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I originally wrote this article for the August 2008 Wide World Books & Maps Newsletter. -Terrell


Travel in the Digital Age

So there I was in the Miami airport, a digital cliché. I trolled the crowded lounge until I found a free electrical outlet, plugged in my laptop and iPod charger, logged into the airport's wireless network (not free, by the way), connected my digital camera to the laptop to download some pictures and email them to Seattle, and then used my cell phone to call my brother from New York about meeting me in Sarasota. Talk about connected!  Remember when you had to use pay phones and wait a week to get your pictures developed?  Travel in the digital age makes staying informed, being entertained and in touch easier but has its own complications. Here are some tips to consider when deciding which electronics need to make the trip with you.

Think about what you really need to bring; electronics tend to multiply.  It's rare for me to walk out of the house without three or four of the power hungry little gadgets in my bag. When traveling, consider what you really need. Are you actually going to use the laptop or could you make do with an internet café? Can the kids be entertained without the DVD player? Take advantage of all the ways your electronics can multitask. Can your phone double as an MP3 player? As a GPS receiver? As always when packing, there's the 'how much it's going to weigh versus how much you'll use it' issue.  I've been thinking I'd like to have my computer with me when I go to Chautauqua this August, but the truth is that I can check my email on the library's computers, read The Chautauquan Daily instead of The New York Times on-line, and write the old fashioned way, on paper.

Don't forget the accessories. Electronics come with loads of stuff, all of which needs to be kept safe and dry. Be sure to make a check list of the electronics you're taking and include all the things they'll need to function properly. This should include (but is not limited to) power cords, chargers, rechargeable battery chargers, spare "just in case" regular batteries, connector cables, extra memory cards for the camera (I'm always surprised how fast a memory card fills up), and earphones.  Then come check out all the clever accessories at Wide World Books. We've got waterproof cases, shoulder bags with organizer panels colorful packing sacks in many sizes and lots more to keep your gadgets protected and organized. To ease you mind (electronics are prime targets for pickpockets) look for our secure bags like the products from PacSafe and Eagle Creek's new zip toggle closures.

International travel requires specialized knowledge.  Fortunately many electronics are built for international markets these days and can be used around the world as long as you have the right light-weight and inexpensive plug adapter. Remember that North America uses a different voltage standard from the rest of the world and every country seems to have its own plug shape.

Your laptop is one of those items that is almost certainly equipped to operate internationally. Using it to get on the internet is another matter. You can use hotspots in big cities (Starbucks seems to be the same everywhere) or wi-fi at larger hotels but in small towns or less traveled cities, you're likely better off using an internet café or asking to (briefly) use your hotel's computer.

Adapter plugsUnderstanding international cell phone usage makes electricity look simple. Once again, we use a different standard than most of the rest of the world so unless you have a multi-band phone, it won't work outside the U.S. Your service provider may or may not offer international service and if they do, they'll charge you roaming fees based on a schedule so complicated it looks like the periodic table. If you're traveling with a smart phone that has a data package, be aware that you may get charged roaming fees every time you check your email or Google something. (See AT&T's cautionary page for iPhone users.) Yes, if you have an international phone, you can buy a pre-paid SIM card (that's the little chip in your phone that makes it your phone and not someone else's) so it will work abroad inexpensively but first you have to make sure that your phone has not been "locked" by your service provider (it probably has) or the new SIM won't work.  If it is locked, you'll probably have to pay someone to unlock it for you since the process is secret and complicated. Whew! Unless you're traveling for business or planning to stay a long time consider just turning off the phone. They probably have phones at your hotel anyway. If you can't do without, read one of these mind-numbing explanations of your options: thetravelinsider.info, slowtrav.com, or ricksteves.com. Basically it boils down to this:

  • If you already have a phone that works internationally and only want to use it occasionally or don't care about cost, call your service provider, check service coverage and then enable international roaming. This is expensive but you get to use you own phone number.

  • If you have an international phone and want to use it quite a bit for a short time, buy a SIM card for an individual country or one that allows international roaming. Make sure your phone is unlocked. This is cheaper but complicated.

  • If you plan to use the phone often for a short time, you can rent a phone (cellularabroad.com or telestial.com). This is not as cheap but it can be convenient.

  • If you plan to use the phone often over time, buy an unlocked global phone either from an on-line company or at one of those ubiquitous phone shops at your destination. You'll save money in the long run.

  • Finally, if you're planning to be out of cell range (like, say, the middle of the Pacific Ocean) and need to stay in touch, rent or buy a satellite phone. It's expensive but satellite technology can connect you from just about anywhere.

Electronics can certainly add options and allow us to travel with items that have become necessary to our daily lives. The trick for a traveler, and our hope with this article, is to be smart about it. Or you can just do the whole thing old school and leave the electronics at home.