Four Technology Tips for International Travel

Last time I shared three tips for international travel, focusing on planning the technology for your trip, and today I’ve got four tips for once you’ve decided on what equipment you will be taking with you on your trip.

1. Take a Trial Run

Put together all of the tech items that you would not feel confident packing in your checked bags and pack them up in whatever you plan to lug them around in (along with the usual other travel items). If you can’t bear to carry them with you for, say, a full day on campus, you might want to consider downsizing your travel kit.

2. Beware of Roaming While Roaming

Smart phones are increasingly attractive as a turnkey solution for your tech travel needs. Being able to use them for video, photos, music, email, Web browsing, GPS, and of course making phone calls — makes them a jack-of-all-trades in one tiny package. Without getting into all of the complexity of cell phone systems, you should know that your cell phone, even a new smart phone, won’t necessarily work overseas. This article, while somewhat dated, has some useful information on the costs and compatibility of US phones abroad. For more accurate information, contact your phone provider to see if your specific phone is able “travel” internationally, and if it is compatible with the phone system in your destination.

More importantly, even if you can use your cell phone overseas, the international roaming charges can put a dent in your travel budget. While roaming internationally it is not rare for phone calls to cost several dollars a minute. Data plans can become monstrously expensive if enabled, especially if you’re using a phone to do heavy Web browsing, or moving large files around (uploading a single high resolution photo from your phone can cost a dollar or more in many countries).

Even more problematic is that your smart phone might be doing all sorts of data tasks that you might not be aware of — for example, it might be doing GPS mapping, updating Facebook, or checking email quietly in the background. None of these apps moves huge amounts of data in the short term, but like a dripping faucet it can add up to a significant amount of data and therefore costs while travelling internationally. In general, my advice is that if you decide to take your smart phone overseas, that you use it only as a Wi-Fi device. You should still have much of its functionality even when away from Wi-Fi service.

As for phone call capabilities, installing Skype on your smart phone can cover most of your traditional phone needs at a low cost. If you must still have traditional phone service while traveling, I would highly recommend looking at local prepaid phone options.  On recent trips abroad I have purchased prepaid (dumb) phones for less than $20 and used them (lightly to moderately) for several weeks without ever having to “refill” the account.

3. Don’t Fight the Power

With something like this, you're ready to fit your plug into almost any outlet.

With an adaptor like this, you’re ready to plug into almost any outlet. (Just be sure to double-check the voltage and frequency first!) [Image Source]

Once you have selected the equipment you want to take with you, the next step is to make sure that it can be used with power systems abroad. This usually involves two issues: the voltage/frequency that your device can use and the type of outlet you need to plug your device in. With travel items this usually involves some sort of charger/power adapter that you will be using with a laptop, phone, battery charger, etc.

A quick glance at this source should tell you what the voltage/frequency and type of plug you are likely to need in a specific country — it’s not as simple as you might expect, since a shockingly large number of countries do no have a single power voltage or type of outlet. If the voltage is not US-standard (120 volts/60 Hz), you first need to make sure that your power adapter/charger will accept the power available locally.

Many power adapters/chargers accept a range of voltages (100-240v) and frequencies (50-60Hz), which makes them compatible with most or all power systems internationally. The input power/frequency range is printed on each power adapter and charger. If your specific device does not have a label that shows it to be compatible with the local power system, do not attempt to plug it in, as it will almost certainly damage the equipment. If your device’s power requirements are not compatible with the local system, you will need to purchase a different adapter/charger (contact manufacturer) or purchase a power transformer (heavy and possibly expensive). In some cases (if you are travelling in a car), a cigarette lighter plug-in charger may be the best option.

For equipment that is compatible with the local power system, the next step is to make sure that you have the appropriate plug adapter. These are typically small, inexpensive and readily available. You can usually easily buy the appropriate plug adapter before leaving the US (usually sold in kits) or once you arrive at your destination.

4. The Internet Cafe Is Your Frenemy

If you choose to not carry around a laptop or other Web-capable device and you need Internet access, you might wish to use a “hotel” computer or “internet café,” as these are often available. For many reasons it makes a lot of sense to use these resources…with some precautions. In general, I always assume that these computers and their networks are neither secure nor safe. Therefore, they are perfectly fine for general Web browsing, but I would not use them to enter credit card info or with secure resources which require passwords logins (bank or credit card accounts, W&M resources with password login, etc).

If you must “do” email on this type of computer, a imperfect but better solution that I have used in the past is to have my W&M email forwarded on to an alternative email account that I set up specifically for travel use and is not tied to any other “sensitive” information. In these cases I have created an account with my local service for this purpose, but you should be able to create a similar account with Yahoo!, Gmail, or other providers. Once you are back in the US, you should stop forwarding your email from W&M and disable the “travel” email account.

About Pablo Yáñez

Pablo Yáñez is the Academic Technologist for the Sciences. He studied Geology at the University of Maryland (BS) and University of Arizona (MS), where he specialized in Geochemistry. He joined Information Technology at William and Mary in 2000, and has since worked with nearly all of the academic departments on campus in some capacity or another. Beyond his "normal" Academic Technologist duties, during these years he has been involved in several projects/initiatives including: the use of the College's Public Access Labs; the creation of the Center for Geospatial Analysis, the Swem Media Center, and many technology-enhanced classrooms; and in the review and planning of campus-wide software procurement.