Keep your keycard with you, don’t leave valuables in your room unattended, and keep the door locked. Most of us follow basic security precautions at hotels, but I’m begging you to add one more to the list: Don’t use hotel wifi without protection from a VPN.
Why is hotel wifi so sketchy?
Connecting to a public network is a risk anywhere — coffee shops, libraries, and airports — but hotels are one of the worst since hackers have so many possible targets using the same connection. Password-protected networks aren’t much better; they may keep out the cheapskates trying to mooch off the public wifi, but fellow users can easily intercept web traffic if they know what they’re doing.
It’s not just the hotel’s official wifi networks you have to worry about, either. Other visitors may have set up a router or personal hotspot in their room that shows up in your device’s available networks list, but most aren’t doing so out of kindness. Chances are they simply don’t know how to configure the security settings on their device, but it’s also possible they want to dupe others into connecting to their network so they can spy on you. And even if it is an honest mistake, connecting to an unsecured network is still a risk (and could eat into the poor person’s data plan), so make sure you’re connecting to the right public network in the first place.
How does a VPN help?
VPNs keep you safe by encrypting your device’s connection to the websites and servers you’re accessing and obfuscating your location and IP address by funelling your traffic through a proxy server, which prevents outside parties from snooping on your online activities. Most folks use VPNs to keep ISPs and data trackers out of their browsing data, but there are even more eyes that could be watching while you’re on public wifi, making them more important when you’re sharing the same network with others.
But while using a VPN is easy, not all are safe to use — especially not on public wifi, since many “no-log” VPNs secretly track you and may accidentally leak your data. The key is finding the right VPN, but that can be difficult. At the very least, don’t use a free VPN. Paid VPNs can be a crapshoot, too, but they’re (usually) they’re better than nothing and should give you enough protection so you can do basic online tasks.
EpressVPN, NordVPN, and Proton VPN often get high marks, and I’ve used happily Surfshark for a couple of years with no issue. You probably even have a discount code for one of these services courtesy of your favourite podcast or YouTube channel, just make a point to check professional and trustworthy reviews online before you subscribe.
As for smartphones, some mobile browser apps like Vivaldi and Opera have built-in VPNs, but you’re better off signing up for a paid VPN app instead. Just don’t use free VPN apps from your device’s app marketplace.
Other tips for browsing the internet on hotel wifi
A VPN should be enough protection to safely engage in most online activities over the hotel wifi, such as streaming video and music or catching up on the news. However, you should employ other data security measures even if you’re using a secure VPN at all times, such as enabling DNS over HTTPS (DoH). DoH adds an extra layer of security to your web traffic by obscuring what websites you’re accessing (it’s more complicated than that, but that’s essentially the end result), and DoH can be enabled on many browsers or at the system-level on Windows 10.
Finally, even with a VPN and other security settings like DoH turned on, we strongly recommend you only do important work over mobile data. As we’ve previously explained, the safest strategy is to forego hotel wifi entirely and use your cellular connection wherever possible. At the very least, don’t log into your bank account or access sensitive information while on wifi.