A Guide to Traveling with Technology

By Nomadic Matt | Published May 20th, 2013

david dean of too many adaptersThis 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.

Laptop

david dean of too many adapters using a computer at sunset
With the slow disappearance of internet cafes in favour of WiFi hotspots, a laptop is something that is definitely worth considering. It is 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 (eg: 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 of those photos and downloaded movies take up more space than you think!

SD card slotIt’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 inbuilt 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.

Tablet

david dean of too many adapters on a mobile phone
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 traveller, 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 is a lot to be said for choosing a tablet if your main use is consumption (ie, 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 – 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.

Mobile phone

using an iphone at the beach

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 was both cheaper and easier to customise 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 travellers.

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 several thousand dollar bill.  If you can’t unlock your phone and absolutely have to use it while travelling, at least turn the data connection off to lessen the pain

I use literally dozens of travel apps, but three of the best are:

  • SkypeAs a general rule all of my international calls take place via Skype over WiFi 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.

E-book reader

I resisted buying an ebook reader for a long time – I’m a ‘physical book’ kind of guy. Now that I’ve made the leap to a Kindle, however, 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 – it cost more than the WiFi-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.

I’d never want this to be my only way of getting online – it’s too painful for that – 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.

Backup

A netbook that is good to travel with
I worked in IT when I wasn’t travelling, so data backup has long been a concern of mine. I just know too many travellers 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 was 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.

Miscellaneous

david dean of too many adapters
Other than the chargers and cables that always seem to tie themselves in knots overnight, the only other gadgets I put in my pack are a universal power adapter and a 4-way power box.

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 4-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 travellers. A geek as long as he can remember, he worked in IT around the world for fifteen 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 traveller at What’s Dave Doing?

comments 56 Comments

I’m currently reading this post on a Google Nexus 7, and I couldn’t be happier with it! I’ve been reluctant to join the smartphone revolution (in fact, I’m completely phoneless at the moment), but I really appreciate various apps that are only available for Android/iOS. The Nexus 7 has been great for helping me get around everywhere as I travel and meet new people :D

The Nexus 7 is a great piece of kit, hey? I haven’t been anywhere in the world where I could pick one up in the last 12 months, but with a return to the US coming up next month, it’s going to be hard to say no. If the rumoured new version comes out before I leave in August, I think I’ll just to buy one. :)

The other awesome and undersold benefit of a Kindle (or other e-reader) for travel is access to free library books. Instead of being limited to the meager selection of hostel book swaps we can now borrow books from our local library while anywhere in the world.

Absolutely, that’s a great feature if you’re based in the US (sadly it’s not available for overseas folks like me yet!).

If you can access the free library feature from a computer and side load the books onto your kindle Hotspot Shield should make it look like you are in the USA. I have a Kobo not a kindle so I wouldn’t know if this actually works.

Otherwise project http://www.gutenberg.org/ is great for out of copyright books.

Hi Dave, I’ve written before about how my smartphone is my favourite travel companion – if there was one bit of technology I wouldn’t be without it’s that!

Next time I’m travelling I intend to try a tablet too, as I have fat fingers and trying to blog from a phone can be tricky; although I like your point about consumption cf. creation. (Might have to give it some more thought before I take the trip to the electronics store)

And I can’t believe that people don’t backup their photos religiously! I’m definitely checking out crashplan+ for my next journey – looks great. And I’m willing to pay a few dollars a month for peace of mind.

Yep, much and all as I’ve been a computer guy since, well, forever, I’d happily move to a tablet if I didn’t work online. And totally agree about backups – it’s neither difficult nor expensive to set up a system that basically takes care of itself, so there’s really no excuse not to back up any more.

One of the best apps for keeping in touch back in the US is the combination of Google Voice and talkatone apps (both free). These apps let you call and text for free back to the US (over wifi) AND it displays as your US number. Offline maps for Europe, Australia etc can be found in the App Store for free which lets you navigate without having any data use. Hope it helps some people on their travels!

Good advice, Mike – thanks!

IMHO an e-book reader is kind of redundant these days – just an unnecessary extra thing to carry – as you use an iPhone/iPod/Android to mimic it, assuming you don’t mind reading off the smaller screen (I personally don’t). Remember, there’s pretty much an app for everything!

Personally I have issues with the screen size, battery life and outdoor reflections when reading on my phone – I’m happy to read shorter articles and so on, but an entire book? No thanks.

