How to stay safe when traveling abroad?

Passport? Check. Mobile phone? Check. Plane tickets? Check. Before you head out to catch your flight, hop on a train, or load up the car, you'll probably take a moment to make sure you've got everything you need for the journey ahead. And whether you're going solo or in a group, you'll hopefully know how to keep safe when you're out and about – but what about the digital threats?

We can encounter all sorts of unexpected risks when we're on the go, and nothing spoils a holiday quite like finding out that your identity has been swiped or that your device has come down with a nasty case of malware. So, if you want to know how to keep your adventures secure (and your information private), read on!


Steps You Can Take to Improve Your Online Security Before Travelling

First, let's cover all the steps you can (and should) take before you even leave the house. It's way easier to adjust these settings and opt-in for these features without the added stress of catching connections or following directions, and they'll provide a solid foundation of security to build upon during your travels.

⬆️Update your devices

Does your PC or laptop remind you about pending updates every so often? Sure, the pop-up can be a bit annoying, and it has a habit of cropping up when you're busy, but you shouldn't ignore the messages – a device that isn't up-to-date is a device that's vulnerable to malware. Either take the plunge and update right away, or schedule them to roll out automatically at a time of your choice. I'd also recommend making sure that your antivirus has been updated recently, too – and don't forget your mobile devices!

👀Check out trackers

Okay, investing in a tracker can seem a bit much, but it's better to prepare for the worst and not need it than to be unprepared and caught short in an emergency. There are tons of tracking apps available to download that'll clue you in to the location of your device if it gets pinched in a busy market or on a night out. You'll be able to report the incident to the police that much easier with this information – and hopefully get your phone back quickly.

💪Beef up your passwords

You've seen this tip all over the internet (and all over this blog) but it bears repeating! Don't rely on weak passwords, and don't use the same password for all of your devices and accounts. If you do, you're essentially handing access over to any hacker who gets their hands on your details – making their job that much easier. Mix up your passwords, throw in some symbols and numbers, and some weird, non-dictionary terms! I'd also recommend investing in a passcode or password to secure your phone if you aren't using one already – even if it's only for the duration of your trip.

👯‍♀️Use two-factor authentication

Most social media sites, banking apps, streaming services allow you to enable two-factor authentication – and I can't vouch for it enough, frankly! 2FA is a simple security measure that makes a huge difference. When enabled, you'll require a code in addition to your regular login information, and will receive that code via SMS when you attempt to login. This means that hackers won't be able to weasel their way into your accounts even if they have your username and password, ‘cause they won't have access to your phone, and therefore won't be able to supply the correct access code.

On-the-go measures

It's tempting to go into total holiday mode when you've landed (or parked up) at your destination. I'm all for leaving the stresses of your regular 9-5 back at home, but you'll still need to be savvy about your online security when you're on vacation. A lot of the tips below are plain old common sense – so, if anything seems too good to be true, or gives you a weird decidedly-not-good feeling, remember to trust your instincts and play it safe.

🌎Beware public hotspots

This one is particularly important if you've jetted off to a city, or somewhere with a ton of coffee places, restaurants, and shops. You'll see a long list of free Wi-Fi connections available to connect to – and hell, even your hotel and the airport will have a selection. But these hotspots are notoriously dodgy. They often lack proper security, and as a result are targeted by cybercriminals hoping to snatch your data (either by snooping on unsecure connections or creating entirely false, but convincing, access points). I don't recommend relying on these hotspots, and certainly wouldn't suggest doing any banking, shopping, or sensitive communications whilst connected to one – unless you have a VPN, of course.

🚫Switch off your Bluetooth

If you're not currently making use of Bluetooth, make sure that it's turned off! Admittedly, it's an extra little hassle to fiddle with this setting every time you're done connecting to a smart speaker or using AirDrop, but Bluetooth signals can be picked up and intercepted by crooks in the nearby area. They can hack your device via Bluetooth and even take control of it, regardless of whether it's connected to anything else. Switching your Bluetooth off can even save you some battery power... in case you needed the extra incentive!

💻Avoid auto-connect

Auto-connect might seem like an innocuous time-saver, but it can put your device in some precarious positions when you're traveling. At home, auto-connect keeps you online whether you're in your own house, at a friend's or family's, or at work – all places where you'll probably know the internet connection and trust that it's secure. When you're on holiday, however, not all of the available connections are going to be safe or legitimate, and allowing your phone to connect to them automatically could lead to malware infections or identity theft if you happen to log in to a secure site (like a bank account or social media profile).

Rest, relaxation, and browsing

I reckon we spend most of our time on the internet on holiday when we're in the hotel room, hostel or campsite – and you might just be checking up on your socials before bed, but you might be catching up on some Netflix binging, too. It can feel just like being at home if you've got nice accommodations and the bandwidth to spare – but don't forget that you're not, and that there are all sorts of ways that cybercriminals can catch you out if you're not aware of some of the following security threats.

