that traveling digital workers should be aware of.

  • Laptop computers are prime targets for thieves, especially, at airports. You shouldn’t let the laptop case off your hands at all.
  • 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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