Some of us go on vacation to get away from technology - and that's
great. But many of us want to use technology to help stay connected to
family and friends, to help us find our way around new places, to help
us with foreign languages, or just to take (and share) photos or to
have something to read without filling our bags with heavy books. Some
airlines are removing their seatback movie players, encouraging
passengers to watch movies in the air on their laptops, tablets, or
There's no answer on what to bring - if anything - that's right for
everyone. Let's look at the advantages and disadvantages of some of the
sorts of devices most commonly taken travelling.
can let you do, on a trip, everything you do with technology at home -
go online and access email, Facebook, the Web - store and edit photos
(and share them on Facebook or via email), take work with (an advantage
and disadvantage, perhaps) and more.
They're relatively large and heavy, making them a pain to carry through
airports, etc. Larger models may not fit in hotel safes, posing a
problem with theft. They can be relatively expensive - and loss, theft,
or damage may be a real problem especially if the data on them hasn't
backed-up. They have shorter
battery life than most other portable devices.
with a smaller or older laptop. Look at getting a small, light,
low-cost Chromebook as a travel computer. See:Should You Buy a
If you're buying a new laptop
for travel, get one with a solid
state drive (SSD) rather than a traditional hard disk drive (HDD). SSDs are much reliable and having your
laptop's hard drive fail in the middle of a vacation is a real pain! See: SSD vs. HDD: What's
Tablets - iPads, Android, or Windows tablets:
Advantages: These are
more portable than laptops and offer better battery life. Many models
are less-expensive than laptops - and can be better than laptops for
movie-viewing and e-book reading. Some models can connect to mobile
data networks as well as Wi-Fi. Can be a good choice for casual
email/Facebook/Web use. Fit in hotel safes without problem.
Larger and more awkward than smartphones, and more awkward than laptops
if you need to do a lot of typing. While tablets were wildly popular a
few years ago, lately, fewer are being sold.
Here are a couple of 16-second Apple ads giving a couple of reasons why
they say you can replace your laptop with an iPad (or presumably
Note that you can buy an iPad camera connection kit from Apple to easily get photos from a digital camera memory card onto an iPad.
Smartphones - iPhones or Android phones:
portable. Relatively long battery life. Combine Internet connection
with music player, GPS maps, camera, even a flashlight in a pinch - and
can be used as a phone! Photos can be immediately shared online. Lots
of travel apps available.
Disadvantages: Can rack
up expensive roaming charges if not careful (see below). Small screen
limits usefulness as e-book reader or for much typing. Can be popular
targets for theft.
Advantages: Pretty much
every digital camera takes better photos (especially using optical
zoom) than any smartphone. Large numbers of photos can be stored on
inexpensive memory cards. Photos and videos can be edited, shared, and
stored online (requires use of a computer later).
can't be shared immediately (as they can with a smartphone). Digital
SLR models are heavy and expensive and for best use require carrying a
lenses. A camera hanging around your neck just screams 'tourist'
Consider: If you're a
fan of D-SLR cameras, take a look at the new generation of compact
mirrorless models - smaller than D-SLRs but using interchangeable
lenses with more features than traditional compact digital cameras. See:The 10 best
mirrorless cameras in 2017. (They won't let you reuse your
D-SLR lenses, however!)
Personally, I like compact ultrazoom cameras - models that fit in a
shirt pocket but have a (non-interchangeable) zoom lens with an optical
zoom of 10x or larger. See:The best travel
compact cameras in 2017. The article: Best Travel Camera 2017
looks at the advantages and disadvantages of travelling with many sorts
of cameras, including smartphones and lists best-in-class models.
e-book readers (Kindle, etc) have much better battery life than tablets
and can be used outdoors in bright sunlight. An e-book reader can store
a shelf-full of books in a light-weight, easily portable device.
can only be used for content purchased from Amazon. They are
single-purpose devices - one more thing to carry, keep charged, try not
to lose, etc. If you already have a tablet, you may prefer to use it as
an e-book reader as well - there's a Kindle app, OverDrive app for
public libraries, PDF readers, etc. for tablets and smartphones.