The other thing for me is that I’m happy to take my Kindle to the beach etc – if it gets broken or stolen, I’m out by not much over $100. If my phone gets stolen, it’s a different story for all sorts of reasons…

Jeff

Can you throw some captions under these pictures and tell us where they were taken? I’d love to know!

No problem – here’s where those shots were taken (in order from the top):

– Echo Point, Blue Mountains, Australia
– A villa in Kadikalesi, southern Turkey
– Cafe in Nan, northern Thailand
– A beach on the east coast of Tasmania, Australia
– Guesthouse in Pai, Thailand
– Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, near Rotorua in New Zealand

Thanks for the tips — especially that on the 4-way power box. I always get fed up with trying to find an electrical outlet that’s free in hostel dorms, but this seems like a good solution!

It’s such a simple thing, but it has come in handy so many times – in fact, my laptop is plugged into it as I type this in my guesthouse in Saigon, Vietnam right now. :)

Thanks for these tips. I usually don’t go out without a smartphone. I use galaxy S3 and for me its very handy especially when you’re out there.

I first went for an Asus transformer tablet (wilt dockingstation with keyboard), but switched now to a google chromebook.

Ok, you need wifi internet to use it, but whenever it’s stolen, you don’t lose any data. It’s super fast and doesn’t need much battery power.

For writing blogposts it’s much better than using the asus tablet.

The Chromebooks are definitely an interesting option – if the limitations (lack of local storage, need for an internet connection to do anything with them) aren’t a problem for you, they are nice pieces of kit at a great price.

Great post! I always have my laptop and back up every night to an external hard drive. I always make sure the laptop and hard drive travel in different pieces of luggage, just in case something gets lost/stolen. On the phone front, I find the Google Drive app to be very useful. I store all of my travel confirmations there and make sure they are available offline. This was if I ever need to pull up a document and I don’t have Internet access, it’s not an issue. It also means I can limit the number of documents I print/carry.

Great post! I currently travel with a netbook, Nexus 7 and my iphone. The Nexus is my most used device for communication, books and browsing and fits nicely in my (small) bag. Now I’m with an SD card/USB adapter and USB stick my netbook is almost redundant, other than for backing up my photo’s (extra backup) and as a fall back for my blogging, as it’s marginally quicker than typing on the tablet. I’m hoping a wireless keyboard will fix that and I’ll be dropping off my netbook at the next appropriate ‘home’ stop very soon. As for the iphone – generally just used for the telling the time and the odd quick photo as conveniently fits in my pocket, but a pain in the butt device to charge.

Hi Jade,

I’m happy to read your comment as I’m considering the Nexus 7 as a travel companion.
At the moment I’m only using my Galaxy SII when I travel, but I find that too small for really taking notes. I like to write down a little recap of the day each day and for that a phone just isn’t practical.
I used to have a netbook but that thing was just so slow (and heavy) that I wanted to throw it out of the window each time I used it.
I’m doubting on the Nexus as I don’t know if I’ll be using it for much more than I’m using my phone now, but with a portable keyboard it seems like the way to go for minimal on the road creation (and on ebay you can find keyboard to go with the Nexus 7).
Especially the fact that it’s lighter and faster than a netbook appeals to me.

Sofie, get the nexus 7 and you will not be disappointed! I have numerous guidebooks on mine in PDF which I can refer to when needed, I have offline maps, kindle books (for when time to read), access to email n web whenever I get WiFi, weather and info from web downloaded offline via pocket, plus all sorts on drop box like flight confirms etc. I use it constantly for just abt everything and without 3g is not a problem as there is free WiFi everywhere.

Tracy

You’ve definitely piqued my interest in tablets, especially the Nexus 7. I’m heading to Germany for a month this summer. If I pick up the Nexus, what are my options for connecting to the internet in Europe? Is Wi-Fi only sufficient or would it be worth it to spring for the model with HSPA+? I do know that the apartment I’m staying at does not provide internet access, so that is a concern.

You’re probably better off springing for the 3G model if your budget allows. Open or free WiFi isn’t all the prevalent in Germany (I’ve found), but you can get 1GB of 3G data for less than ~15 euros, and 3GB for ~20 euros.

Big fan of this post. I can’t live without my tech whilst I’m on the move. I think my favourite item has to be the bluetooth keyboard I have for my iPad. It lets me double my tablet up as a laptop and it’s also waterproof!

