Taking It on the Road, Part 2: Readers Respond About Traveling with Technology

Last week, I wrote about my experiences working while traveling internationally in "Taking it on the Road: Traveling with Technology" and asked if readers had any tips or tidbits of their own. You know they did.

First, thanks to everyone who wrote in. I apologize for not being able to respond to all the email I received. But somewhat ironically, it was the travel that did me in: Last week, we were on a several-day road trip that brought us to some remote locations in Normandy, including the D-Day beaches and towns from World War II history such as Caen, Bayeax, and St. Lo.

Speaking of which, I think I’ve solved the puzzle of French Internet access. I mentioned last week that the house swap home we’re staying in near Rouen has an ADSL connection with a 5Mbps download speed but only a 200Kbps (.2 Mbps) upload speed. Since then, after conferring with friends in the country and employees at various hotels and bed and breakfasts, I’ve discovered that this is a standard 5/1 Mbps connection you can get virtually anywhere in the country. It would normally be fine for my needs, but this house must be very far from the nearest repeater. Hence the horrific upload speed. Ah, well.

Also, before moving on to reader tidbits, I should also mention that my AT&T international data plan is about to go horribly underutilized. Sixteen days into the trip, I’ve used less than 200MB of the 800MB plan I purchased, and I’ve simply been leaving the data connection on, even at night, and have used the phone’s GPS and mapping software (Nokia Drive, which is excellent) extensively in the car. No matter: I bet I’ll use less than half of the plan I purchased. Lesson learned.

The smartphone stuff is an interesting use case. I had hoped to use the Lumia’s tethering capability here in Europe, but AT&T told me it wouldn’t work (though I’m unclear how they’d even know). Frankly, I’ve never needed it. We’ve had Wi-Fi everywhere, even in places that surprised me. But while AT&T is excellent for this kind of service, some of the other US carriers are less so. My wife’s on Verizon, and although her Android-based smartphone does support international data (and calling and texting, of course), not all Verizon phones do, and it’s more expensive than AT&T.

Many readers recommended pre-paid SIM cards. I actually tried this once, in Germany two years ago, using a service there called Blue, but only for voice. I have to think that we’re getting into an era of affordable pay-as-you-go international data, but again I’ve had good results with AT&T. (My entire three weeks of data usage will set me back less than $200. It’s unclear why that’s not money well-spent, beyond the fact that I bought too much of it.) But more than one frequent international traveler told me that they get pre-paid SIMs for each country they visit regularly.

I’m curious how little technology one could get away with here. Based on reader emails and of course depending on your needs, most people will likely still need a laptop for occasional work-related concerns, and of course a newer Ultrabook is a dream thanks to the low weight. But I could see many getting by with an iPad or Android tablet, or, perhaps in the future, a Windows 8/RT device. They all offer superior battery life, not to mention being thin and light.

The key, of course, is being able to do what you need to do. For me, that means writing, and that means a real computer. But I also like having the computer for other things, including acquiring photos from a real camera -- smartphone cameras are getting there, but they’re no replacement for even a cheap point-and-click -- and then uploading them to an online service such as Facebook for sharing and archiving.

Frankly, one of the classic issues with traveling anywhere -- although it gets worse the more time zones you skip -- is how calendar items in Outlook (and other calendar sources) don’t elegantly travel with you. My phone would trill at all hours about some event -- and sometimes they were positively silly, such as a friend’s birthday reminder on Facebook. This is an age-old issue, and although I’m pretty sure I complained about this problem in this very newsletter as long as a decade ago, it’s just never gotten any easier. Frequent travelers simply become time-zone mathematicians.

Regarding charging, a number of readers recommended bringing device-specific USB-based charging solutions in addition to my mini powerstrip idea, and some pointed out that laptops can obviously charge devices over USB too. Modern laptops usually include at least one port that can charge while the machine is off, too, which is even better.

A couple of other suggestions for gadgets to bring along while traveling internationally: a travel router, external batteries for portable devices (I have a few of these, some iPod/iPhone-specific, and decided to skip them at the last minute), and . . . get this . . . a VPN solution that can help you access US-based services – such as Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and Zune/Xbox Marketplace -- while in other countries. These are typically paid services, although I’m told that LogMeIn Hamachi (which I use and is free) can also be made to work. This is worth some experimentation, though only for those long, long trips. I mean, if you’re in France for just a week, why do you need to watch Netflix?

Bring extra converters (which I do). For Europe, there are both large and small converters, and the small ones work fine with two-prong American power adapters. (It always blows me away that the smallest possible Apple or Nokia charger works fine on an adapter, but that the honkingly huge US-based Xbox 360 power supply was specifically designed only to the work in the United States.)

VoIP -- via Facebook, Skype, Messenger -- is your friend. If you’ve got a family member who’s maybe missing home a bit too much, a couple of late-night video calls to a friend could do the trick. That said, don’t go overboard: My kids (now ages 10 and 14) surprised me by being really into this trip, getting along with one another, and being pretty mature about the whole thing. And I wasn’t going to suggest ruining it with Skype.

And this one’s just too good not to name names: Cranky Scott (not his real name?) suggests never accepting the "Would you like the charge in US dollars" option when paying for anything while abroad. And he’s right: This dynamic currency conversion is a rip-off and will cost you more (sometimes much more) than being charged in the local currency. Good advice.

Again, thanks to everyone who wrote in about this fun topic. Next month I’m going to New Zealand, so I’ll try to implement some of the better suggestions in what has become an ongoing effort to just handle this kind of thing more efficiently. Practice makes perfect.
TAGS: Windows 8
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