Staying safe when using public WiFi while interrailing

We may enjoy free mobile roaming in Europe (for now, at least!) but when traveling by train the onboard WiFi may be the best way to get online. It can offer a faster and more reliable connection than mobile signals, which will often drop out as you travel around the continent at high speed.

But as with any public WiFi service there are some security risks to consider. However this doesn’t mean you need to stop using them, and there are simple steps everyone can take to protect themselves.

Of course the following tips aren’t just for train WiFi, they also apply to the hotspots found in restaurants, bars, hotels, airports and many other locations all around the world.

What’s the problem with public WiFi?

Public WiFi is an attractive target for hackers because they’re used by lots of people, and they’re often insecure and vulnerable to a variety of attacks. The potential risks include interception of data, and the problems arising from someone getting hold of private information.

How to protect yourself on public WiFi

Check you’re connected to a genuine network

When accessing a WiFi network confirm that the hotspot name (or SSID – Service Set Identifier) and password exactly match the details provided by the train operator. This will help to ensure you’re connected to the correct network.

Don’t trust open networks

Be wary when accessing a free and open WiFi connection. While train WiFi will usually require a password it’s not uncommon to find free WiFi networks without passwords in locations such as coffee shops and hostels. Again you should confirm the network name is correct, and keep in mind that an open network has fewer security protections against eavesdropping.

Use secure sites and services

When connected to WiFi try to stick to web sites and services which use encryption. This is generally a good idea anyway, but it’s particularly important for WiFi because unencrypted connections can make it easier to intercept data.

On websites look out for ‘HTTPS’ in the URL or a padlock symbol to confirm the site is secure, and pay attention to any warnings about insecure sites. For applications it may not be obvious if they use encryption so you may need to check the documentation or contact support.

Never enter a username, password, credit card or other sensitive information into a site or service which is not properly secured.

Encrypt everything with a VPN

A Virtual Private Network is an encrypted connection to a remote server which acts as a proxy between your devices and the rest of the internet. When a VPN is used all of your outgoing and incoming traffic is encrypted so if someone is watching the WiFi all they will see is garbled data linking to the VPN server.

If you frequently use public WiFi it is well worth investing in a VPN connection. They don’t have to cost more than a few pounds per month for unlimited usage, and most providers support smartphones and tablets as well as desktop and laptop computers.

However, a VPN will impact the speed of your connection and you may find that this makes train WiFi very slow, especially if you’re trying to stream video or download files.

Don’t automatically connect to public WiFi

To save us having to enter a password every time it’s common for devices to save the details of a WiFi network, then automatically connect when they’re detected. And if a known network is not found they may connect to the nearest open network instead.

This is convenient when we’re at home or work but it can make life easier for hackers operating fake WiFi hotspots which replicate the name of a well known public service, as devices may latch onto the connection believing it to be genuine. You might not even realise you’re connected to WiFi.

Tell your devices to forget the details of previously used public hotspots, and disable WiFi when it’s not required so you don’t accidentally connect to a malicious open hotspot.

Create your own onboard WiFi

Although mobile broadband can be a little unreliable aboard a train, you may find that it offers a connection that’s good enough. And if so you can create your own WiFi network to share with friends and family.

Mobile WiFi dongles connect to a mobile network like a regular mobile device, but they also create their own WiFi network. This is great if you’re travelling in a group as you can split the cost of the connection, and it also means you can use mobile broadband with smartphones, tablets or any other WiFi compatible device. For further information on how to safely use public WiFi networks when on the move, use Broadband Genie’s guide.