Matt

Aline

I own a Blackberry Playbook sine there was a huge sale once and got it as a bargain; its great for “consuming” as you said but I would have probably bought the Ipad Mini if that existed at the time for its size. Do you know if there’s any way to back up photos on that tablet thought? I never figured it out…

I don’t know off the top of my head, sorry, and a quick Google doesn’t throw up anything particularly promising either when it comes to backing up to an attached hard drive. I’d have to assume you could do it to cloud storage in some way, though, or perhaps via a Wifi-connected hard drive – but you’d definitely want to be able to verify that it works before spending too much money (or, at least, buy from somewhere with a good returns policy!)

Just upgraded from a netbook to a nexus 10. That, with my kindle keyboard and Samsung phone and I’ve nearly got a full set and very happy with the lot! Wanted to say re storage…the nexus 10 has a micro USB which connects to my portable hard drive no problem (hard drive is self-powered) with a tiny adaptor = 500 movies on tap! My camera – lumix tz40 – also has wireless and NFC technology so that’s one less cable to worry about and instant upload to my tablet or online :-) great post x

Your throwaway comment at the end needs more emphasis. I am from UK and travelling all over the Americas right now with my partner. One of the most valuable last minute inclusions in my bag was a 4way socket… It has been worth its weight in so many hotels/rooms with only one socket spare… Charging 4 devices at a time. We have between us, 2 tablets, 2 phones, 2 sets of hair clippers, 2 cameras with rechargeable batteries, 1 Bluetooth headphones, 1 waterproof MP3 player… To be able to charge 4 at a time is wonderful

It makes the world of difference, hey?

Excellent, very useful advice. Will definitely be looking into purchasing some of these items before my next big trip!

Kelly

Great post! The only section that seems to be missing is cameras. Any thoughts on whether a big DSLR is worth carrying around, or are there smaller/better digital cameras that produce good quality photos?
Thanks!

Good question! Personally I use a Micro Four Thirds camera (the Olympus E-PL3, although there’s a new model out now), which I find to be the perfect compromise between size and quality. It still has detachable lenses, and the sensor is not much smaller than that on a DSLR, but it’s half the size and weight.

We do talk quite a bit about cameras over on the site, with a bunch of recommendations depending on your budget and needs. :)

Nope, didn’t forget them at all. Local SIMs are a far cheaper option than international SIMs, whether you’re putting them in your phone (if it’s unlocked) or a USB data device.

Hey Dave, thanks for the tips. I currently travel with a Sony Ericson Xperia for my phone stuff and a 5 year old macbook I bought in Singapore. I must say I am really suprised by my macbook and the way it helps me to set up my travel blog. This might be a good tip for readers to look for a good second hand one. In a lot of places there are good shops around who sell good second hand MacBooks (As you notice i’m a big mac fan). I bought mine for about 350 dollar about one year ago. Still a very good investment!

What do you or other readers think about camera’s. Should you travel with a compact camera or travel with a SLR camera? I recently bought a NIkon d5100. Its much heavier but I love to take pictures and especially now i’m running a blog it became more important.

Cheers! Bastiaan

A second-hand laptop is definitely worth considering for your travels, so long as you can get a warranty that you’re happy with (at least 6-12 months, and international). Backing up is even more important with second-hand gear, of course!

As for cameras, Kelly left a similar question in the comments as well – check out my answer there, but in brief, I use an Olympus Micro Four Thirds camera and love it.

Stephanie

Thank you so much for the tip on Google Translate’s new downloadable language packages! I think Google Translate is just the bees knees, but I was worried about how I would access it in a pinch if I didn’t have wifi access! This is a perfect feature.

matt

Would love to see a guide to 3g in Thailand… where it works & where it doesn’t. What’s a good carrier? Anything like a coverage map?

I’d like to go and sit on a rather remote island, snorkel, and do a little programming work.

Thank you!

NomadicMatt

AIS is good.

I travel with about as many gadgets as you do. Still worried about the best way to get them all insured from someone who would actually replace them if needed. Any suggestions on that?

A lot of people in our circles use Clements to insure their gear… but no personal experience myself.

This is just a perfect post for me, as of the moment I’m packing up for a long vacation, reading this entry, I will not miss out any important gadget that I should bring.

