I was preparing for a trip recently, and it occurred to me how much my travel experiences have changed over the years. I'm a desk-bound information worker of sorts, so it's always a bit jarring to find myself on the road with only a small subset of the computing power and resources I typically use. In the past, I tried to overcompensate by bringing an excess of technology with me on the road. However, as the years have passed, I've discovered that there is a healthy middle ground between carting your entire office around and leaving behind all technology for the duration of the trip.
That said, if you can leave it behind, do so. If you're planning a vacation, for example, and you don't absolutely need your cell phone, PDA, or laptop, then by all means don't bring them with you. Or, if you must bring them, try to keep them hidden and unused as much as possible. Psychologically, I've found it makes a big difference when you can divorce yourself as much as possible from the technologies you use at work every day.
That said, sometimes you can't escape the need to be connected, and certainly for those of us who travel frequently for work, the trick is to minimize the amount of junk you need to carry around.
For work trips, I'm necessarily more burdened with gadgets. Unlike many frequent fliers, however, I always check a bag. That way, I can minimize the amount of junk I have in my carry-on. I always shake my head at the people I see trying to pull massive bags down the undersized airplane aisle and then struggle as they try and lift them up and fit them into the tiny overhead storage spaces. Yes, I've experienced occasional delays waiting for my bags, but most of the time, the bags come right out and I'm raring to go. With few exceptions, not having to lug around a large bag while at the airport has outweighed the convenience of not waiting for my bag at my destination.
So, what do I carry on? Obviously, the items will vary according to the length and nature of the trip. Most of the time, my most important tech carry-on is a single Dell notebook computer with one or two extra batteries and a DVD/CD-RW combo drive. If I'm traveling with a companion, I'll bring a Belkin Speaker and Headphone Splitter so that we can watch DVD movies together. The notebook's power cable goes into the checked baggage unless I know that the plane has power ports. Then, I skip the extra batteries and bring along an AC mobile power converter, which lets you plug any standard AC power adapter into the DC plugs used in airplanes, automobiles, and boats. I use and recommend the CyberPower AC Mobile Power 120, which is small and light, and even includes a USB port for charging portable devices.
For movies, I bring a small selection of DVD movies, of course, in a hard case, but I also try to copy a number of recorded TV shows—via a Media Center PC or TiVo—to the laptop's hard disk. If I watch those shows on the road, I simply delete them from the hard disk and move on.
I like to listen to music, so I always bring along my iPod along, too. These days, most of my listening is done through my 30GB iPod with video, but if you have simpler requirements, you can save a lot of space by bringing an iPod shuffle or iPod nano along instead. When I do bring the iPod shuffle, I wear it around my neck with its included lanyard. (Oddly enough, I once forgot to take it off going through security and it didn't even set off the metal detector.) For most iPods, you'll need a charging cable; put it in the checked baggage.
I used to bring a lot of DVD and CD backups with me, but now I handle these infrequent needs with two separate solutions. For long trips, I'll bring a small portable hard drive with me, which I pack in checked baggage. I use a Western Digital Passport drive. When I purchased the hard drive last year, 80GB was the largest capacity, but you can now get a 120GB version. Because I have several hundred gigabytes of data stored on my server at home, I also subscribe to Log Me In, which lets me remotely access my server from any Web browser and download files I might need. I highly recommend it.
One item I most definitely don't bring or recommend is a PDA. After years of testing and futzing with every possible PDA type on the market, I've come to a simple conclusion: PDAs are unnecessary. If you can get PDA functionality in a phone, that might be a decent solution, because you'll likely need your cell phone wherever you go. But I always create a simple one-page Microsoft Word document before each trip that lists my flight, hotel, and rental car information in an easy-to-read format, and I even paste in maps when needed. That single sheet of paper is my PDA, and unlike most real PDAs, it always works, it's hugely portable, and it's disposable when the trip is over. Perfect.
Speaking of cell phones, you'll need to bring yours, but I always chuck the charging cable into a carry-on. If you'll be traveling internationally, you'll need to figure out a phone solution, but that's the subject of another column. I ended up getting a separate phone just for Europe, but this year, I'll be examining VoIP-based solutions, particularly ones that will let me make calls from my laptop using a headset. I have visions of sitting in a Paris café using my laptop to connect to a work conference call. I'll let you know how that goes in the future.
Some other helpful items: I use a Wi-Fi signal finder, so I can get online when necessary, but many people simply walk or drive around with their notebook open looking for open signals. I obviously bring a digital camera on vacations, but I made an interesting discovery during a recent weeklong trip to Ireland: Despite taking several hundred pictures, I never needed to swap out the camera battery because I was using a media reader to offload pictures to the laptop. So, although I'll always bring an extra battery—both the camera and battery go in the checked baggage—I'll probably skip bringing a battery charger in the future. And for the most part, I'll skip the separate video camera. Modern digital cameras can take stunningly good videos at 640 x 480, and their small size make them eminently more portable (and less expensive) than a dedicated video camera. If your laptop doesn't include a media reader, put one in your checked baggage or bring a USB sync cable.
I used to cart around a Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP) or other portable video game system, but I find myself less interested in that lately. It might be important for you, however, to pass the time. I do always bring a selection of magazines and a paperback book, however. They aren't exactly tech items, but I can use them at any time during a flight or while stuck in an airport.
Finally, you might be worried about losing items in checked baggage, should an unscrupulous security guard decide to open your bag and help himself or herself. This has never happened to me, but horror stories abound. My advice is to grab a TSA-compatible padlock and photograph the contents of your bag before you leave. (Copy the pictures to your laptop as proof.) I suppose one bad experience would be enough to make me rethink my habits, but so far so good.
So there you go—laptop and batteries, DVDs, iPod, cell phone, a single sheet of paper, a book, and a few magazines. I bring a few small personal items as well, such as a few extra contact lenses and some business cards. But for the most part, traveling light has really paid off. Now, if I could only convince my kids to do the same, vacations would almost be bearable.