When you're travelling with devices, keeping them charged is always a
bit of a challenge. There are two sets of issues to deal with - do you
need a multiplicity of chargers, one for each device? (Maybe not!) And
when you are outside Canada/US, you may be faced with electrical
systems that run at different voltage levels and require different
shaped and sized plugs from what you're used to.
- what you need to bring along depends on what devices you're taking.
If you're taking a laptop, you'll need to bring its charger - note
that laptop chargers are not
interchangeable... different laptops need different chargers; the
charger from a different make or model may not even plug into your
The situation is better for other devices - although every
manufacturer suggests you should use their specific charger, in most
cases today, this may not be necessary. Nearly all tablets,
smartphones, cameras, etc for instance, can be charged by plugging them
into a laptop's USB ports (make sure the laptop is plugged in or you'll
drain its battery!). Similarly, most can be charged using the chargers
from another device. (A large tablet may only charge slowly when
plugged into a small smartphone charger, however. And note that you'll
need cords with plugs that will fit into your various devices
- your Android phone and digital camera may need different cables
though both have standard USB connectors on the end that plugs into
either your laptop or their charger).
If you're travelling with multiple devices, you may want to invest in a
charger that can charge multiple devices at one time. (This can be
handy at home as well!). Anker,
for instance, makes a range of well-reviewed USB chargers that can
charge (depending on model) as many as 10 devices at once. I own a
5-port Anker charger and when I take it travelling, I can use it to
charge my smartphone, my wife's iPad, and each of our digital cameras
at once. (I still need to bring a dedicated charger for my laptop,
though). This is especially handy in hotel rooms or apartments where
there may not be many available outlets.
Non-North American electrical outlets
- While Canada/US standardized on 110 volt electrical systems, much of
the rest of the world uses 220 volts. As well, there are a variety of
standard plug shape and sizes: the UK uses different plugs from the
rest of Europe even though both use 220 volts. The good news is that
the chargers for nearly all laptops and other digital devices, are
dual-voltage - you don't need to buy converters to change 220 volts to
110 volts. (You will need a
voltage converter to use a high-powered North American device such as a
hair dryer or iron - but you really don't want to travel with those, do
You do however, need to get
an adapter to let you plug your charger into a different-shaped wall
outlet. Apple, for instance, sells a World Travel Adapter
that can be used with Mac laptops and iPad and iPhone chargers
(CDN$35). It includes a set of adapters that between them let you use
your Apple device's charger in North America, Japan, China, United
Kingdom, Continental Europe, Korea, Australia, Hong Kong and Brazil.
They don't sell the adapters separately - you have to buy the whole set
even if you really want only one.
You can, however, buy cheap adapters that fit on the North
American-style plugs of the chargers for your various laptops and
devices (even your Apple products) - getting just the ones that you
need for the countries you're going to visit. Many dollar stores carry
these. Alternatively, in Vancouver, you may want to check in with the
folks at Foreign Electronics
- 432 E Broadway - a shop specializing in travel electronics, including
adapters and converters, mobile phone unlocking, foreign video
conversion and more.
To get full use of most of our digital devices, you're going to want to
be able to get on the Internet. There are a number of ways you can go
cafes/Hotel business centres/Public libraries
A decade ago, it was relatively uncommon for travellers to take their
own devices with them. Instead, travellers often used public computers
in 'web cafes', hotel business centres, public libraries, and other
locations. You can still do this - some may be available for free,
others for a relatively inexpensive hourly charge. Note that there is a
security risk in doing this - there's a risk that 'key-logging'
software may have been installed on the public computer which makes a
record of everything you type or click on, leaving you at risk for
If you are using a public
computer there are a couple of important things - always log out of any
online accounts: webmail services like Gmail and social networks like
Facebook when you are done. Make
sure you know how to log out - simple
closing the browser window, quiting the web browser program, or
restarting the computer are not enough!
use a public computer to access any financial website - your
bank, Paypal, etc. or to make online purchases. You are risking giving
strangers access to your bank accounts or credit cards.
