Travel tips: staying connected

Today in travel advice: the care and feeding of electronics.

Don’t bring:

  • International data roaming.  This is incredibly expensive, and with the proliferation of domestic data networks sand internet cafes in many low income countries there’s no reason to use international data.  Your phone should have an option for disabling international data use under Settings.
  • A voltage converter.  If you’re moving across voltage standards, most complex electronics like computers and cameras will have a voltage converter build into their chargers.  Simple electronics like hair dryers won’t have this, but it’s generally easier to simply buy a new hair dryer at your destination.
  • Your new laptop.  Dust, rain, and power surges are not your computer’s allies.  If you strongly feel that you need access to a personal computer on your trip, this might be the time to bring an old laptop back into action if you’ve still got it around –  or to consider purchasing a cheap netbook or a tablet.  (Don’t buy a Chromebook or another laptop which relies extensively on cloud services, since you may not be able to get online often.)  If your expensive laptop is your only option, make sure that everything is backed up and that your warranty is still valid.  I use SugarSync for cloud backup and TimeMachine on an external hard drive for a local backup.

Do bring:

  • A universal outlet adaptor.  They’re cheap, they last forever, and they can be useful in regions with a lot of secondhand electronics, where an imported piece of equipment may have a plug that doesn’t fit the sockets used in the country.  You may need to get a separate adapter for South Africa, which has very large plugs.
  • Waterproof cases for your electronics.  Very useful if you get caught in a downpour or something spills in your bag.  Note that neoprene cases like those from InCase are meant for padding rather than waterproofing; they’ll soak up water if they get wet and hold it right next to your computer.
  • A surge protector.  Power supplies can fluctuate unevenly, and plugging your electronics directly into a wall socket can be disastrous if there’s a large surge.  For travelers coming from countries which use 110 V current, get a surge protector that will handle 220 V, otherwise it will blow a fuse when you plug it in.
  • Extra batteries and chargers.  Spare batteries will serve you well if you need to work through a blackout or a long flight.  If you wind up losing your charger or seeing it fried by a power surge because you failed to obey the cardinal rule of the surge protector, it’s good to have a backup.

Do get:

  • A mobile phone, if your domestic mobile is locked in to a certain service provider.  The cheapest phones run about US$25 and will last for years.
  • A local SIM.  In many African countries, prepaid SIMs can often be purchased for less than US$1.  International call rates to North America & Europe are quite cheap.  That said, countries vary broadly in their approach to mobile regulation, and I’ve heard that purchasing a phone in India or some Latin American countries is more difficult than this.

If you need to constantly be connected, you can also consider:

  • A dual-SIM phone.  Useful in places where the mobile networks aren’t stable.
  • A USB modem.  This will let you get your computer online anywhere with a cellular data network.  You can either get a universal one before you leave and then buy a data-equipped SIM later, or buy a branded modem from one of the mobile networks once you arrive.
  • A solar charger.  Leave it outside during the day and charge your electronics from the battery at night.  The Voltaic 10 watt charger is large enough to charge a laptop.

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