On the first Tuesday of each month, Dave Dean from Too Many Adapters gives us great tips and advice on travel tech and gear. In this month’s column he answers all your tech-related questions.
I get asked a lot about travel technology every day, especially since I started writing on this website. So this month, rather than devoting an article to a single topic, I decided to answer many of your travel tech questions. We cover a wide range of topics — gear, security, apps, staying connected, and many more. Without further ado, here are your questions and best answers!
Is a laptop or a tablet preferable when blogging/working from the road?
For working/blogging travelers, I don’t recommend a tablet — go for a laptop or a hybrid device instead. While it’s possible to work using just a tablet and a few accessories, it’s frustrating: apps are more limited, as are processor speeds and storage. Typing is slower than on a real keyboard, and even copying files and printing documents is more frustrating.
Given you can pick up a good laptop or hybrid that weighs 2-3 lbs. for under $1000, the time and hassle you’ll save is worth the extra few hundred bucks. I don’t suggest a Chromebook for working from the road, however — even the better ones suffer from app limitations similar to tablets, need a decent Internet connection to be truly useful, and have little built-in storage. My current recommendations for laptops and hybrids are here.
If you could only buy just a couple pieces of gear, what would you buy?
You can do it all with a decent smartphone. Recent iPhones and higher-end Android phones are pretty good for both video and stills as long as you’ve got enough storage. Internet access isn’t a problem, especially if the phone is unlocked. As phone screens get bigger, reading ebooks on them is fine unless you’re in direct sunlight. Journaling will be a bit painful if you’re typing lots of text, but if you find that’s a major problem once you’re on the road, you can always pick up a little Bluetooth keyboard.
Since you’ll be using your phone for everything, I’d suggest adding a portable battery as well — something like the Mazzo Powerdrive if you also want extra storage space, otherwise anything with a capacity of around 8000mAh or more is fine.
What suggestions do you have for protecting your information while using Wi-Fi at hostels, cafes, etc.?
You should absolutely be using a VPN and antivirus software. I have AVG Free on my laptop, phone, and tablet. As far as VPN goes, I’ve used Witopia for a few years now and been happy with it. Tunnelbear is another good option that includes a basic free plan. If you travel with multiple devices, just make sure that whatever VPN you use will work on all of them (ideally, simultaneously). Here’s much more on data security for travelers.
What are your top 5 traveling apps that really help you save time and money?
Top five… hmm, that’s tough! Let’s go with Tripit (accommodation and transport bookings all in one place), Here Maps (the best offline maps software I’ve found), Triposo (free, detailed travel guides), Google Translate (translates text, voice, and photos), and XE Currency (know the exchange rate when negotiating prices). Even better, they all work partially or completely while offline.
What’s one gadget you can’t leave home without?
As boring as it sounds, it has to be my smartphone (a Nexus 5). I’ll use at least the camera and a navigation app every day on the road, and it’s become an indispensable travel aid for me. Of course, that doesn’t mean I never turn it off.
What two-factor authentication methods you use on your accounts (email, banking, other) while you travel?
I use Google Authenticator on my phone whenever I can — it doesn’t need to be connected to the Internet to work and gives me two-factor authentication for things like Facebook, Dropbox, Gmail, and more.
My banking situation was a problem until recently — my main bank is in Australia and would only accept an Australian mobile number to send SMS codes to. I needed to keep a prepaid Australian SIM with a little credit on it just for that purpose and swap it out every time I needed to transfer money online. I switched to a different Australian bank recently and it lets me use an international number — so I now use a (US-based) Google Voice number and receive SMS codes through the Hangouts app on my phone or laptop instead. Much better!
I plan on trying (TRYING) to use Amazon Prime image storage when I’m traveling internationally. Is there a better service for this? Is there a way to get a better, more reliable connection?
If you’re already a Prime member, its unlimited photo storage system is as good as any other cloud service. Since Internet connections are often unavailable or very slow, I always recommend having a local backup option as well (portable hard drive, high-capacity USB stick, or similar). Other than the Wi-Fi optimization tips I mentioned above, there isn’t much more you can really do to improve the upload speeds unless you reduce the photo sizes first, which you may not want to do.
I currently have an iPhone. Should I be looking at another brand? What would you recommend?
If you’re happy with the iPhone you have, there’s no need to change it. If not, take a look at my smartphone recommendations page — there are options for various budgets there. The Motorola Moto G, for example, is a good choice and costs under $200 unlocked.
Is there a universal/inexpensive Mi-Fi that will work wherever I travel to?
If you’re looking for one with an inexpensive international data plan, not really. You might be able to put something together with a Mi-Fi hotspot, and a SIM and plan from T-Mobile in the US or Three in the UK, but to be honest I’d probably just buy local data SIM cards in each country and use them in an unlocked hotspot like this. You’ll get faster speeds and larger data caps for less money.
Are there certain hotel chains that have better Wi-Fi than others?
Not really — it’s pretty variable, even in hotels belonging to the same chain.
When uploading images to the cloud, is there something I should be doing (VPN, encryption)?
It depends on the software and service you’re using to do it, and how much you trust it. I use Crashplan for both local and cloud backups, and as the data is encrypted before leaving my laptop, I don’t bother using a VPN or additional encryption.
Do you travel with a laptop locking cable? Is there a smarter way to lock down my laptop when traveling, like better, more secure locking software?
I don’t use a locking cable — I just lock my laptop in my bag when I’m leaving it behind and sit with my back to a wall and as far from the door as possible when I’m working in cafes. A strong password and full-disk encryption is the best way to protect the data on your laptop if it does get stolen, along with automatic backups and good travel insurance.
Is there software out there that duplicates your computer 100%? I will be traveling with a Macbook.
I don’t use a Mac, but it looks like Super Duper does what you’re after. I’d suggest using it alongside a standard Time Machine backup.
What do you use to charge your laptop while flying?
I don’t. If there isn’t power available onboard, I turn the brightness down, keep it in flight mode, and work until the battery runs out. There are portable batteries that can charge a laptop, but they’re heavy and quite expensive, so I haven’t bothered with them.
Is there a way to split an Ethernet connection (network cable) in the room into two Ethernet connections, in case there isn’t any Wi-Fi?
There is, but I’d probably approach the problem differently. Both Windows and MacOS let you share an Ethernet connection over Wi-Fi — they create their own wireless network that you connect your other devices to, and all Internet traffic goes over the network cable.
Do you have a Skype phone number? Or are you using Google Voice, or do you just use your own phone?
I don’t have a Skype phone number, although I’ve considered it a few times. I use a Google Voice number for banking (see above) and to receive occasional calls from the US. Since I usually buy local SIM cards, I also give out my local number to whoever needs it at the time. Most of the time, though, I just make and receive calls through the Skype desktop or mobile app.
Do you change out the SIM card of your phone or just buy a local phone?
I always buy unlocked smartphones and swap out the SIM cards when I’m going to be in a new country longer than a week.
Dave runs Too Many Adapters, a site devoted to technology for travelers. A geek as long as he can remember, he worked in IT for fifteen years. 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?