Using your device
on public Wi-Fi networks
It's become increasingly common to use our own laptops, tablets,
or smartphones, connecting them to Wi-Fi networks in airports, hotels,
cafes or restaurants, or public buildings like libraries and community
centres. This lets us use devices we're familiar with and that have our
passwords stored. Be aware that it can also have issues:
Wi-Fi may simply not be available everywhere you expect to find
it. Or if available, it may not be free - many airports, train
stations, etc may only offer Wi-Fi for sale. Many Mexican all-inclusive
resorts, for instance, offer Wi-Fi in your room - for US$70/week. (You
may be able to get free Wi-Fi in the lobby).
In some cases, Wi-Fi networks with names like 'Free Wi-Fi' may be
set up to (like the key-logging software on some public computers) to
record everything you type to try to steal bank account and password
information. The Vancouver Airport (YVR) has good free Wi-Fi.
See: The New Wi-Fi Scam
That Steals Your Credit Card Number
Shared Wi-Fi networks in hotels and public places - where
available - often have very poor performance. I've gone on 3 week
vacations where I never got a usable Wi-Fi connection in any of the
multiple places we stayed.
On the other hand, you may find yourself with free (or affordable),
reliable, trustworthy Wi-Fi in your hotel or other locations. That's
great! (I've also gone on holidays where I had great Wi-Fi everywhere).
If you're not sure how to connect your device to a new Wi-Fi network
Some of us have digital cameras that promise Wi-Fi connectivity - in my
experience this is more trouble than it's worth, especially when you're
travelling and may need to connect to a new Wi-Fi network every time
you change hotels.
If you have a smartphone or a tablet with a mobile data option (most
are Wi-Fi only), you can connect via local cell phone networks to
mobile data networks (i.e. the Internet) and voice phone/text services
(smartphone-only). There are a variety of ways to do this; you have the
most options if your smartphone is 'unlocked' meaning it can be used
with mobile services besides the one that is currently providing you
with service at home.
Be aware that if you take your phone with you and do nothing, you may
be ringing up expensive roaming charges - even if you think you're not
using your phone, it may be connecting to your at-home mobile provider
and checking for email (etc) every few moments. Learn how to avoid this!
Among the things you can do:
Take out the phone's SIM card to make sure you won't incur
and then simply use your phone with no mobile phone connection. You can
go online whenever there's Wi-Fi - in your hotel, in many public
places, in many bars, restaurants, and cafes. (Watch out for public
Wi-Fi networks that want you to pay for service, however!) You can use
apps like Skype or Whatsapp
to make 'calls' to friends and family (and even to other phones) when
you're connected on Wi-Fi. If you have an Apple product - iPhone, iPad,
or Mac - you can easily video call other Apple users with the Facetime app (see: FaceTime App: The Ultimate Guide)
If there is no SIM card in your phone, you cannot connect to any mobile
network. Make sure
you don't lose your SIM card! You'll need it when you get back home.
Check with your mobile network about US or International roaming
(see the 2016 article -The best roaming options for Canadians). You may
decide that this is a
simple and affordable way to keep using your phone - with your current
phone number - while travelling. Pay attention to the amount of data
including, however - and check your data usage (Android phone users can
& Networks/Data Usage to see how much mobile data you're using at
home and see whether this is in line with what your mobile provider is
offering - often their roaming plans charge a lot if you use more than
the allotted amount of data).
For many travellers, it may make the most
sense to go a mobile phone company store in that country and purchase
service for the time you're travelling - you'll get a new SIM card and
a new phone number which can be inconvenient if anyone at home wants to
phone you (but how often do you want that to happen when you're
travelling?). On the other hand it can be more convenient if you're
wanting to phone or text in the other country - hotels, restaurants,
etc. I've dealt with three or four different mobile companies in Italy
- all were happy to provide a SIM card with a month's phone, text, and
data service (typically with 2 or 3 GB of data - far more than Canadian
companies offer with their roaming plans) for 20-30 Euro. I've gotten
service in the US from T-Mobile for $2 per day. Note that you should
bring your passport when you're signing up for this sort of service.
More: A Digital Nomad’s
Guide to Buying Local SIM Cards Around the World
Note that to be able to make use of a SIM card from a different mobile
provider, your phone needs to be unlocked. If you bought your phone
from your provider, it is probably locked to only work with that
company's service. (Some phones are sold already unlocked - a very good
feature). Your mobile provider may offer to unlock it for you -
typically charging $50 or so for the privilege. There are also lots of
small local businesses that will unlock your phone - in Vancouver, I've
had good experiences with Foreign Electronics
- I just checked with them and they still charge $25 for the service). Effective December 2017, the Canadian CRTC has ordered that all new devices be unlocked.