Thanks for all the tips! I definitely have to get better about backing things up. I’m in the process and just transfered a load of videos from the past few years onto a hard drive – and then I dropped it. It won’t work and I don’t know what to do. And I hadn’t backed it up yet!! sigh. I’m going to look into the links you gave. And the 4 way plug thing…. I’m always trying to find the easiest way to do things. I hate having a bunch of items crowding me out of my living space…

I resisted smartphones for years, then realized I couldn’t live without them only a few short months after getting my first one. The amount of travel apps has also gone berserk this year. Same with Kindle, I thought I’d never switch from physical books, but I gave it a try after figuring out I never bring just the right amount of books with me. Usually it was too few and the issue of how much space they’d take was very real. Right now I can’t really survive without my Kindle.

Interesting post, thanks for sharing your tech collection! I’m a permanent nomad, and a minimalist carry-on only type. I travel with a 15.6″ Asus laptop, which at 7 lbs with the power transformer, is literally half of all the weight I carry. A 4th gen iPod Touch is the only other tech I carry — it’s “good enough” for me in terms of camera and other smartphone-ish functions, without the phone. I travel sans phone on purpose, and love it. If I could still make a living and ditch the extra 7 lbs, I’d do so. If a tablet could host webinars, do screen captures, edit video, etc., I’d throw this brick in the nearest river without hesitation. :)

Kym

I admit to liking the Apple side of things better – and one of the reasons is that I find for travel there are a lot of really useful and quirky apps for where I’m going that just aren’t available elsewhere. For an upcoming visit to Italy my iPad and iPhone are bulging! They are like a guidebook on steroids. And used sensibly, they can really add to the enjoyment of a holiday, giving me experiences I couldn’t have known about otherwise.

Great article and I can only agree after backpacking with a Nexus smartphone and Nexus 7 tablet for five months. I would suggest bringing a keyboard if you like to write a lot (I’ve got a 250 Thai baht tablet case with built in keyboard which works fine). If you get a Nexus 7 I suggest getting one with a lot of storage as it lacks an sd card slot.

Marty

I’ve had a Nexus 7 for about a year now and love it. I pair a Zagg Flex portable keyboard to mine. Answering emails, writing entries into my blog, and, and, and……… are a breeze.

Harry Brasco

I’m going on a trip soon to a few countries and I’m worried about my phone bill
You said that you get a local SIM card when you get to the country ur traveling to, but if I’m going to a lot of countries I think the price of all the sim card will add up to be too much.
Is there a SIM card I can buy, preferably in advance, that I can use in multiple countries so that I dont have to buy a new one each place I go to?

Great post! I am currently researching laptops for my big trip (pointless, really, given it is 12+ months away and as we all know todays computers will be obsolete by then!) so this has given me a good place to start.

Thanks again

Hey Dean and Matt,
Great wee list you have put together. I agree and would add a GoPro to be honest as this is the last piece if travel blogger technology I am waiting to get :) They shoot amazing videos and have really long battery life. I went through 3 smartphones in Australia and have been putting off getting a new one for a while.

Loved my Samsung Galaxy S2.. I Imagine the new S4 is serious business!
I think a smartphone is vital for travel blogging as it offers interaction on all the social media websites, WordPress options, Instagram + Pinterest.. And also you can have cool travel apps.

I have been looking at a cloud storage option as I have met so many travellers who had cameras lost, stolen and hard-drives gone missing. Heartbreaking stuff. .

Take care dude

I like to travel light. A DSLR camera, my iphone and a laptop are the only things I require when I travel.

Harry Brasco

so whats the best way to make international calls from madrid when traveling from the states

john jones111

I have been around the world and spend so much money keeping my wifi up and running, its great to take your tec with you on your travels, but the cost, I have used Vodafone, o2, orange and there wifi dongles, but they are not cheap and pay as you go is a no no. I have just found Vivente connect who rent you a unit and they deliver it to you and you post it back when you have finished with it. I paid for a month and took it away, I connected 4 devices to it once I had read the instructions, haha.
the unit stayed in my pocket and it worked, no drop off at all and the best part it was about 70% cheaper than the others. if Vivente connect can do it why do we let the bigger players rip us off. well done Vivente.

It’s truly very difficult in this busy life to listen news on TV,
so I just use world wide web for that reason, and get the hottest news.

There is no require for you to over-lubricate the entire body elements to be massaged
with oils. Think for a moment what will happen
if you do not have an amplifier in the world. Subwoofers have proficiency in generating a low
audio frequency (also famous as bass) that offers more precise & consistent sound to your car audio
system.

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