Everything’s ready for your big trip – you got a great accommodation, your travel tickets are in order, and all your day trips are booked. And best of all – you don’t need to worry about paying for unlimited mobile data because you can just use free public WiFi.
Sounds like a good plan, though we’d suggest reconsidering the last part (the one about free WiFi). Don’t get us wrong – free WiFi sounds and is cool. But it’s also risky.
We’ll tell you all about this in this guide – what the dangers are, whether or not you should use free WiFi, and how to stay safe while using it.
What Are the Dangers of Free Public WiFi?
Most people just think that the only problem is you get slow speeds. Sure, that can happen. But that’s not the only reason you shouldn’t use free public WiFi. Here are other good reasons to stay away from it:
Free WiFi is, well, free because you don’t need a password to use it. You just connect to the network and start browsing the web.
Cool, but here’s the problem – no password means no encryption. So your web traffic isn’t secured. Any hacker that knows how to use a packet sniffer (like Wireshark, for example) can eavesdrop on your connections. If they’re good enough, they might even be able to steal sensitive data (credit card information, passwords, bank account details, etc.) by intercepting and cracking your data packets.
A MITM attack is when a hacker sits between you and the person or site you’re trying to communicate with online. Many cybercriminals use this opportunity to redirect your traffic to phishing sites.
Well, hackers have an easier time running MITM attacks on free public WiFi. Because there’s no encryption, they can see what sites you want to access. So, it’s easy for them to redirect your traffic to fake sites that imitate them.
After all, if a hacker sees you’re sending connection requests to PayPal, they can successfully redirect you to a fake version of that site. If it’s very well made, you won’t be suspicious since that’s the site you wanted to end up on.
Obviously, if you enter your passwords on a phishing site, the person running it will immediately steal them.
Cybercriminals can actually create their own WiFi networks. And they can make them imitate legitimate ones – like hotel hotspots, for instance. They rely on human error to be successful, but they can also trick devices into automatically connecting to their fake networks.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that’s bad. If you surf the web using a hacker’s fake WiFi, they’ll be able to monitor (and steal) all your traffic. Who knows, maybe they’ll even manage to infect your device with malware somehow!
Should You Use Free Public WiFi?
Considering all that, should you still use free public WiFi? Or should you just pay for an unlimited data plan?
We know many of you won’t like this, but it’s better to go with mobile data instead. It’s just safer. Sure, it’s an extra expense, but it’s going to pale in comparison to being left stranded in a foreign country with no money because a hacker stole your credit card numbers when you used the airport’s public network.
What If You’re Using Secured Public WiFi?
If a WiFi network requires a password, that means it encrypts your traffic, right?
Yes, that’s correct. But that doesn’t mean it’s completely safe to use.
Most networks use the WPA2 security standard. Unfortunately, WPA2 isn’t 100% safe, and hackers could crack the encryption by abusing security vulnerabilities. WPA3 should be better, but it’s not there yet. Even that security standard has problems which could allow hackers to steal WiFi passwords.
Still, secured public WiFi would be a bit safer than free WiFi, and hackers would be less likely to target it. But it’s still very risky to use.
Don’t worry, though – we’ll offer you a quick solution in the next section.
Always Use a VPN If You Use Public WiFi
You can still use public WiFi, but you need to use a VPN while connected to a public network. That’s the only way to be completely safe.
If you don’t know what a VPN is, no problem. It’s an online service that secures your Internet traffic and hides your IP address. Right now, the “secures your traffic” part is what’s of interest to you.
Because, to secure your traffic, VPNs encrypt it. So they make up for WiFi networks that don’t encrypt traffic or use weak encryption. If a cybercriminal were to spy on your traffic, they wouldn’t be able to see anything useful. They’d just see gibberish (like HJyufh324hjFHY).
And yes, a VPN would secure your traffic even if you were to use a fake WiFi network.
All in all, VPN services are a great security tool for travelers.
How to Use a VPN While Traveling
Contrary to popular belief, VPNs are actually very user-friendly. You don’t need to follow any complicated setup guides or get used to complex apps.
Really, using a VPN just takes a few minutes at most. You just need to subscribe to a VPN, and then download and install the provider’s VPN app. Once you do that, run the app and connect to a VPN server (ideally the closest one to you).
That’s it! Once you do that, you’re safe to browse the web using any network you want. The moment you’re connected to the VPN server, your traffic is encrypted end-to-end (only the VPN app and server can decrypt it).
The Bottom Line
While public WiFi is extremely appealing, it’s better to steer clear of it – especially if it’s free (it doesn’t use any encryption). If you really need to use one, though, make sure you connect to a VPN first. That way, your traffic will be properly encrypted.
What other methods do you use to stay safe online while traveling? Please tell us about your pointers in the comments.