If you don't have usable Wi-Fi but have a working mobile connection on
your phone, you can share it
with other devices - for instance, on one trip, when the promised
apartment and hotel Wi-Fi failed to be usable, I set my phone up as a
Wi-Fi Hotspot, letting my laptop and my wife's iPad get online. (This
uses up your phone's data much faster, however). For instructions, see:
How to setup mobile
Hotspot on Android orHow to Use Your
iPhone as a Hotspot
A potential issue for iPhone users: When I plug a SIM card into my Android phone and restart the phone, it just works. Voice, text, data.
When I plug the same SIM card into my iPhone, voice and text works.
Data - no. Since I tend to do this in a location where I have wi-fi
available, I may not notice that cellular data isn't working - until I
There's a fix - but you need to know to look for it. A Google search
with my provider's name and the word 'iPhone' brings up a tech support
document - here's the PDF document
for my provider, Canada's Freedom Mobile (formerly WIND). It outlines a
series of settings in the Cellular Network area, adding APN Setting
information. I've never needed to do this on an Android phone - and
it's something to watch out for if you try to add a foreign SIM when
work on your iPhone with your foreign SIM, just be sure to test it -
outside of a WiFi zone - and see if you need tech-support help. Let me
know your experiences with this.
WiFi devices for travellers
You can bring your own mobile WiFi device with you.This
would be a device that connects up to local mobile data networks while
providing you with a WiFi signal. This can be useful if you have
multiple devices to connect in a place with no free WiFi (or free but
crappy WiFi, as is the case in many hotels, airports, etc). There are a
range of these devices and services, sometimes referred to generically
as 'MiFi' (though that's actually a brand name). Canadian mobile provider Rogers offers such devices
using the brand name 'Rocket Hub' or 'Rocket Stick'; other mobile
providers offer similar services under other names. If you are getting
hardware through your mobile provider, make sure it's unlocked -
meaning you can use it with other providers if you buy a foreign SIM
(like for a phone) - or be clear on your provider's international
You might be interested in Skyroam
- they claim their US$80 device can be used in a wide range of
countries (100+) to connect up to 5 devices at a time to 'unlimited'
data for US$8 per day (or US$10 per day if you're renting rather than
buying their hardware). It can be used on battery or plugged in. (Note
that you get up to 500 MB of data per day at full, 4G speed. After
that, your 'unlimited' data is at lower 2.5G speed). (PC Magazine review).
Note - these devices provide data (i.e. Internet) - no phone, no text. Apps and more for
There are lots of web services, computer programs, and smartphone and
tablet apps to help travellers - you can use your laptop, tablet, and
smartphone to make plane and hotel reservations, book appointments at
busy museums and galleries (and bypass the lineups!), read restaurant
reviews, and much much more. Fans of PBS's Rick Steves
may enjoy his smartphone/tablet app with free audio guides to
lots of European museums and more: versions for iPhone/iPadorAndroid
Lots of apps are available for specific cities or countries - search
Apple's app store and Google's Android Play Store for your destinations
- and look at the comments to get a sense of whether you will find them
useful. For instance, here's an article offering Ten essential free phone apps for a visit to Rome
There are lots of apps for specific destinations, whether transit
guides, restaurant reviews, places to see, and more - try a search for
your destination at the App Store or Google Play Store.
Here are several general-purpose apps with some useful features that
you may not have known about.
Google Maps can show you a map - by default a map of where you are
right now, but you can also get a map of another location by typing in
an address. If you're not sure of the exact address, try typing just a
city or neighbourhood name - or the name of a location - perhaps the
hotel or restaurant name and the city name. You can get directions from
one location to another - and get different directions (and estimated
travel time) if you're going by car, by train or bus, or walking or
cycling. (It can even tell you the bus numbers to take!)
Try it on the train and watch how your current location slowly moves
along your route.
