Connect safely and conveniently while traveling with a travel router

October 26, 2016 Mark Dauner

Most frequent travelers have heard the warnings about connecting to public wi-fi - even, as it turns out, when connecting to wi-fi in hotels and airports. Depending on your level of "Ihavetoconnectrightnowtomakesurethisimportantemailgetssent-edness", you might be tempted to throw caution to the wind and make that connection. There are a number of things you can do to minimize potential security threats, including making sure sites that you're visiting and entering information into are encrypted, and connecting through a secure VPN - either from your company or via a trusted 3rd party. There's one more thing that you can use to make sure your internet connection stays secure and it's surprisingly un-complicated: pack a travel router in your bag. 

Why is a router necessary?

You probably have some idea of what a router is. It's that box that you buy at the store or that your ISP gives you that the wi-fi comes out of! Our network operations and security experts at Travel and Transport will certainly tell me I'm oversimplifying, but when you connect your computer (or mobile device) to a network - whether that be via your home cable connection or the free wi-fi at a coffee shop, you're exposing your device and the data that is transmitted to and from that device to essentially everything else that is on the network. Just like in life, most of it's fine, but there's always the chance of somebody or something looking to cause harm. 

A router connects to that network just like your device would, but then it creates a separate private network that your devices connect to. It only lets the data you send and receive in and out but it stops everything else at the door.  In addition, anything you send and receive will be encrypted (if you enable that feature). Think about it like an exclusive nightclub with a really big and intimidating bouncer. You and all your friends are inside and having fun and you can come and go as you please, but nobody that's outside can see who's inside and they can only come in or out if they're on the list. 

A travel router is pretty much the same thing - but it's compact enough to fit neatly inside a pocket of your laptop bag.

Features of a travel router

There are a lot great travel routers with varying features as this Amazon search shows, and most are very reasonably priced. The device I own is the TP-Link TL-WR802N Wireless N300 Travel Router, which I bought from Amazon for $25. I'll be talking about my experiences setting up this device, however most devices should be similar. You can set this router up in multiple ways depending on what you're connecting to. Here are the most common:

  • If you're connecting to a wi-fi hotspot in an airport, coffee shop or hotel, you'll go into hotspot mode. The router connects wirelessly to the hotspot and then it creates a separate network that you connect to wirelessly. 
  • If you're at a hotel or somewhere else that has a wired ethernet connection, you simply connect the router via an ethernet cable to the network and then you connect wirelessly to the router. 

It sounds complicated but in the hotel I stayed at last week the whole process took me about 2 minutes - and that included fishing the router out of the little carrying bag it came with. In both cases, the device will lead you through the connection process so you don't have to know what settings to change. If a captive pop-up is required with one of those "I accept" or "enter your name and room number" messages,  the router will pass that through so you can put in the requested information.  It's pretty simple!

There are just a few other things to think about when configuring this router: 

  1. Your router will likely come with a default wi-fi username and password. You can change that in the settings. Do it!
  2. Your router will probably have WPA2 encryption enabled by default. If it isn't, turn that on! 
  3. Your router helps you make sure your connection is secure and private, but it does not absolve you of personal data security responsibility. You should still follow best practices that include:
    • Watching to be sure sites you visit are encrypted
    • Making sure you have strong, secure passwords that are different on every site
    • Being mindful of attachments, links and phishing attempts in email, social media and the web
    • Connecting via a VPN whenever possible. 

Non-security benefits of a travel router!

Most business travelers bring 2 to 5 internet-connected devices along with them on a trip. A travel router saves a ton of time as you only need to connect that to the network, and you can set up everything else to automatically connect to the router just like you do at home. It will also let you use other like a Chromecast or an Amazon Fire TV stick that don't always work on public or hotel networks. Connect one of those devices to your router's wi-fi and you'll be casting and watching whatever you want - just like you're at home - assuming the speed is good enough, of course.  

Do you have a travel router? Do you have any other tips for making the best use of them? Which one do you own? Let me know with a tweet to @TandTNews

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