🤳Stay off social media

A bit of humble-bragging never hurt anybody, and it's hard to avoid posting about your holiday when you're excited about having it booked, finally! But a genuinely innocent post meant to inform friends or family can also be a signal for crooks that you'll be out of the house for an extended time. Armed with this info, they could attempt to rob you, catch you in person, interfere with your plans, or even scam your family and friends into sending them money, insisting that you're "in trouble", somewhere. It's all too easy for a cybercriminal to commit identity fraud if you reveal too much about your upcoming vacation – like your itinerary, flight details, or lodging specifics. Keep your plans to yourself and avoid posting snaps and videos until you're back at home.

🦶Give geotags the boot

Geotagging is one of those quiet, insidious features that the world pays no mind to until a story crops up about them being co-opted by hackers. Of course, broadcasting your location in the pictures you post is a privacy nightmare that plays directly into these criminals' hands, and they can easily ascertain from these images whether you're at home or not. The hacker might attempt to steal from your home or meet you in person, to mug or harass you, which is the last thing any woman wants when she's on holiday. Update your phone settings to ditch geotags and ensure that you can share your pictures with privacy.

📝Track your transactions

Some folks prefer to use their cards to pay for stuff when they're on holiday – it's safer than carrying around wads of cash, after all. If you purchase anything via card, even if it's just one item, I'd suggest taking a look at your online banking account when you return to the hotel. Comb through your transactions and keep an eye out for anything you didn't authorize, anything that doesn't match up with your receipts, or anything you don't recognize. Report these instances to your bank – and if you can't log into your banking account at all, then get in touch right away. Examining your spends at the end of every day not only keeps you one step ahead of potential criminal activity, but can also curb any… overenthusiastic spending!

🏧ATM alternatives

If you're anything like me, you'll think you're doing the absolute most to keep yourself safe when using an ATM if you cover the keypad when inputting your PIN. The truth is that ATM security threats have evolved – they're way more sophisticated these days. Take skimming, for example, which happens when a crook adds a device to the machine that scans and swipes your card details in real time as you use the machine. Obviously, there's nothing any one individual can do to prevent this, and we all rely on ATMs every now and then, but when it comes to vacations, it's better to minimize your dependency. Carry some cash with you, book your tickets to attractions and events online, and pay for what you can with a card.

🏄‍♀️Surf safely

When you're back in the hotel, or when you're propped up in a cafe, you'll want to make sure that you're safe on the web – especially if you're connected to a public hotspot. Stick to sites that have a padlock in the address bar and have a URL beginning with "HTTPS". These sites use encryption to keep your data private, like passwords, addresses, and payment details – but unfortunately, even they aren't entirely foolproof these days. If you plan to use the internet a lot during your time away from home, I'd suggest investing in a top VPN.

🏃‍♀️Be sure to log out

When it's time to say goodbye to your hotel room, take a look around and make sure that you've logged out of any and all of the smart devices you had access to. A lot of hotels and Air BNBs let guests use Smart speakers, lights, or even TVs that come with Netflix, Amazon Prime, and BBC iPlayer apps installed on them – and it's certainly nice and easy to login and stream, just as you would if you were at home. Of course, you won't want the next guest to come along and find that you're still logged in!

Travel must-haves

Regardless of whether you're headed for a city break or a long excursion way overseas, there are a few handy pieces of kit you won't want to leave home without – and they're all pretty easy to get your hands on! These little lifesavers can make your stay in a hotel or hostel more comfortable, and reduce the stress that comes from being out in the city and seeing that your device only has 5% battery remaining!

Should I pick up a VPN for traveling?

Honestly, you don't have to install a VPN on your devices when you jet off, but I'd still recommend checking one out! The internet isn't as safe as we'd like it to be – that's just a fact, but a VPN restores some of that peace of mind whether you're at home or in a hotel.

If you're wondering how a VPN works, we've got a great article that breaks it down in easily digestible language, but in a nutshell, a VPN acts as a shield between your device and the wider internet. Your connection is secure and encrypted by the VPN, which is especially useful if you're going to be relying on public Wi-Fi hotspots! Any logins you input, any shopping you do, and any messages you send will be encrypted, meaning you can go about your digital day as you usually would, without worrying that a cybercriminal is monitoring you.

VPNs become necessities if you're heading off somewhere with a lot of internet censorship – like China, where a ton of websites and services simply aren't available. However, if you plan on using a VPN in China, then you need to be sure you're using a secure service. Check out our VPN for China guide for more information. A VPN allows you to "spoof" your location by connecting to a server in a country where the content you're after is accessible. Once you do, the sites will read the IP address of the server you've joined and think you're physically located in the same place, granting you access without a fuss, and freeing up the web so that it can be used as freely – and securely – as was originally intended.

Written by: Hannah Hart

Originally hailing from Wales, Hannah Hart graduated from Manchester Metropolitan University with a 1:1 in Creative Writing, going on to work as an Editor across a number of trade magazines. As a professional writer, Hannah has worked across both digital and print media, and is familiar with collating news pieces, in depth reports and producing by lines for international publications. Otherwise, she can be found pouring over a tarot deck or spending more hours than she'll ever admit playing Final Fantasy 14.

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