Your phone or tablet has GPS built-in - it can access your current
location even if you're not connected by Wi-Fi or a mobile network
provider. But Google Maps may not be able to get a map to display your
current location if you're not connected. You can get past this
limitation by downloading the maps of where you expect to be in advance
- when you DO have Wi-Fi access, making them available when you're
To do this (on your phone or tablet) - when you're connected to a Wi-Fi
Open Google Maps on your phone or tablet
In the Search field, type the location where you'll need maps.
(I'm typing 'Venice').
Tap on the menu icon - on my Android phone, it's 3 short
horizontal lines on the left-side of the Search field. A list of
options opens up.
Tap on Offline Areas.
You'll see a list of any already-download offline maps.
Tap on Custom Area to
download a new map. This will display the map you were just viewing -
in my case, Venice and the surrounding region. You can zoom in or out
to include a larger or smaller area. It will show how much space the
maps will require and how much room is available on your device.(The
Venice region took 50 MB - 5% of a GB of space).
Tap Download to save the
map (or Close to cancel). it
will take a couple of minutes to download.
Note that offline maps expire after 30 days - at the end of that
they'll be listed as Expired.... if you tap on an expired map in the
list, you'll be asked whether to 'Update' it (i.e. download it again)
or 'Delete' it to free up the space. (There's an option to
automatically update offline maps).
Now you'll have maps for that area available when you need them - even
if you have no connection to Wi-Fi or mobile networks. You won't get
real-time traffic information, however. When you're using an offline
map, you can get driving directions (complete with the voice talking to
you) but not walking directions.
Another useful service - translation from other languages to English or
English to another language. You'll need to get an app from the Apple App Store
or Google (Android) Play Store
to use it on your phone or tablet. On your laptop, you can access it by
going to http://translate.google.com
in any web browser.
At its simplest, type in text and see the other-language equivalent.
But there's more - in the mobile versions, there's a microphone icon,
which lets it record and translate audio. The camera icon uses your
device's camera and lets it translate text on signs, menus, etc. (. An
icon looking like a
snake lets it try to read handwriting (writing on the device's screen)
and translate it. Try it with this Italian sign or this French one.
Once again, as originally set up, it requires a Wi-Fi or mobile network
connection - going online to get the translation. But again, there's an
Offline option, set up similar to the one in Google Maps (Android but not iOS):
Open Google Translate on your phone or tablet
Tap the menu icon - again, on my phone 3 short horizontal lines
in the top-left beside the words GOOGLE TRANSLATE
Tap Offline Translation
you'll see a list of languages, with a trashcan icon beside the ones
already downloaded (so you can delete them if desired) and a down-arrow
icon beside languages which you can download. Italian, for instance,
takes 29 MB of space.
This should work for basic translation - however,
not all features like spoken speech will
Newer and less well-known - also from Google - is Google Trips. It's
most powerful if you have a Google account, though it can be used
without one. It combines features that may be available separately in
other travel apps, letting you:
Store flight and accommodation reservations <-- you can do
similar things with TripIt
Learn about local transport options.
Discover and save top attractions in each location. <--
descriptions can be too basic
Discover and save top rated restaurants, cafes, and bars. <--
as an alternative, check TripAdvisor
Plan day trips.
Save notes about each location.
Download everything for offline use.
Use all these features to plan your trip before you leave
Many travellers take a lot of photos and many of us like to share
photos with friends and family. (Warning: friends and family may have
less patience for viewing all your photos than you might like!) You can
share photos using a social network or online photo saving/sharing
service, and you may want to select some of your favourites and make a
project like a book or a calendar.
Facebook - many of us
have Facebook accounts and it's natural to want to use Facebook to
share our photos. That's fine - but be aware of a few limitations:
dramatically reduces the size and quality of your photos; the results
are okay for viewing online, but not if you want to make prints. Save
While many of our friends and family members have Facebook
accounts, probably some (or many) don't - and won't be able to see the
photos you shared on Facebook.
