Wondering if you need a VPN for family travel and what it actually is? Then read on.
It wasn’t too long ago that VPNs were a niche technology subject, something which didn’t appear on most travelling families’ radars. Recently though, they’ve started to crop up in more of our conversations when we’re travelling; phrases like “Are you on the VPN?“, “Don’t forget to connect to the VPN” becoming increasingly common.
We realised more and more families are using them on their travels, whether it is for online schooling, entertainment, life admin, or digital nomad work. So we’ve created a simple guide to VPNs, focusing on the basics rather than delving too deeply into the technical aspects.
It’s very important to note that VPNs are illegal in some countries and in others, only government-approved VPNs are allowed. Make sure you do your own research before using a VPN in any country you intend to visit.
Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. If you click to purchase, it is at no additional cost to you, and I receive a small commission.
Why do I need a VPN?
There are several different reasons for families to use a VPN:
- You’re worried about data security whilst travelling, particularly if you intend to connect to public WiFi hotspots and hotel WiFi. You’re most at risk of someone ‘listening in’ to your WiFi connection when you’re using public hotspots, which is more common when travelling.
- You need to access websites from a different country whilst overseas. The most common reason for this is being able to watch TV shows from back home (e.g. CBBC and CBeebies) when you’re travelling, often a lifeline for younger children. It can also be useful for things like online banking which might be blocked or restricted if you connect from overseas.
- You’re particularly worried about your online profile being visible or your browsing history being tracked and you’d like to be more (but not completely) anonymous online.
- The perceived lack of security is stopping you using banking apps and websites, affecting your trip in case of banking issues.
How does a VPN work?
At a basic level, a VPN provides a secure way to pass requests between your device (e.g. laptop or smartphone) and the internet.
For example, when accessing a website or app, you might provide personal information you wouldn’t want anyone else to see. When you use a VPN, before that information is delivered to the actual website, it first goes via the VPN which encrypts the data (making it unreadable to anyone who’s not supposed to see it), before then sending it on to the website.
That way, by the time it reaches the internet (the point at which someone could theoretically intercept and read your information), it’s already encrypted and only understandable to the website it’s intended for.
It’s like having a trusted friend delivering letters between you and someone else, who has guaranteed that no-one else will be able read or understand the letters, other than you and the intended recipient.
How does that appear to change your location though?
This relay service is why you’re able to use a VPN to pretend you’re in another country. During the setup process, you connect to a VPN ‘server’ (e.g. a computer) in a given location. When the message is forwarded from the VPN to the internet, it looks like it originated from wherever the VPN is located, so the website thinks your request is coming from (e.g.) France, when you’re actually in (e.g.) the UK.
Think of it like sending letters from one country to another. If you needed to send a letter from the UK to Australia but, for some reason, Australia only accepted letters from France, you’d be stuck. But, if you had a friend in France who agreed to receive your letter, open it and put the contents into a French envelope, and then send it to Australia, no-one would know where it originated from, it would just appear like it was sent from France.
In the above example, your helpful French friend is the VPN 🙂
What VPN provider do we recommend?
We have been using NordVPN for three years and have had a great experience with them. NordVPN consistently ranks towards the top of VPN charts and provides great customer service, performance and usability.
You can sign up to NordVPN via our affiliate link here to get a discount.
We also use NordPass to store our passwords in their secure vault, an added feature to give us peace of mind when working online, you can signup to NordPass here to also get a discount.
How to set up a VPN on your device
Setup on your device, whether it’s a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or desktop is very straightforward, a simple case of installing the software or app, signing in, and selecting a VPN server in whichever country you wish to connect in. You’ll see an icon on your screen telling you you’re connected and you’re free to surf safely.
NordVPN lets you connect up to six devices at a time, which is sufficient for most travelling families. We’d suggest setting it to auto-connect to your preferred server whilst you’re travelling so you don’t need to worry about accidentally leaving it disconnected. When we get back home, we tend to switch it off, but some people leave it on the whole time they’re using any device, wherever they are.
If you’re particularly worried about performance and internet speed, you can try connecting to the nearest VPN server to where you’re currently located as this will make a slight difference to the connection speed. Again though, in practice, we’ve found marginal differences connecting to different servers, perhaps because we’re not (yet) massive online gamers, which is where you will notice the biggest difference.
Does a VPN slow my connection?
There will be a very slight decrease in your internet speed when using a VPN but not to such a degree that it makes a material difference for most users. This performance drop is due to the requests needing to make one extra stop on their way to the final destination, similar to the letter going via France in the earlier example.
It’s never been a problem for us when we’re travelling, mainly because broadband speeds in hotels, cafes and train stations is never the fastest, so we manage our expectations anyway.
If you sign up for one of the better brands (e.g. NordVPN), you’ll experience the best speeds, try to avoid the free VPNs for this reason.
Final thoughts on using a VPN for family travel
The main advantage we’ve found with using a VPN for family travel is the ease of accessing websites from back home in the UK, particularly for sites like the BBC.
When we lived in India for a year, we didn’t use a VPN and we all missed watching the BBC and using other UK-based sites. During our time in Morocco, we learnt the lesson and used NordVPN which worked well, letting us watch Glastonbury and CBBC from our riad. It was also handy as us parents were working in Morocco as digital nomads. And since then we’ve used it for every overseas trip.
Whilst the security and privacy advantages of VPNs are still applicable, it’s perhaps less so than a few years ago due to the improvements in how messages are sent across the internet, which means data encryption is much more commonplace. It’s still a welcome added peace of mind though to use a VPN and know your data is more secure.
You’ll never be completely anonymous online or totally secure, so we don’t really use the VPN solely for that purpose, it’s more for accessing sites in other countries. The ease of setup, good usability and performance, and access to UK websites means we just leave it auto-connected and forget about it, safe in the knowledge it’s busy in the background looking after us.