While there’s no reason that I couldn’t have just bought some sort of travel router and called it a day, I didn’t want to spend a couple hundred dollars (or more!) on what ultimately would be going to a company’s marketing budget more than anything. This is the sort of thing that a Raspberry Pi is perfect for.
For the uninitiated, a Raspberry Pi is a tiny little Linux computer that fits in the palm of your hand. It’s powered by USB-C, which almost everyone should have on hand already, and it uses a microSD card for onboard storage. And the operating system is open source, which means you can do all sort of fun things with it. And you don’t have to have a neckbeard to rock Linux. You just have to be able to search for things on the internet, and copy and paste commands — and have a little patience and the willingness to screw up once or thrice.
I already have a couple Raspberries Pi (that’s the non-official plural that I’m still trying to make happen) in use in my home. One is attached to an antenna that helps track airplanes. It’s also running an ad-blocker across my entire home network. The other was being used as a bridge between all our smart devices. So things like Nest cameras and thermostats — which don’t play nice with Apple HomeKit — can work just fine with Apple’s built-in smart home hub. But that’s the less important of my Pi. I don’t really care that much about HomeKit.
Building a travel router
Confession: I did spend a little money on this project, just because I wanted the Raspberry Pi in a more robust case than what I had buried in my entertainment center. The sky is the limit when it comes to Raspberry Pi cases — you can even 3D print your own if you want — and I ultimately went with a $20 case that looked sturdy enough to live in a gear bag. I also shelled out another $12 for a Wi-Fi antenna, which really was the only necessity I didn’t already own.
I’m not going to go step-by-step through the full project. But I will link you to the broad strokes. The operating system itself is OpenWRT. Open, as in free, as in beer (which isn’t really what “open” means, but whatever), and WRT, as in Wireless RouTer. It’s a free, open-source operating system that turns whatever you’ve installed in on into a customizable router. Very cool.
OpenWRT also plays nicely with any number of VPNs, via OpenVPN. So I made sure to install that, too, given that being able to securely connect to the internet while on the road was the point of this whole little project. You’ll need a VPN provider, of course. ExpressVPN and NordVPN are two of the more popular ones out there — I pay for ProtonVPN for my personal use. The process is pretty much the same either way.
I’m a nerd, but I’m one who still needs a good bit of handholding when it comes to Linux. So the free Network Chuck tutorial is what got me through this whole process. I don’t mind admitting that it took a few tries to get it right — but that’s on me. It’s an excellent tutorial on a not-uncomplicated process.
And while we’re at it, might as well throw in some ad-blocking again. (There’s nothing more jarring than leaving your house and being reminded just how awful the internet is these days.) Only instead of Pi-hole, this time I went with AdGuard. Same price (free!) and the same basic premise: The network requests of any device connected to the travel will go through AdGuard first, and it’ll squelch anything it deems bad. Like ads. Or other things.