This is a guest post by travel tech guru Dave Dean of Too Many Adapters, a site devoted to technology for travelers.
Wondering what to take on the road when it comes to electronics? You’re not the only one. Long gone are the days where a cassette player and film camera were the height of travel gadgetry. Walking into a hostel common room now, you’d be forgiven for thinking you had accidentally stumbled into the local electronics store. You’re likely to be surrounded by laptops and tablets, smartphones and DSLRs, and more softly glowing Apple logos than you can shake a stick at.
Often unsure of what they really need, people end up carrying a lot more tech gear on the road than they should. After several years of travel and working online though, I’ve figured out what works, what doesn’t, and what you really need.
With the slow disappearance of Internet cafes in favor of Wi-Fi hotspots, a laptop is definitely worth considering. It’s the easiest method of staying in touch, backing up photos, and wasting time.
I use mine to work from the road, so I went for something relatively powerful, but for more typical use, a thin and light laptop like an Ultrabook (e.g., Asus Zenbook Prime) or a Macbook Air can provide everything you need at a lower weight and (potentially) cost. Things that matter include:
Size – Nothing larger than a 13” screen or that weighs much over 1kg, and less is definitely better. Consider the size and weight of the power adapter too. Those things can be huge!
Strength – Something made well that won’t fall to pieces the first time it gets knocked in your bag. Get a protective sleeve to prevent scratches and cushion minor bumps, and read the reviews of its durability.
Battery life – Five or six hours is the minimum, 8+ is much better if you plan to take long overnight buses or trains.
Storage space – Don’t skimp on the amount of storage you have. 128Gb really is the minimum, and more is much better. All those photos and downloaded movies take up more space than you think!
SD card slot – It’s not an absolute must, but having an SD card slot built into your laptop is very handy. Assuming your camera uses SD cards (most do), an built-in card reader makes copying your pictures super easy. All you do is insert the card and transfer!
Cost – The less you spend, the more money you have to spend at the bar, right? Not to mention the computer will be cheaper to insure and replace and less of a target for theft. Don’t spend much over $1000.
If your budget doesn’t stretch that far or your needs are more basic, you could go for a tablet instead. Older technology like netbooks could also do the job, although they’re becoming increasingly hard to find.
If I didn’t work online, I’d ditch the laptop and carry a tablet computer instead. Smaller, lighter, cheaper, and with better battery life than a laptop, the most well-known example is Apple’s famous iPad (mini or full-size). While either of those will do the job for a traveler, the best value for money at the moment is in the Android range. A Google Nexus 7 or larger Nexus 10 would be my recommendation.
There’s a lot to be said for choosing a tablet if your main use is consumption (i.e., reading web pages, books, and emails, or watching movies) rather than creation (writing, editing video, etc.). Again, choose one with plenty of storage (either built-in or via microSD card).
To back up your photos, both Apple and Android devices let you plug in an external SD card reader, so pick one of those up as well.
If you have absolutely no other choice, you can also use the camera on your tablet to get that must-have shot. Just be aware you’ll look rather silly doing so.
I carry a Samsung Galaxy S2. It has rapidly become an indispensable piece of travel technology, with all of my music, photos, apps, and entertainment stored on the microSD card, and it was both cheaper and easier to customize than the iPhone I used to use.
I made sure to buy the unlocked version of my phone, meaning that I can use a pre-paid SIM card anywhere in the world and take advantage of much cheaper calling and data rates. Your mobile company at home will charge incredibly high rates if you use your normal number overseas, making roaming calls and data prohibitively expensive for most travelers.
Switching to a local cell company when you arrive in a country can save you a small fortune. I personally know people who accidentally left data enabled when on vacation for a week and came home to a bill of several thousand dollars. If you can’t unlock your phone and absolutely have to use it while traveling, at least turn the data connection off to lessen the pain.
I use dozens of travel apps, but three of the best are:
- Skype: As a general rule, all of my international calls take place via Skype over Wi-Fi or 3G. It’s quick and easy, and buying a few bucks’ worth of SkypeCredit means I can call any phone in the world for hours.
- TripIt: I’ve tried all sorts of ways to keep track of travel bookings, but TripIt is the easiest. Many confirmation emails can simply be forwarded to add them to your list, and it doesn’t take long to manually add the others. With the Pro version, I even get notified of timetable changes and delays. Having every detail at my fingertips has saved me more than once at airport check-ins and bus stations around the world.
- Google Translate: Google just updated the Android version of its translation app, now letting me download language packs for offline use. Even before that, the app was handy for figuring out what on earth was on the menu, or saying/displaying a few words in the local language to get my point across. Now that I can use it anywhere, it’s indispensable.
I resisted buying an e-book reader for a long time. I’m a physical book kind of guy. But now that I’ve made the leap to a Kindle, I’m very pleased with it.
It’s incredibly small and light, more so than even a little paperback, and can store hundreds of books, travel guides, and whatever else I might need. I picked up the Keyboard 3G, which costs more than the Wi-Fi–only version, but the ability to download new books from anywhere with cell phone coverage is invaluable.
An unexpected benefit lies hidden away in the “experimental” section: a slow, clunky web browser. Why is that so great? Because with the 3G connection I have free access to email, Facebook, etc., in over 100 countries.
The browser is too painful to be my only way of getting online, but in a pinch it’s fantastic. This is the only Kindle model that has this feature. All the other 3G versions only let you access Wikipedia and the Amazon store.
I considered a tablet instead, but for reading on the road there was really no contest. The Kindle is cheaper, smaller and lighter, the battery life is measured in weeks rather than hours, the screen is so much better in sunlight, and I can happily lie on the beach without worrying about it.
Thanks to a cheap case I bought off eBay, it looks like a plain notebook if I need to pull it out on the street to check directions. There’s no way I’d even think of doing that with any tablet. I’d be far too much of a target.
I worked in IT when I wasn’t traveling, so data backup has long been a concern of mine. I just know too many travelers who have lost irreplaceable data due to hard drive failures and theft, among other reasons. Do you want to lose every single photo from your US road trip, your cruise on Halong Bay, and everywhere else you’ve been? Probably not.
I copy photos to my laptop each night, then use Crashplan+ to do the rest. For a few bucks a month it automatically manages backups to both online storage and a portable hard drive that I keep in my pack, all without me having to think about it. Before splashing out on that subscription I backed everything up manually, but found that I was forgetting to do it too often for my liking.
Although I use a Seagate portable drive and it works fine, I’d be looking at the rugged Transcend version if I were buying a new one.
For the small amount of hassle involved, the peace of mind is more than worth it. Don’t risk losing all of your digital memories.
You’d struggle to spend more than $25 on the combination if you tried, and they take up very little room in my bag, yet are worth their weight in gold every time I get to a dorm room with one power socket for the 12 people staying in it. I plug all of my devices into the four-way box, connect it to the wall socket via my universal adapter, and I’m done. Easy.
Choosing the right gear to travel with doesn’t have to be a daunting task. Making a few smart choices and limiting yourself to what you truly need will give you all of the benefits that technology can bring while avoiding most of the downsides. Spend a bit of time and money getting it right before you leave — trust me, it will save an awful lot of frustration once you’re out there on the road.
Dave is one half of the team at Too Many Adapters, a site devoted to technology for travelers. A geek as long as he can remember, he worked in IT around the world for 15 years, combining his love of all things nerdy with an overwhelming travel addiction. Now based out of a backpack long term, Dave writes about travel and tech from anywhere with half-decent Internet and a great view. You can also find him talking about the life of a long-term traveler at What’s Dave Doing?