Online Photo Sharing Services
- this may be the easiest to use if you are a Mac, iPhone, or iPad
user. Apple only offers users a small amount of free storage, but it
only costs a few dollars a month to upgrade to a more useful amount of
Flickroffers users a terabyteof
storage for free, allowing for
free storage and sharing of a huge amount of photos.
offers users two options - free storage of unlimited number of photos,
but with a size limit of 16 megapixels and a small reduction of photo
quality. Alternatively, users may opt to purchase storage for
full-sized/full-quality images. (I useGoogle Photos' free option).
of these online services let users organize photos into albums, add
descriptions and comments, and share individual photos or whole albums
- by email, or in Facebook or other social media services. In this way,
you could create an album of your favourite photos, share the album on
Facebook, but also email a link to the album to friends and family who
are not Facebook-users.
It is less common than it used to be to print out a bunch of snapshots
and paste them into
photo-albums anymore - though you certainly can do this. If so, I'd
getting them professionally printed instead of printing them on your
home printer - even if you buy photo paper, printing them yourself will
be slow and tedious and use up lots of expensive printer ink. Most
photo-processing services now let you bring in photos on a memory card
or USB flash drive or even upload them from your home computer. London Drugs, for instance, is
popular with many Vancouver users.
Instead of printing out individual snapshots, consider using some of
your photos in a photo book, calendar, or other project. Apple users
can do this right in the iPhoto
application on their Mac or iPad; everyone (including Apple users) can
use their choice of multiple photo-project services such as Blurb,
Snapfish, MyPictureBook, Shutterfly, and more. Again, London Drugsis
popular with Vancouver users. You choose photos from your computer or
tablet, upload them to the service, and arrange them in the book (or
calendar or card, etc) design of your choice. A professionally printed
project is delivered to you (or held for pickup at your local photolab
Travelling is hard on your tech gear - your laptop gets bounced around
more than usual, potentially crashing hard drives - remember, solid
state drives are much more robust. All your gear is subject to theft (I
have two friends who lost gear on holidays in the past 4 months - one
had his iPhone stolen on a Mexico City subway, the other was one of 6
people staying in a Turin hotel who had their laptops stolen the same
Before you travel, think about what would be the consequences to you if
any tech gear - laptop, phone, tablet, camera - was lost, broken, or
stolen on your trip. Don't take anything with you unless you're
prepared to cope with its loss.
Before you go - backup your laptop, phone, and tablet. (If you don't
know how to do that - find out!) Perhaps use an online service to
backup key documents, photos, etc. Google Drive/Google Photos or Apple
iCloud are two of many services that offer a mix of free and relatively
low-cost ways to store files and photos online. Best practice: have a
local backup to an external drive at home AND backup to an online cloud
If you are backing up photos to Google Photos or Apple iCloud, photos
on your laptop, phone, and tablet will be automatically backed up on
your trip whenever you're connected to Wi-Fi.
Hopefully your phone and tablet are already backing themselves up to
Google or Apple's servers - after my friend's iPhone was stolen on a
trip, he bought a new iPhone and
everything was automatically restored except for a couple of day's
photos taken when he had poor Wi-Fi connectivity at his hotel.
Lock up your tech gear if you're leaving it in your hotel room during
the day - in the hotel room's safe is best (does your laptop fit in the
if not, maybe put it in your suitcase and lock the suitcase.
If you've enabled various services like Find My iPhone, Android
Device Manager,Find My Mac,
etc. you may be able to track a lost or stolen device - which is not
always very helpful - and remotely wipe its data, which may be more
important. Windows 10 added a Find My Device
option - for earlier Windows versions you'll need to purchase an app
such as LoJack.
Two things you can do now to
help protect your data and your various online accounts:
Set up your laptop, phone, and tablet to require a password or
P.I.N. at startup and wake up from sleep mode.
This will make it more difficult for anyone getting access to your
device to access your files or use your device to pretend to be you. See:
Set up two-factor authentication on your various online services
- email, social networks, etc. With this turned on, someone who has
learned your log-in name and password will be unable to log in to that
service from a computer or device that hasn't been used for that
service in the past (unless they have access to your phone). See How to set up
Both of these steps can feel like a bit of a pain to use - but it's
like remembering to lock your door when you leave home - the added
safety and security outweigh the minor inconvenience. For more - see: 10 Easy Ways to Protect Your Data While Travelling
Travelling with a mobile device
- one hour video lecture from a Rick Steves travel guide. Has a good
discussion of travel apps and more. No time for an hour video? Here's the 2-page handout from the lecture.